News & Politics

Chemical Farm

Americans remain largely oblivious to the intrusions of the pharmaceutical industry into our kitchens. Across the pond, however, the Europeans are wising up.
Imagine having to go to a doctor for a prescription to buy the ingredients for dinner. It's not such a farfetched scenario. From testosterone and tetracycline to zeranol and genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, enough chemicals circulate in our animal products to stock a medicine cabinet. Because our meat and dairy are still over the counter, though, Americans remain largely oblivious to the intrusions of the pharmaceutical industry into our kitchens.

Consider the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast, the hybrid turkey raised in a factory farm in conditions of pain and squalor on a diet of chemical-infused feed. Close confinement requires the use of a long list of antibiotics to control such diseases as rhinotracheitis and colibacillosis. And let's not talk about what the bird picks up during processing. One of the last stages at the slaughterhouse is a dip in chlorine to wash off pathogens.

But conventional turkeys are practically a health food compared to some of the other dinner options, such as roast beef. Turkeys, unlike cows, don't get pumped full of growth hormones. Hormone residues in milk and meat likely play havoc with our endocrine systems.

Meanwhile, the routine use of antibiotics potentially builds up our resistance to drugs and encourages the spread of super resistant bacteria. "Eighty percent all antibiotics in the United States are given not to people to cure disease but to animals to make them fatten up and enable them to survive unhygienic confinement in factory farms," according to Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. If one of those little bugs survives the onslaught of antibiotics at the factory farm, it's going to give you one hell of a bad case of food poisoning.

So what, you might ask. Food is cheap in America, and if that means that little Anna hits puberty at age nine or both Mom and Dad contract breast cancer or a new strain of E. Coli resists drug treatment, it's a small price to pay. Life in modern industrial society comes with risks. If you don't like it, then you're welcome to go to the chemical-free hinterlands of Greenland or the Gobi Dessert.

Or, conversely, you could hop a flight to Europe.

Europe's Beef

European policy on meat production is for the birds. And for the cattle, for the pigs, and most importantly, for the consumer.

The European Union (EU) has banned hormone beef from the United States since 1989. It doesn't let in milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormone. Its ban on all growth-promoting antibiotics goes into effect in January. The EU is also contemplating a general amnesty of all imprisoned chickens through a phase-out of the battery system for egg production. Individual countries like Germany and Austria are implementing even stricter rules. In the UK, consumer activism persuaded McDonald's to serve organic milk and use free-range eggs in all of its products.

European governments approach meat and dairy more cautiously than the United States does, despite our famous muckraking history (from The Jungle to Fast Food Nation to Steve Striffler's recent book on chicken) and a regulatory structure that is at least bureaucratically impressive. Europeans embrace the "precautionary principle," an approach that puts the "healthy" back into healthy skepticism. They might push the culinary envelope with unpasteurized cheese and steak tartare, but they prefer to treat new-fangled foods as potentially harmful unless proven otherwise. They want their risks labeled and traceable. On top of that, European policy is more geared to both animal welfare and local production.

The ban on U.S. beef has been the most controversial and costly of European policies. In 1977, an Italian study showed that babies eating baby food containing hormone-injected veal exhibited early sexual development. Consumers throughout Europe began to campaign against the use of the growth-promoting hormones, achieving a ban that went into effect in 1985. That the EU was awash in excess beef made the decision all the easier for Eurocrats to make.

In the mid-1990s, the United States and Canada went to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and won a decision in 1999 that levied a fine of over $100 million a year on the EU. Principles of free trade trumped European arguments in favor of consumer safety (and the EU didn't provide a full risk assessment). Rather than back down, however, the EU decided to pay the fine and maintain the ban. In a partial compromise, the United States promised not to ban EU meat products as long as Europeans accepted hormone beef in pet food as well as a small quota of hormone-free beef.

The issue returned to the WTO spotlight this September in sessions that were open to the public for the first time in the organization's ten-year history. The EU boasts of a stronger scientific case for its ban, anchored by a new risk assessment conducted a couple years ago. It is tired of paying the annual fine and wants North America to back off.

Samuel Epstein, now a professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago, testified to the scientific risks at the WTO back in the 1990s. He decried the lack of U.S. government testing of hormone residues in meat. He pointed to the practice in the United States of injecting hormones directly into muscle rather than relying only on ear implants.

The United States hasn't changed its policies, Epstein says today: "We're dealing with a bunch of cowboys. There's no inspection. Even if the hormones are administered properly, it's not good." He has estimated that a young boy who eats two hamburgers in a day could raise his hormone levels by as much as 10 percent. He also points to elevated rates of reproductive cancers, such as an 88 percent increase in prostate cancer since 1975. Epstein's concerns have been borne out by the National Toxicology Program's Board of Counselors, which put estrogen - one of the growth hormones used in beef production - on the list of known carcinogens in 2000.

This conflict between the United States alleging protectionism and the EU emphasizing food safety is by no means a recent phenomenon. In 1880, German leader Otto von Bismarck banned all pork products from the United States. Once again, it was an Italian study that provided the spark: the previous year, Italy's sanitary department discovered the roundworm responsible for trichinosis in U.S. pork products. The United States responded by accusing the Europeans of - what else? - protecting their own pig farmers. As Louis Snyder wrote in a famous 1945 monograph on the dispute, both sides had cause to complain. Germans didn't boil their pork long enough to kill the trichinosis, which they then blamed on American meat, while the U.S. government didn't mandate the microscopic inspections necessary to weed out bad exports. Only in 1891 when Congress finally required such inspections did Germany lift its ban.

In today's beef case, however, European eating habits are considerably more scrupulous, the threat of mad cow disease hangs over every hamburger, and the United States is refusing to give an inch on regulatory reform. This trans-Atlantic divide on beef holds true for other meat products as well.

Chicken and Egg

The egg debate in Europe these days centers on the definition of "cage." Current EU legislation proposes a ban on battery system production by 2012 and the bestowing upon egg-layers their "five freedoms:" to stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves, and stretch their limbs. While some of these emancipated chickens might end up pecking outdoors, the majority will likely end up in the poultry industry's alternative: the "enriched unit." Graham Cruickshank, editor of the UK industry magazine Poultry World, says that the "modern enriched unit fulfills all five freedoms. The mortality levels are lower. The only criticism comes from welfarists."

Animal welfare advocates argue that the enriched unit is still a cage, one that provides only as much space as a sheet of paper. "They should be out of cages period. There's no way to adequately enrich a cage," says Bradley Miller, national director of the California-based Humane Farming Association. "Some of the European efforts have fairly long phase-out periods that give industry sufficient time to figure a way around the ban. But the intention is good and it's moving in the right direction. And they're still ahead of anything that is happening legislatively in this country."

European consumers are out in front of their legislators. The sales of free-range and organic eggs in England have been neck and neck with caged eggs this year. Several supermarket chains, such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencers, stock only free-range and organic eggs and use them exclusively in their prepared foods. In the United States, despite the greater availability of free-range and organic options, there has been no noticeable drop in the production of conventional eggs.

Also on the horizon is a chicken war between the United States and the EU. It is common U.S. practice to use chlorine and other substances to rinse poultry to eliminate dangerous microbes. EU regulations allow only potable water for such purposes. Some argue that the key reason behind the chlorine dip is to increase the bird's water retention - and thus profit. "If you were concerned about fecal contamination, you wouldn't dip the chickens over and over again in the same water," says Ronnie Cummins. Nevertheless, U.S. poultry exporters have applied directly for authorization for four antimicrobial substances. The EU is launching a scientific inquiry and expects to make a decision in 2006.

Eclipsing this debate over cages and chlorine is the threat of avian flu. The world consumes 20 billion chickens a year. Farmers and governments are poised for either mass inoculations or mass exterminations to prevent the disease from jumping species. Argues Ronnie Cummins, "Organic poultry raisers believe that healthy animals are the best defense against avian flu. The intensive confinement of thousands of animals together and drugging them constantly with antibiotics leads to this problem." He also urges poverty alleviation programs for countries where poultry farmers are, for want of money, living in close proximity to their animals.

Some scientists have a very different proposal. Researchers in China and the UK are independently racing toward the biotech Holy Grail of the poultry world: replacing all 35 billion chickens in the world with a genetically modified version that is resistant to all strains of bird flu. Just as the threat of terrorism has overwhelmed laws protecting civil liberties, the threat of avian flu may erode concerns, particularly in Europe, over GMOs.

Changing Attitudes

More and more Americans are turning away from hormones and antibiotics, at least when it comes to their food. According to Ronnie Cummins, organic meat sales went up 122 percent in 2004 on top of a 113 percent increase the year before. Natural beef - which includes organic, grass-fed, and chemical-free meat - is a new niche market. But the supply can't meet the demand, Cummins says, and supermarkets are clamoring for more product. Nor does the United States even meet its quota of hormone-free beef for export to Europe.

Katherine Ecker raises free-range turkeys in Maryland. Her heritage breeds have proven to be the hardiest "because they're the original turkeys," she says. "Through generations of weeding out the ones that can't make it, they've become a strong breed. Birds in confinement are hybrids. They're not normally found on this earth so they don't have the resistance. And they're so inbred, they have to be kept on antibiotics so they don't get sick." She has no problem selling out her free-range turkeys and plans to raise more in the future.

The Humane Farming Association has had some success with its meat campaigns. It has blocked several pork factory farms from establishing operations in Oregon and South Dakota (if you want a vivid dramatization of the evils of corporate pig farming, read Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole). And the HFA's campaign against veal has led to a dramatic decline in sales. "When we first started in mid-1980s," Bradley Miller explains, "veal was the most rapidly expanding segment of the meat industry. There were 3.4 million calves slaughtered each year. Today there are under a million calves slaughtered."

The groundswell of support for free-range meat, the campaigns against the corporate hog industry, and growing public rejection of veal have not, however, translated into legislative action. "The way things are set up in Washington, it's very hard to get past the pharmaceutical lobby," says Miller. "All of these bills end up going to agriculture-related committees and all these committees are dominated by corporate agriculture."

Vive la Difference?

There are big pharmaceutical companies in Europe. Factory farming goes on in Europe as well. So why the difference in the regulatory environments? True, European efforts seem at times to be two steps forward and one step back. One industry response to new regulations, for instance, has been simply to contract out to suppliers in less stringently regulated countries. But the trajectory of U.S. policy, in comparison, has been a steady backpedaling since the heyday of public scrutiny over the food supply in the 1970s.

Do Europeans simply think differently than we do? Have all the hormones and antibiotics that we've ingested clouded our reasoning?

"Consumerism and consumer product safety have been important themes in European consciousness for a couple decades," says Samuel Epstein, who is also the author of The Politics of Cancer Revisited. "Americans have a position that they'll rely on government: 'We have the FDA and USDA, if we have a problem, they'll tell us about it.' It doesn't occur to Americans that the government would want food that is irradiated, genetically engineered, or contaminated by hormones."

Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association locates the difference in the rules of the political game. "The European political system is more democratic and representative with proportional representation, and their media is not as corporately dominated," he says. "There is a political base in Europe of 15 percent share for the Green Party. That means 15 percent in Parliament. The major parties have to negotiate with the Greens. In this country, 15 percent of the electorate have those type of views, but have virtually no representation in Congress."

The U.S. government continues to subsidize corporate agriculture and its pharmaceutical handmaidens even in the face of trade barriers, growing domestic interest in additive-free food, and (be careful what you wish for) Wal-Mart's heavy-footed entry into the organic market. We can wait for a little European common sense to penetrate the Beltway. We can pay a little extra for additive-free meat and dairy. We can simply go vegan. But most of America, meat-crazy and Atkins-addled, doesn't know any better than to support the existing system by popping pills and slurping down hormones with every bite of burger and forkful of fajita.
John Feffer is working on a book about the global politics of food.
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
[x]
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Activism
Drugs
Economy
Education
Election 2018
Environment
Food
Media
World