I have long believed that food in Germany is better than food in the United States. This was mostly based on (literal) gut feeling: since about age 14, my life in America was a battle with my digestive tract. I spent many nights as a teenager awake in bed with incredible stomach pains. College cafeteria food kept me alternating between states of pain and nausea for the duration of my stay there. However, I grew up on healthy foods: fresh fish, vegetables from the garden, etc. As kids, we were restricted in our junk food allowance and never was a breakfast cereal to have more than 12g of sugar per serving. I actually thought I ate pretty well and considered myself a Foodie from an early age.
In retrospect, that self-perception is a little embarrassing. Despite my first experiences in Europe being in England, a country not well-known for its food, I quickly fell in love with European food culture. After a week in Italy I couldn’t believe the Olive Garden was deemed “Italian”. After hitting every Christmas Market in the southwest of Germany, I also couldn’t believe that any sausage in America had ever been labeled as a “brat” because they had nothing in common with the incredible Thüringer or even the Rote Wurst I had enjoyed every day for two weeks.
Having now lived here for ten years, I have had ample time to compare food standards and availability in the U.S. and Germany. My stomach has calmed down, and I can enjoy my life without constant worry about where the next toilet is (much in part, no doubt, to having given up milk). I identified a few culprits of food in the U.S. that cause trouble for my digestive tract: lettuce is usually treated with chemicals to make it stay and look fresh, so I cannot eat lettuce from any restaurant nor pre-cut from the supermarket. The grease used in some restaurants for frying eggs, french fries, etc., also causes problems. I tend not to eat out when I am Stateside, and also tend not to eat things prepared by others. Interestingly, I have none of these stomach problems when eating restaurant food in Germany. I suspect they have different standards and regulations. The food I get in restaurants here is fresher and is actually prepared on site. I suspect that nothing at the Olive Garden is prepared on site.
So my gut and I were feeling pretty good about my food consumption until the recent German scandal surrounding chicken eggs and pork meat. In case you missed the news, chicken eggs were discovered to be laden with dioxins in Germany, as was pork meat. I am picky enough to avoid products with MSG (Geschmacksverstärker) and high-fructose corn syrup*, so avoiding dioxin-laden food products is a no-brainer. We buy mostly organic products, widely available for all budgets in Germany thanks to the likes of Alnatura and Aldi. Most of our meat, however, has not been organic. And so this scandal provoked me to do some research.
I purchased and read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and it has changed my perspective on what I am feeding my family. Keeping in mind that this book is about American factory farm practice, and that I have long believed food to be so much better, so much more authentic in Germany, I was hopeful that German practices were different. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that’s the case.
A little research on the ARD website for documentaries about factory farming in Germany led me to the conclusion that factory farming here is much like in the U.S. There are a few ethical problems I have with factory farming that have led me to now restrict our meat intake. The first of these is animal health. Factory-farmed animals are not healthy, or it seems their health is kept propped up by antibiotic-laced food. I guess if we were living on a farm we wouldn’t eat sick animals. Thus, I don’t want to eat sick animals from any one else’s farm. The second problem is waste of life. Based on my calculations from numbers given in Foer’s book, about 20% of animals are assumed waste from the outset, as they do not survive to slaughter. Then consider the amount of meat thrown away because it wasn’t purchased, or the amount thrown away in homes. I assume another 50% of the remainder? So I estimate that a total of 40% of the animals raised in factory farms might actually get consumed. For a process that itself consumes so much of the grain we produce, creates astonishing amounts of untreated fecal matter, and contributes substantially to global warming, I consider this level of inefficiency unacceptable (ethically, socially, and environmentally). Finally, there is the issue of public health. Overuse of antibiotics leads to the emergence of resistant bacteria, and factory farms indulge in prophylactic antibiotic use – something discouraged for humans. There are also the public health issues of obesity and diabetes, due to overeating (cheap food means you can afford to eat more of it). Given all these concerns, I actually wonder how the practice of factory farming can sustain itself. I don’t want to go any further into all the details here, but I can highly recommend reading the book. It is incredibly well-written, based more on fact than emotion – although that was unavoidable, given the topic – and written by a philosophical novelist, not a political activist or media-hungry crazy.
It is not a book on vegetarianism, nor a case for giving up meat. I am not what I would call a “natural vegetarian”; I like to eat meat. My family is continuing to eat meat, with the new resolve to eat less of it and pay more for better quality. We are buying organic meat that costs more but we hope comes from healthy animals. One point in the book that I believe not yet to be the case in Germany is the availability of family-farm raised meat. In the U.S.A., 99% of the meat available is factory-farmed. Here in Germany it is still possible to get meat from local farmers. In fact, we have just purchased part of a healthy cow from a farm in the Black Forest, and soon will get 12kg of beef for our freezer. I will continue my research on the topic, as well, as I look for places to buy family-farm raised chicken and pork. I also plan to chat with our butcher about the conditions at the farms he purchases meat from. On the off chance that this blog post gets read and generates any interest, I’d be happy to follow up with my findings.
I will miss buying those Wurst at the Christmas Markets, though. What else goes so well with Glühwein on a cold day in the holiday season? Perhaps a crepe, instead…
*in case you don’t know, European Coca-Cola uses real sugar instead of HFCS and even tastes better than the Coca-Cola on offer in the U.S.!!