Poisonous pursuit of cheap beef

Billions of burgers, corn dogs - hot dogs on a stick covered in batter. Burritos - Mexican pancakes filled with mincemeat and  covered in runny yellow cheese which looks - and tastes - not unlike custard. Although in New York, Seattle, or San Francisco, where wasabi sauce may be cooler than ketchup and the discerning diner can choose Chinese fusion or vegan Mongolian, across most of the hinterland of North America, food is mince.

The mince comes in several guises, ground beef formed into patties for fast-foot outlets, hot dogs revolving in glass-fronted heaters in petrol stations or sold at ball games and rodeos, bland berritos and tacos in chain restaurants and frozen for microwaves. Yet
more mince is thickly scattered on to cardboard-tasting pizzas. But consumers may be a little off it at the moment – processing giant Con Agra has just recalled masses of the stuff because of fears it was contaminated with E.coli. It is the second largest recall of beef in US history.

Unfortunately, most of it has probably already been eaten. At least 19 people in six states have contracted the disease from their consumption of produce from the firm’s Colorado plant which came from the largest meat-packing factory in the US between April and May.
Thirteen firms slaughter and prepare all of the beef for the entire country, where beef production is far more industrialised than in Europe.

These meat-packing firms are extremely powerful politically and despite the fact US departments can order the recall of everything from defective toys to tyres, department of agriculture inspectors do not have the power to force the recall of contaminated meat, which must be voluntary. Nor can they order closure of a plant which repeatedly breaks
health and safety codes. The only recourse is to cease to certify the meat temporarily. Inspections are infrequent and months can pass between contamination being found and a USDA investigation. 

Con Agra says it has not recalled beef for five years, and then only small amounts. But
critics point out that the department of agriculture has halted work on two of its plants this year and threatened to do the same on many more because of health violations and that it has been cited several times in the past three years for violating safety codes for workers. In his recent best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser chronicled the human toll of increased scale in meat production. His investigation into packing factories including those run by Con Agra showed workers are often poorly paid illegal immigrants.

High staff turnover and lack of training combined with high-speed conveyor belts mean cow intestines often burst, contaminating the meat with faeces which workers do not have time to remove. According to Schlosser, 200,000 people a day in the US are sickened by a food-borne disease, 900 are hospitalised, and 14 die. More than one-quarter of the
American public suffer such an illness each year. Many of these are caused by E.coli.  Schlosser writes: ”There is a simply reason why the hamburger can make you seriously ill. There is shit in the meat.” Life is tough not just for the low-paid workers, but for farmers, too.

Farmers in the US are feeling the squeeze, not just of a western drought, but also on profits from meat packers. Beef farming is being concentrated in ever larger units
which can make the economies of scale required by the market. People are becoming more aware of the problems that can come with the cheap food available in the vast malls that line the highways. In some towns there is an alternative, a health food warehouse, but the high cost of the wholefood, whole pay-cheque option makes it a minority choice. For some, farmers’ markets have emerged as a real alternative, with state and
federal aid giving the elderly and low-income families vouchers to buy
fresh produce at farmers’ markets.

California now has 403 regular farmers markets while New York State scores second with 270. Sadly, farmers are disappearing faster than the value of blue-chip stocks. In
the past 10 years, more than 40 million acres have been lost through development in the US. The farmers’ market movement began in the 1970s to give the farmers a way of challenging the dominance of supermarkets.

But now small towns are competing with more established markets in the metropolitan centres for the same suppliers. The organisers of Manhattan’s 30 markets are resorting to travelling the states, knocking on barn doors to drum up more farmers, the New York Times reported this week. A farmers’ market planned for New Jersey could not go ahead
because none of 30 farmers contacted could make it.  Some farmers say that they simply do not have the time to attend markets, which are not always well organised enough. But others, like organic farmer Oleh Maczak, a former computer programmer, simply cannot produce enough to meet demand.

He and his wife have turned down six invitations so far this year to get involved in the markets. He told the New York Times: ”It’s great to be in demand. But it’s a sign that things aren’t going well in some ways. There should be lots of farmer round here.” Farmers’
markets in small towns and countryside areas may help to address the irony that fresh, locally grown produce is only available in big Metropolitan  centres while in the countryside everything seems to be frozen and arrives in a massive container lorry from hundreds of miles away. This is the opposite of the  situation in the past.

The Scottish Herald
July 22nd 2002