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Adam Sheingate: How Transparency Can Transform Food Systems

By: Christine Grillo

“We don’t know what we don’t know—and we like it that way,” says Adam Sheingate, a professor of political science at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. He’s referring to food systems specifically, but more generally to a larger set of phenomena. 

Most people in most parts of the world have an immediate relationship to the animals they eat. For example, at the wet markets throughout Asia, shoppers encounter stall after stall of meat and fish. Some of the animals have been slaughtered already, but others will be slaughtered on-site. In Western, industrialized, wealthy nations, however, we keep these animal interactions behind the scenes. Meat and fish are presented to us in supermarkets, already cleaned and wrapped in plastic. We WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) populations expect the sanitized version of industrialized food animal production, also known as IFAP.

“Most higher income cultures have progressively moved animal production out of sight,” says Sheingate. “Industry is structured so that most large IFAP sites are some distance away from population centers.” (While most IFAP facilities exist in rural areas, the city of Baltimore offers an exception to this rule, as there is a slaughterhouse in the neighborhood known as Pigtown). 

He offers up a similar example of things we don’t want to know about and are comfortable keeping out of sight: prisons. “We have large warehouses of people who are punished out of sight,” he says.

“Out of sight, out of mind” turns out to be a successful strategy for those who don’t want to see change happen. The less we know about something, or want to know about it, the easier it is to keep it obscured. The less we think about it, the less pressure we put on industry or government to be transparent and show us what they’re doing—and the less likelihood that we will put any pressure on anyone to change things.

“We go through our daily lives eating meat without thinking about the violence associated with it,” says Sheingate, “and that’s reinforced by a set of laws and policies that make it difficult for people to find out what’s going on.”

While laws and policy diminish transparency, many states have doubled down on their fight against transparency by establishing what we know as “ag-gag laws.” These laws prohibit, for example, filming in an IFAP facility, and they criminalize whistleblowing in agricultural operations. (In some states, these anti-whistleblower laws extend to hospitals, elder care facilities, and schools.) Often, the legislature passing the law will claim that their motivation is to protect proprietary information, or to address a security concern such as bioterrorism. States with ag-gag laws in place currently include Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota. In the last two years, however, higher courts have struck down such laws in Iowa, Kansas, and North Carolina.

So, not only are the IFAP facilities constructed, literally, as opaquely as possibly, but the law and policy reinforce lack of transparency. “Our lack of knowledge helps support a policy structure that’s pretty secretive,” says Sheingate. 

But every now and then, the veil is lifted, and we learn something. Sheingate is interested in whether these moments of truth lead to what he calls “durable change,” or not. 

In 2012, a whistleblower brought a story to ABC News about lean, finely textured beef, or “pink slime,” as a microbiologist at USDA referred to it. The meat by-product, ABC told us, is used as a filler in 70 percent of ground beef sold in stores, and it consists of a meat paste stripped of fat and exposed to ammonia or citric acid to kill bacteria. The product is banned in Canada and the European Union, but in the United States it has been approved by the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

The pink slime story made a big splash in 2012 and was the butt of many jokes. There was a momentary drop in ground beef consumption, which lasted for four weeks. Television personalities Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart ran segments on it (“The Beefstate Governors” and “The Hunger Shame”). Beef processors cut back on their use of the by-product. Without pink slime, the price of ground beef rose. By 2014, pink slime had made a comeback. 

“Industry metaphorically repackaged lean, finely textured ground beef as a boon to efficiency,” he says. “That’s part of the reason why it’s difficult to generate durable change.” 

As a counter-example, we can look at the long story of tobacco use in the US. Anyone over the age of 40 can remember a time when smoking cigarettes was pervasive. People smoked in airplanes and in bars. Advertisements featured doctors recommending cigarettes for health. Decades of scientific inquiry provided evidence about the multiple adverse health effects of smoking, but laws, policy, and court cases lagged behind the science by many years. Eventually, in some places, smoking was banned, and the law took effect overnight. But it wasn’t people’s fear of getting a ticket that changed their behavior: they changed their behavior because norms changed.

So, what are the mechanisms that produce durable change?

“I don’t have the answers, but I think I have the questions,” he says. 

As far as answers go, he says the approach for durable change should be two-fold. We need changes in law or policy that would require food producers to bear the costs of their products, such as environmental degradation or compromised public health. But we also need changes in consumer behavior—and that’s probably an even heavier lift than the first one.

“Where we are right now with food systems, is the research shows us the environmental consequences of IFAP, but the industry is in a phase where they’re doing everything they can to make it difficult for research to get out,” he says. “They become the merchants of doubt.”

As far as questions go, Sheingate’s interested in understanding, through surveys and focus groups, what actually moves people. Is personal health a more powerful motivator than animal welfare or environmental consequences? Is the financial bottom line the most important matter? And what’s the best way to communicate research?

For now, he thinks transparency is a valuable tool in the toolbox for either changing food systems, or incrementally dismantling the current one. The issue of transparency doesn’t get a lot of pushback; it’s rare to encounter someone who says they’re against it. While it can be difficult to gain public support for changing food systems, advocating for greater transparency is usually easier.

“If you shine a light, you can reveal corruption and deter corruption,” Sheingate says. “And most people support transparency.”

For more insights and opinions, check out CLF Perspectives on Food Animal Production.

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