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Synthesis/Regeneration 40   (Summer 2006)

Food: A Little European Common Sense

by John Feffer

Imagine having to go to a doctor for a prescription to buy the ingredients for dinner. It’s not such a far-fetched 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 diseases. One of the last stages at the slaughterhouse is a dip in chlorine to wash off pathogens.

Americans remain largely oblivious to the intrusions of the pharmaceutical industry into our kitchens.

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 of 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 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 went 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. 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 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 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 US 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.

European policy is more geared to both animal welfare and local production.

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. Rather than back down, however, the EU decided to pay the fine and maintain the ban.

The issue returned to the WTO spotlight in September 2005. The EU boasts of a stronger scientific case for its ban, anchored by a new risk assessment conducted a couple of 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 US government testing of hormone residues in meat.

The United States hasn’t changed its policies, Epstein says today: “We’re dealing with a bunch of cowboys. There’s no inspection.” He has estimated that a young boy who eats two hamburgers in a day could raise his hormone levels by as much as 10%. He also points to elevated rates of reproductive cancers, such as an 88% 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.

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 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.” 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 were neck and neck with caged eggs in 2005. Several supermarket chains 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 US 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.

Nevertheless, US 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.

ToxCat provides information on the technical, scientific and medical aspects of toxic issues in an understandable language. Communities Against Toxics, P.O. Box 29, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire CH66 3TX United Kingdom, +44(0)151 339 5473 www.communities-against-toxics.org.uk

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% in 2004 on top of a 113% 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.

“Organic poultry raisers believe that healthy animals are the best defense against avian flu.”

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. 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 différence?

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 US policy, in comparison, has been a steady backpedaling since the heyday of public scrutiny over the food supply in the 1970s.

“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% share for the Green Party. That means 15% in Parliament. The major parties have to negotiate with the Greens. In this country, 15% of the electorate have those type of views, but have virtually no representation in Congress.”

We need a little European common sense to penetrate the Beltway.

John Feffer is working on a book about the global politics of food. © 2005 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved. View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/28576/

[14 mar 07]

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