Issue 213 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US: facts on food

Sharon Smith

Over the last decade US government health officials and beef industry executives have claimed that mad cow disease (BSE) is a British problem. Last year, as the human death toll from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD) mounted in Britain, Clarence Gibbs of the National Institutes of Health reassured US consumers. 'The beef in this country is probably the finest in the world,' Gibbs said. 'I have been most impressed with the controls in this country to protect the health of the public. I have no doubt that consumers are very safe.'

A new book by left wing journalists Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber shatters that myth. Mad Cow USA Could it Happen Here? shows that the US meat supply has never been more dangerous than it is today. As the authors argue, a mad cow epidemic is not only likely, but 'by the time the first case was even detected...the United States could already be looking down the barrel of an epidemic roughly twice the size of Britain's.'

It is no exaggeration to say that US farmers have been allowed to feed their cattle and poultry virtually anything they please. To save money they have increasingly replaced grains and hay with cheaper although nutritionally unsafe alternatives. Chicken manure, for example, is a popular choice, since it costs only $15 to $45 per ton, compared with $125 per ton of alfalfa. It is cheaper still if it is served raw, rather than heated to destroy dangerous bacteria and toxins.

As US News and World Report described in September, animal feed manufacturers have also begun trying 'dehydrated food garbage, fats emptied from restaurant fryers and grease traps, cement-kiln dust, even newsprint and cardboard that are derived from plant cellulose. Researchers in addition have experimented with cattle and hog manure, and human sewage sludge.'

In addition to various slaughterhouse wastes, including blood, bone and viscera, cattle owners regularly feed their livestock the remains of cats, dogs and other animals from veterinarians and animal shelters.

Food inspection controls which so impressed Clarence Gibbs, above are actually no different then they were at the beginning of this century. Despite technological advances, the 'poke and sniff' inspection is still the method of choice. As much as 60 percent of poultry produced in the US is contaminated with salmonella. Gerald Kuester, a former government microbiologist, argued, 'The final product is no different than if you stuck it in the toilet and ate it.' There are almost 2 million cases of salmonella poisoning each year in the US, resulting in as many as 2,000 deaths.

US cattle producers, like their British counterparts, began widespread feeding of cattle from slaughterhouse wastes during and after the Second World War. They did so to lower production costs because a diet high in animal protein accelerates growth, even though cattle are not carnivores by nature.

Today, rendering itself is a $2 billion industry in the US. But the rendering process, which consists of cooking together parts from many animals in a huge vat and adding it to cattle feed, means that just one infected animal has the potential to infect thousands of others.

Ironically, just as the danger of BSE was becoming known in the 1980s, the US government was drastically cutting its budget. It nearly eliminated government money to destroy flocks of sheep infected with scrapie, which can then infect cows with BSE. The government abandoned its policy of 'total flock depopulation' when cases of scrapie were discovered. Instead, it adopted a new policy, called 'bloodline indemnification', killing only animals that showed symptoms, and their immediate relatives not because it was effective, but because it was cheaper.

Scientists have also found a similar disease among mink, elk and probably squirrels in the US. Still others suspect that the strain of BSE found in the US causes cows to merely fall over and die, rather than displaying any aggressive behaviour. Michael Hansen, a scientific adviser to the Consumer Policy Institute, argued in 1993 that the government may be testing 'the wrong population of cows...given the fact that the authorities are only on the lookout for cows exhibiting "mad cow" like behaviour.'

Nevertheless, government officials have insisted that the growing body of evidence pointing to the existence of mad cow disease is merely 'anecdotal'. To this day, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claims the meat industry poses 'no immediate threat to the public health in the United States'. In more than a dozen states, officials have passed so called 'food disparagement laws' which allow food companies to sue those who criticise the quality of their products. One such lawsuit is now pending against talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who was accused of 'beef bashing' by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association after she announced on television that hearing a description of the rendering process 'has just stopped me cold from eating another burger.'

Until now, the government has relied on voluntary compliance with suggested safety standards, with predictably little effect. In 1989 the FDA suggested a 'voluntary ban' on feeding sheep to cattle. Three years later a survey showed that 15 of 19 rendering plants were continuing to use sheep. Finally, in August of this year, the FDA passed a ban for the first time which on the surface is encouraging. But instead of ending the practice of rendering animal waste altogether, the FDA only banned feeding cattle such as cows, sheep and goats to other cattle. It is still perfectly legal to continue feeding slaughtered cattle parts to pigs and chicken and then to feed those animal parts back to cattle!

Moreover, the new regulation actually permits contaminated animal remains to be used in pet food, and pig, chicken and fish feed, as long as it is labelled 'Do not feed to cattle and other ruminants.'

As Hansen argued, 'The epidemic in the United Kingdom involved ten years of bureaucrats ignoring the warnings of scientists and underestimating the seriousness of the risks. The FDA seems bent on repeating those same mistakes.' All for the sake of profits.

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