The High Cost of Cheap Food

By Richard Rhames

“The USDA is playing Russian Roulette with public health ... USDA has reduced testing to a minuscule level — 40,000 cows a year, or one -tenth of 1% of all cows slaughtered.” — Dr. Michael Hansen, staff scientist, Consumers Union

It turns out that more than half of Maine’s public schools were tied into the national beef recall story this week. The coverage has been a bit deeper and more prolonged than is typical partly because the meat recall is a record-setter. But the hook on this one was the “compelling video” captured by a secret camera guy working for the Humane Society of the United States. The unidentified “worker” went undercover and managed to gather footage of so-called “downer cows” being “encouraged” to stand by fork lifts, prods, broom handles thrust into eyes, shocks, and water torture. One cow bellowed as she was rolled by a skid-steer. Others were silent as they were dragged with a chain over the manured concrete pad to the stun gun and the knife.

Meat industry spokesman Bo Reagan protested, “The welfare of our animals — that’s the heart and soul of our operations.” Cattle are supposed to be able to walk to slaughter. He regretted that these animals were “harvested out of compliance.”

Industry spin is that the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company was sort of a bad apple. But anyone who knows anything about the industrialization of our food supply ought to know better. The Humane Society has been very clear: This plant was selected at random. After years of cutting back on USDA inspectors, speeding up operations on the killing floor, de-skilling workers and union-busting, this is what mass-meat looks like. It’s not pretty, but it’s cheap.

Americans now spend less than 10% of their household budgets for food. In the 1950s it was around 30%. In Europe today it’s still around 30%. We used to have a relatively prosperous rural America based on farmers being paid a fair price for their output — a system that continues in Europe and civilized countries generally to this day. But not here.

We have, agri-tourist theme park fantasies aside, turned animal husbandry and dirt farming into a hulking factory system, based on constantly lowering the cost of units produced, beggaring the laborer, and devastating the resource. This tragic folly represents nothing less than a decades-long sprint to a wasteland fueled by savagery, profligate energy consumption and debt accumulation. It will likely not end well.

Every now and then, however, American eaters are offered a quick peek at what we’ve come to: Now we glimpse the waterboarding of sick cows. Now the slickster liar-for-hire from MeatCorp. Now back to Jamie-Lynn and Britney. Pain and flesh, flesh and pain. Say, would you like fries with that?

Media treatment of the Hallmark slaughterhouse story has been rather light on the downer cow/mad cow angle. That’s too bad. Eaters ought to know more about this issue. It could be a matter of life and death. But, as co-author with John Stauber of the 2004 book, Mad Cow USA, Sheldon Rampton told me, this is the usual, though shocking, pattern: “The meat industry and government collude in treating food safety as a PR problem.”

Most people have, by now, heard of so-called mad-cow disease. Otherwise referred to as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a type of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE), the disease is “incurable, horrible in its effects, and inevitably, unremittingly fatal” (Rampton, Stauber). Its infective agent apparently is malformed protein or “prion” which is unaffected by cooking and can only be destroyed by incineration at temperatures above 2,000 degrees.

This transmissible brain wasting disease was the focus of researchers in Papua, New Guinea, during the 1950s and ’60s. The affliction was called “kuru” by the natives, who thought it the product of spells. It involved tremors, paralysis and death and seemed to affect many women and young children. A theory began to evolve when scientists finally linked the disease to a “ritual cannibalism” practiced there.

In these rites enemies and even family members would be consumed, with the “Big Men” of the tribe getting the choicer cuts while the women and children got the organs and the brains. The symptoms resembled those of a wasting disease in sheep called scrapie and a rare human disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD). In both diseases the “spongy” brains of the victims developed holes where tissue should have been and “strange plaques.”

When tissue from kuru sufferers was injected into monkeys, the monkeys developed symptoms and died, their brains riddled and plaqued. There was a multi-year latency period where the primates seemed healthy but from onset, the disease progressed swiftly.

Here was a plague that could “jump the species barrier” and was 100% fatal. But once New Guinea’s government outlawed cannibalism, the malady was quickly eliminated among the young. More ominously however, it appeared that this TSE could have a very long incubation period in people. “New cases ... would continue to emerge more than 40 years after the victims had eaten human flesh.” (Rampton and Stauber.)

Sadly for American eaters, cannibalism is still legal in the USA when it comes to animals, meat and otherwise. Much of the waste from slaughter houses and dead or downer cows (animals unable to stand) typically goes to “rendering plants” where the material is processed, heated, and turned into what’s called “by-pass protein.” It’s then added to the grain ration fed to meat animals and often included in pet food. It’s a cheap way to increase protein content in feed, thus holding down the price of mass-meat. Supposedly a win-win situation.

It’s officially “out of compliance” here to put cattle exhibiting symptoms consistent with BSE (i.e. downer cows) directly into the human food system. But as the Hallmark hidden-cam episode shows, it happens.

What will be the health impacts of such profit questing?

We’ll know better in 40 years.

Richard Rhames is a farmer near Biddeford, Maine. This originally appeared in the Biddeford Journal Tribune.

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2008

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