Americans remain largely oblivious to the intrusions of the pharmaceutical
industry into our kitchens. Across the pond, however, the Europeans are wising
Imagine having to go to a doctor for a prescription to buy the ingredients
for dinner. It's not such a farfetched 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
such diseases as rhinotracheitis and colibacillosis. And let's not talk about
what the bird picks up during processing. One of the last stages at the slaughterhouse
is a dip in chlorine to wash off pathogens.
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 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, conversely, you could hop a flight to Europe.
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 goes 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. Individual countries like
Germany and Austria are implementing even stricter rules. 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 (from The Jungle to Fast
Food Nation to Steve Striffler's recent
book on chicken) 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 might push
the culinary envelope with unpasteurized cheese and steak tartare, but 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 U.S. 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. That the EU was awash in excess beef made
the decision all the easier for Eurocrats to make.
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 (and the EU didn't provide a full risk assessment). Rather than back
down, however, the EU decided to pay the fine and maintain the ban. In a partial
compromise, the United States promised not to ban EU meat products as long as
Europeans accepted hormone beef in pet food as well as a small quota of hormone-free
The issue returned to the WTO spotlight this September in sessions that were
open to the public for the first time in the organization's ten-year history.
The EU boasts of a stronger scientific case for its ban, anchored by a new risk
assessment conducted a couple 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 U.S. government testing
of hormone residues in meat. He pointed to the practice in the United States
of injecting hormones directly into muscle rather than relying only on ear implants.
The United States hasn't changed its policies, Epstein says today: "We're
dealing with a bunch of cowboys. There's no inspection. Even if the hormones
are administered properly, it's not good." He has estimated that a young
boy who eats two hamburgers in a day could raise his hormone levels by as much
as 10 percent. He also points to elevated rates of reproductive cancers, such
as an 88 percent 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.
This conflict between the United States alleging protectionism and the EU emphasizing
food safety is by no means a recent phenomenon. In 1880, German leader Otto
von Bismarck banned all pork products from the United States. Once again, it
was an Italian study that provided the spark: the previous year, Italy's sanitary
department discovered the roundworm responsible for trichinosis in U.S. pork
products. The United States responded by accusing the Europeans of - what else?
- protecting their own pig farmers. As Louis Snyder wrote in a famous 1945 monograph
on the dispute, both sides had cause to complain. Germans didn't boil their
pork long enough to kill the trichinosis, which they then blamed on American
meat, while the U.S. government didn't mandate the microscopic inspections necessary
to weed out bad exports. Only in 1891 when Congress finally required such inspections
did Germany lift its ban.
In today's beef case, however, European eating habits are considerably more
scrupulous, the threat of mad cow disease hangs over every hamburger, and the
United States is refusing to give an inch on regulatory reform. This trans-Atlantic
divide on beef holds true for other meat products as well.
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
the 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."
Graham Cruickshank, editor of the UK industry magazine Poultry World, says that
the "modern enriched unit fulfills all five freedoms. The mortality levels
are lower. The only criticism comes from welfarists."
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 have been neck and neck with caged eggs this year.
Several supermarket chains, such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencers, 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
Also on the horizon is a chicken war between the United States and the EU.
It is common U.S. 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. "If you were concerned
about fecal contamination, you wouldn't dip the chickens over and over again
in the same water," says Ronnie Cummins. Nevertheless, U.S. 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.
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.
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 percent in 2004 on top of a 113 percent 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. Nor does the United States
even meet its quota of hormone-free beef for export to Europe.
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 (if you want a vivid dramatization of the evils of corporate
pig farming, read Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole). 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 Difference?
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 U.S. policy, in comparison, has been a steady backpedaling since the heyday
of public scrutiny over the food supply in the 1970s.
Do Europeans simply think differently than we do? Have all the hormones and
antibiotics that we've ingested clouded our reasoning?
"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 percent share for the Green Party. That means 15 percent in
Parliament. The major parties have to negotiate with the Greens. In this country,
15 percent of the electorate have those type of views, but have virtually no
representation in Congress."
The U.S. government continues to subsidize corporate agriculture and its pharmaceutical
handmaidens even in the face of trade barriers, growing domestic interest in
additive-free food, and (be careful what you wish for) Wal-Mart's heavy-footed
entry into the organic market. We can wait for a little European common sense
to penetrate the Beltway. We can pay a little extra for additive-free meat and
dairy. We can simply go vegan. But most of America, meat-crazy and Atkins-addled,
doesn't know any better than to support the existing system by popping pills
and slurping down hormones with every bite of burger and forkful of fajita.
John Feffer is working on a book
about the global politics of food.