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Issue #1546      9 May 2012

Culture & Life

Let them eat pink slime

Under capitalism, the supply of food and water to a country’s citizens is big business. Properly handled, it can be very big business indeed. To keep it that way, corporations in the food industry sector strive very hard to free the sector from what they regard as “restrictive” government regulation.

You know the kind of “restrictive” regulations they mean: the ones that protect the health of workers and consumers. Left to themselves, corporate bosses will happily cut costs by removing or bypassing industrial safety measures, cutting corners on safeguarding consumers’ health, using the cheapest quality ingredients they can get away with, and so on.

In the USA – richest country in the world, allegedly – the meat packing industry is huge (over 9 billion animals are slaughtered annually). It is also notorious – and has been for many years. Meat supplied to supermarkets in well-off neighbourhoods but unsold, is returned to the supplier, relabelled and sent on to markets in poorer areas of the country. By the time this has been done twice, the meat is often green when it reaches stores in the poorest districts.

This unhealthy situation has prevailed for many years, but did not stop the Bush and Obama administrations from slashing the budgets of the relevant federal regulatory authorities. In 2005, of the 34 million cows slaughtered annually in the US, about 500,000 were routinely tested by USDA (Department of Agriculture) for Mad Cow disease (AKA bovine spongiform encephalopathy – or BSE). Today, only about 40,000 are being tested – about one tenth of one percent.

That would not be so bad if the country was actually free of the disease. But it is not. In mid April, a California dairy cow destined for a rendering plant that makes pet food was found to have the disease. There have been three other cases of BSE in the USA. Enough for the tabloid media – who do not normally care what the poor eat or even if they have enough to eat – to raise a scare campaign around BSE, its grotesque nature and grisly consequences.

The media ran photos of human sufferers of BSE who had contracted “the lethal prion, an infectious agent that degenerates the brain. The disease takes years to show up, and looks somewhat like an accelerated version of dementia, making it more difficult to trace – and adding to the public fear factor,” (Paul Crossfield, Civil Eats).

US consumer groups were cheesed off with the nine day media coverage, for while BSE is relatively rare in the US, there are plenty of other diseases and infectious agents that the profit-driven and largely self-regulated US food industry airily ignores and dismisses in its quest for greater market share. Sarah Klein, of the consumer advocacy group Centre for Science in the Public Interest told Associated Press, “What we know is that 3,000 Americans die every year from preventable food-borne illnesses”, none of which (she pointed out) are linked to mad cow disease. “Things like E coli, salmonella – that’s where we should be focusing our attention, outrage and policy.”

But that would require more government health inspectors and scientific teams. The beef industry and the other corporate food entities are dead against such “interference” in their business activities.

Cattle evolved as an efficient machine for converting grass into meat and milk. When BSE first appeared it was initially a mystery, until its origin was traced to corporate agriculture or agribusiness producing “cattle feed” containing not grass but ground up parts of sheep and cattle, grotesquely turning cows from herbivores into unconscious carnivores. Where the dead animals ground up for this “stock feed” had suffered from BSE, the disease was passed to the herds that fed on their processed remains.

What made the scare over BSE in the US even more alarming to American consumers was that it followed hard on the heels of another food scandal: the discovery that the less desirable parts of cows were being made “safe to eat” with the addition of ammonia. Although the industry calls the resultant product “lean finely-textured beef” (!) the public and others call it pink slime, and were shocked to discover that it is “a regular ingredient in the hamburgers used in school lunches and in 70 percent of the ground beef sold in supermarkets” (Sarah Klein). [Let’s ignore the propriety of routinely feeding hamburgers to school-children – no wonder the US has an obesity problem.]

The USDA, clearly in damage control mode, assured US consumers that no harm could have come to humans should the latest infected cow have gone undiscovered. It was a dairy cow, so the USDA also stated that it couldn’t have transmitted the disease through its milk. An interesting assertion contested by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones, who drew attention to a study in which a similar prion was transmitted from sheep to sheep through milk.

“In addition,” writes Paula Crossfield, “Dr Michael Hansen, PhD, a senior scientist at Consumers Union, told me that some of the practices that led to the mad cow epidemics of the past are still being employed, like ‘feeding cows’ blood back to cows, feeding chicken litter to cows and allowing ground up cows to be fed to pigs and chickens, then allowing ground up pig and chickens to be fed back to cattle’.” Crossfield notes that “These practices are banned in Europe, Japan and Canada.”

More than half a decade ago, in 2005, a team of scientists including the former head of surveillance at USDA, Linda Detwiler, recommended that the US government stop “allowing ruminant protein to be fed back to ruminants”. But Bush was in the White House then and agribusiness could not have asked for a more sympathetic President or one less likely to uphold consumer interests over those of business. Except perhaps for President Obama.  

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