Mad cows and sick chickens: capitalism and the food supply

Are you becoming afraid of the grocery store? If you are, it’s no wonder. Mad cow disease, avian flu, and mercury in salmon are the latest dangers to our food supply. With the first diagnosis of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) in a U.S. cow, Dec. 23, 2003, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and spokesmen for the beef industry rushed to reassure us that the food supply was safe, that we need not change our eating habits. Thirteen other nations were just as quick to ban imports of U.S. beef. Japan’s ban is still in place.

The Food and Drug Administration adopted new rules banning the use of cow blood in feeding cattle. Inspections for mad cow disease increased tenfold, suggesting there was some risk. Yet the Agriculture Department and beef producers resisted the proposal of Creekstone Farms to test all of its cattle.

More recently, avian flu has been found in Delaware, Maryland, and Texas. Hundreds of thousands of birds have been destroyed. We have been assured that it is safe to eat poultry, that the avian flu in the U.S. is less virulent than that found in Asia. High levels of mercury have been found in farmed salmon. Again, the industry involved is assuring us that these fish are safe, even as we are warned that pregnant women and children should limit their consumption. Even if these assurances are valid, the pattern is troubling.

Those who remember the E. coli scares of a few years ago and increased public awareness of salmonella in chicken will recall similar patterns. Now we are warned to cook our beef, chicken, and eggs thoroughly. Enjoying steak tartar or original key-lime pie are risky behaviors. If your beef or chicken makes you sick, the blame is laid on what you did in the kitchen, not what the producer did in the plant.

Why does our food supply present such risks? After all, we have new technologies, new ways of processing these foods. We might expect improved safety. That would be a mistake.

Much of the new technology and new processing systems appear to be more dangerous, rather than less. Meat is processed at dramatically higher speeds, in vastly larger volumes. A single contaminated chicken can now foul much more meat than ever before. Even if the dangerous parts of cattle (brains and spinal cords) are separated from edible meat, the high speed at which the carcasses are cut up leaves open the risk that some of that material will end up in the food supply.

Generally when we think about industries that qualify as manufacturers of illness, we think of tobacco, alcohol, or coal mining. The fact is that the food we eat is produced by major industries. As with any industry, the first goal is profits. Speed-up, safety practices just this side of legal, and “let the buyer beware” are as present in the manufacturing of food as any other product. And regulatory agencies are not putting people before profits, not even for food.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.