Federal Programs to Die For

Paying taxes is bad enough. But paying taxes to support an industry that threatens public health is one of life's greater absurdities. While the irony of tobacco subsidies has long been apparent, government welfare for the meat industry has not. Clearly, subsidizing any business that causes as much disease as this one makes no more sense than smoking. Yet that's what we taxpayers do.Take the current "pork crisis." With prices down and producers squealing for help, feds are rushing to the rescue. In December, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman declared that his department, which had already bought $49.5 million worth of pork since July 1, would increase its purchases and encourage other agencies to follow suit. In early January, Vice President Al Gore announced $130 million in government aid. And on February 10 -- the same day of a news conference at which "Babe" actor James Cromwell revealed findings from an undercover investigation into pig farm cruelty -- pork producers asked for close to $500 million more.Ironically, just last fall, the World Health Organization announced millions of cancer cases could be prevented, in part, if people avoided animal fat. What's wrong with this picture?In fact, there's no shortage of irony in federal food policy. In fiscal 1997, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) bought at least $580 million worth of pork links, beef patties, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, and dairy products to dump into federal "assistance" programs. Recipients include the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs, soup kitchens, food banks, elderly nutrition programs, and Native American reservations. Yet, the same year that we dished up more than 550 million pounds of these high-fat, cholesterol-laden animal products, an estimated 1.3 million Americans died of cancer, heart disease, and other heavily meat-related causes.As it does every year, the USDA makes these buys to boost sagging prices, move excess supplies, and otherwise prop up the meat industry. In fact, the buy-up program is just one part of an immense system of giveaways that serves to keep hamburgers cheap and cattlemen wealthy enough to sue Oprah.The annual freebies include $50 million in subsides for cattle-grazing on public lands, $10 million for predator control, and a bounty of low-cost loans, irrigation subsidies, conservation programs, and marketing, research, and extension services. And let's not forget the giant farm disaster package Congress approved in 1998. With expenses like these, even grateful food service managers have to admit there's no such thing as a completely free lunch.As lawmakers routinely approve such largess, few tend to remember that meat consumption greatly increases the risks of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and other health problems. Perhaps the amnesia is financially induced. After all, more than a few over the years have had a vested personal interest in animal agriculture. And the meat and dairy industries hardly skimp on lobbyists or campaign contributions.Indeed, a 1998 report by the Center for Public Integrity found that despite a frightening rise in foodborne disease in recent years, industry-friendly politicians have crushed every congressional bill that would have significantly improved food safety.Clearly, it seems as if our nation's health is not a "USDA prime" priority. As Glickman testified to Congress last May, the USDA's most important role in agriculture is "ensuring a sturdy farm safety net." Too bad he wasn't talking about a safety net against disease.Even if one ranks economic concerns above public health, a cost-benefit analysis indicates promoting meat doesn't make good business sense. Although domestic cash receipts for the meat industry totaled roughly $100 billion in 1997, William Harris, M.D., author of the "Scientific Basis of Vegetarianism," estimates meat consumption is responsible for $123 billion in annual U.S. health costs.And consider the vast sums the U.S. National Institutes of Health doles out to researchers studying cancer and other meat-linked illnesses. Or the millions the Environmental Protection Agency spends confronting the water pollution and other environmental messes caused by factory farming.What sense does it make for one arm of the government to aggravate a problem another arm of government struggles to ameliorate?And the problem doesn't end at U.S. borders. The animal agriculture industry -- just like Big Tobacco -- has been aggressively expanding overseas, aided and abetted by the feds. Officials have removed trade barriers, financed overseas advertising, and made bonus payments to help exporters be price competitive.It's time we stopped raiding the tax larder to promote industries that do more harm than good. By pursuing a sustainable, healthy farm program -- and helping our farmers make the transition -- we'll help ourselves, the planet, and our federal budget.Neal D. Barnard, M.D., author of "Foods That Fight Pain" and "Eat Right, Live Longer," founded the Washington, D.C-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in 1985. Simon Chaitowitz is a Seattle-based health writer.


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