In 1996, the possibility that BSE, better known as Mad Cow Disease, might be linked to Creutzfelst-Jakob Disease and responsible for the deaths of at least ten young people, concentrated the minds of many people on how our food is being produced and whether it is safe to eat. In spite of the shift of many people to other foods, the farming methods and principles which led to this crisis are rife in the production of all of our food. It’s not possible to resolve the issue of food adulteration unless we look at the whole of the food production business.
The underlying principle which has to be understood is that food is produced primarily for profit not to ensure people are well fed and healthy.
How Widespread is the problem of Food Contamination?
Tens of thousands of people every year suffer serious food poisoning. But our food also contains a number of substances which, whilst not leading to food poisoning, may, in the long term, be as damaging to our health if not more so.
The Consumers’ Association estimates that in Britain 60% of chickens contain salmonella, the third highest level in Europe. A new antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella has been reported with a death rate 10 times higher than other strains. The number of cases has increased from 400 in 1990 in England and Wales to 1,600 in 1993. Ironically, when there was a scare about salmonella in 1988, many people switched to … cheap cuts of meat.
There are growing concerns about the effects of pesticides especially on farmworkers and children in rural areas and about “drift” in pesticide spraying which kills and injures non-targeted plants, insects, animals, fish and humans, and about pesticide residues in food. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) in their own recent food sampling: some carrots had 25 times the permitted levels and they found residues of seven different pesticides; 50% of the main crop of potatoes had residues of tecnazene, a storage pesticide; 40% of bread samples were contaminated along with 35% of meat. Altogether a third of all samples were contaminated. One in 100 exceeded even the British government’s extremely generous maximum residue levels.
Most people will find this extremely outrageous. But how can such a situation be allowed to develop and continue?
Farming is big business. The total income from farming in Britain in 1994 was £4.2 billion. It contributes £590 million to export earnings every year. But farming income is not distributed evenly. Of the £30 billion a year given out in subsidies by the European Common Agriculture Policy, 80% goes to the richest 20% of European farmers. The inequality of society is reproduced within farming: a quarter of all farm profits go to 6,000 large farmers, while 100,000 small farmers struggle to survive and farmworkers are amongst the lowest-paid workers in the country.
Big Farming’s ‘Dependency Culture’
The 1990s have seen a widening of the gap between rich and poor. Governments in the Advanced Capitalist Countries talked about the “dependency culture” and cut the welfare state and benefits. They said they wouldn’t subsidize nationalized industries, public services or ‘failing’ industries. One industry seems to have been exempt from all this – farming. Arable land was worth 92% more in 1996 than in 1992. There are a number of factors for this but a major one is set-aside. To keep up prices farmers are now paid not to produce food by the EU.
On a 2,000 acre wheat farm, 200 acres set aside will bring in £27,600. In addition are the subsidies. The 1,800 acres still growing wheat will bring in £198,000.
These were supposed to compensate for low prices but in 1996 wheat went up in price on commodity markets. So the actual sale of the wheat brings in £540,000. Governments have a long track record in defending the interests of the top food companies. This can be seen from both the BSE and before it the Salmonellla “scare”, where they played down the doubts about the cook-chill method of processing food because it was highly profitable, diverted attention towards the import of soft French cheese and insured egg producers against losses. Those people whose health was affected by government inaction had to try to sue for compensation.
The whole history of government delay and cover up was illustrated by BSE. In 1979 the government deregulated cattle feed, removing any need to inform farmers or anyone else of the contents and without any consideration of the possible health consequences. There is little research to consider long-term consequences of any farming methods. It’s now suspected that BSE has a 15-year incubation period. Many practices have long-term effects of this sort. Scientists who attempt to raise criticisms are ignored and discriminated against, their grants and laboratory space withdrawn. Food adulteration, on the other hand, has become a branch of science. It’s well known that Margaret Thatcher prior to becoming an MP was a chemist. What she actually did was research into “fat extension”, writing a paper on “The elasticity of ice cream” which looked at how much air could be pumped into it before it collapsed!
Big Profits and Mad Cows
BSE was first identified in 1985 yet no significant action was taken until 1989 giving an important space for the disease to make its way into the food chain. It took another year to extend the ban to Northern Ireland and Scotland and until 1994 to ban the use of offal from cattle under six months old. The danger of food being produced solely for profit was illustrated by what happened to the compensation scheme for farmers whose cattle had to be slaughtered. Because the price for compensation was set at £419 per animal and the market price was £670 some farmers concealed BSE symptoms in their cattle.
500,000 workers are employed in work related to cattle and meat processing. But in the discussion about the effects of the BSE crisis hardly any reference was made to compensating them for lay-offs and redundancies.
The government also failed to effectively regulate the processing and slaughter industries and the food rendering industry, which processes offal and other animal waste. The inspectorate was privatized in 1995. Like all privatization this was a cost-cutting exercise and reduced accountability. The British Veterinary Association stated in 1990 to the House of Commons Agricultural Committee, “Present arrangements in domestic slaughterhouses are wholly unsatisfactory in terms of regulation, responsibilities, enforcement, standards and practice”. In raids on 346 slaughterhouses, 40% of them were not abiding by any regulations. None were prosecuted. Yet their practices are infinitely more dangerous than non-payment of TV licenses for which single parents and the unemployed are regularly being jailed.
Who Does the National Farmers Union Represent?
This slowness to act is typical of government. They are tied to the vested interests of the NFU leaders. The NFU is not a union in the sense in which most workers would understand it. It exerts enormous pressure on government but its pressure is mainly on behalf of the biggest farmers, the most powerful of agribusiness, those who receive the majority of grants, subsidies and tax allowances. They are the ones who have the time to be involved. Most small farmers could not afford to travel to London for the constant meetings and lobbying. The leaders of the NFU don’t have to lobby too hard. Many Tory MPs have farms. The Minister of Agriculture generally is a farmer and in many constituencies they are an important force, especially Conservative constituencies. Of course, people who eat food are the majority in every constituency but we don’t traditionally either have the money or access to information or power that rich farmers have. The MAFF at the moment combines responsibility for both agricultural producers and consumers. The Liberal Democrats and New Labour have proposed splitting these functions. But unless other fundamental changes take place in the way society is run, there will be a tendency for the for the supermarket chains to dominate the “consumer” side of the Ministry, consumers themselves being unorganized.
The NFU lobbies through delegations, letters etc. as many organizations do. But the Farmers Weekly in January 1984 described “a more undercover style of lobbying … This means knowing who the most powerful people are on any issue and bringing them round to the farmers’ point of view. It … goes on at lunchtime, in bars and private dinner parties where Cabinet Ministers are mellowed by good claret and port. It’s expensive and exclusive but it works.”
The narrow range of interests it represents also led the NFU to side with the government against the British Medical Association in opposing the banning of organophosphate dips. These are used to treat infested sheep and contain substances similar to nerve gasses. They only changed their position after hundreds of farmers had their health and lives ruined by damage to their nervous systems, some being driven to suicide, and after claims for compensation from farmworkers employed dipping sheep. One of the reasons for the NFU’s change of mind had been, not concern about the health of those who worked on farms, but its link to NFU mutual – the insurance company which would be most affected by claims.
The agrochemical industry has grown enormously in profits and power over the last few decades. In 1989 UK agrochemical companies had sales of £1,197 million. Sales of pesticides grew from £147 million in 1980 to £440 million in 1989. Companies such as ICI have government affairs officers whose job it is to ensure that the government pursues policies in their interests. Similarly half of Britain’s top ten companies have interests in the production of compound animal feeds such as those involved in the BSE crisis, where processed, infected sheep offal was fed to cows. Compound feed production has sales around £3,000 million a fear. Long before BSE was heard of, the NFU asked the government to compel food compounders to make available information about the content of their feeds. But the compounders had more weight and the government ruled in their favor. Their association offices are next door to the MAFF in Whitehall. As one dissenting farmer appropriately put it, the government attracts private lobbyists like “bluebottles to a cow pat.”
The attempt to get the highest possible profits out of animals has led to a policy of pushing animals to their physical limits and keeping them in intensive units, in conditions which are often unhygienic or unhealthy. This is often referred to as “brinkmanship farming”. Sows, for example, are forced to produce five litters in two years and then carted off exhausted for slaughter. This necessitates the use of antibiotics and hormones both to counter the ill-health produced by such conditions and to stimulate growth. Fourteen UK companies market 44 different types of antibiotics used in farming. Antibiotics are used so that broilers, chickens bred intensively for food, reach 5lb weight within 19 days of hatching. Because of the conditions they are kept in and such forced growth, the majority are infected with salmonella and suffer from brittle bones, fatty kidneys and liver, heart attacks and even cancer in 5%-10%. Because of factory farming, it is cheaper to mass dose herds than to treat individual animals resulting in healthy animals being given antibiotics. Increasingly resistance to drugs develops. These farming methods are encouraged by the government which grants tax allowances for the purchase of equipment for factory farming.
In a reaction reminiscent of the BSE scare, the government threatened to prosecute Professor Richard Lacy, microbiologist from Leeds University, if he discussed publicly the dangers of drinking milk from herds treated with BST hormone, which is marketed by Eli Lilly, a US multinational. The EU banned it in 1995 until 2000 but the British government has been campaigning for the ban to be lifted. The Australian and US governments are also demanding that the ban should be lifted, since it affects exports of their products to the European market. It’s a comment on the priorities of capitalism that protecting markets from foreign trade is often a greater motive for bans of this sort than the health of people. Nonetheless there is little long-term research into such use of antibiotics and what there is would indicate that a ban is necessary. There is opposition to the use of hormones by the vast majority of people. Government officials simply refer to this as “emotional”.
Governments bowing the knee before the profits of private companies make a mockery of “democracy”. They claim that banning antibiotics and other chemicals simply leads to a black market. It’s not often that they refuse to introduce laws because they are likely to be broken! But it does indicate how private companies are prepared to flout the law and any attempt to put the welfare of people before their profits. There already is an illegal trade in banned hormones worth an estimated £70 million in Belgium alone, where in 1995 a farm inspector was shot dead, allegedly by the ‘hormone mafia’. In 1984, the Marketing Director of Hoechst drug company said at a conference of the Veterinary Association that if the EU banned hormones: “I’ll buy the last million pellets and retire” – openly boasting of his willingness to involve himself in illegal drug dealing.
The government tries to claim this is all done in the name of cheap food. But the food mountains and lakes of the EU, and now the payment of subsidies for farmers to destroy crops or not produce them in the first place, has nothing to do with providing cheap foods but providing big business with profits.
During the BSE crisis, government ministers said the market could be left to sort things out. In effect they were hinting that non-BSE infected meat could be sold for a higher cost to those who could afford it, whilst people on low incomes could buy contaminated meat. The market is not the solution to the problem of contaminated food – it’s the cause; it’s been an absolute disaster. With a rational plan for agriculture cheap, wholesome food could be produced, involving keeping animals in hygienic and healthy conditions and planning the use of the countryside so that the environment is sustained and more jobs created.
Many farmworkers’ trade unions internationally have drawn up programs to establish sustainable farming which produces wholesome food and reduces pollution from farming. But none of these plans will have the dramatic effect required, unless the profit motive is removed from the production of food. This would mean the public ownership of large tracts of land owned by agri-business. The land would then be leased on a secure basis to those who worked it, including current tenants, family farms and groups of agricultural workers. What was produced where and quality safeguards would be the role of elected committees of landworkers and representatives of the rest of the population. It would also mean the public ownership of related industries such as supermarket outlets, animal feed companies and slaughterers. The chemical and pharmaceutical industries have made out the case for their irresponsible, cavalier attitude to the health of both animals and humans and the pollution of the environment through their products.
News that the food multinationals are trying to sell us rubbish to boost their profits is hardly news to most of us. But now they are planning a new product solely on the grounds that it has no nutritional value at all.
Procter and Gamble is planning to sell us “the great taste of fat(!) without actually having fat”. Olestra, a synthetic chemical, is currently going through trials in Britain and the US to add it to snack food like crisps.
Dr. Tim Lobstein, co-director of the pressure group the Food Commission, commented, “There have been complaints from people trying Olestra that it ‘leaks’, leading to stained underwear, and that it makes the toilet oily”. But who cares as long as it makes someone profits and we don’t put on weight from eating crisps?