July 23, 2017

Unhygienic – or just small-scale? (long version)

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Across the world small and traditional food producers and retailers are being closed down by burdensome Government regulations requiring massive expenditures on ‘hygiene’. Is the real motive to close down such small-scale food producers, leaving the big industrial combines to clean up their markets?

Published in The Ecologist Special Report June 2001. Republished in Rivista di Biologia (Biology Forum) Vol. 94 No. 3, September-December 2001 pp. 511-533. See also a shorter version (unpublished) here.



“Science is the new religion and disinfectant is its holy water.”
George Bernard Shaw.

It is increasingly difficult for small food producers and retailers of any kind to survive let alone thrive within the context of a global economy committed to the maximisation of trade and development.

Among other things their plight is drastically increased by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) regulations that force governments to open up national markets to imported and usually highly subsidised food from the USA in particular. The price of soya imported into India from the US would be $348 a ton, instead of $155 if the US government did not subsidize it as it does. [1] No small farmers in India or elsewhere can compete with that.

Another problem is that we are now living in a world that is increasingly dominated by huge global, vertically – integrated, corporations that increasingly control every aspect of the world economy. Thus, just five corporations control some 77 percent of the cereal trade while three companies control 83 percent of the cocoa trade, as is 80 percent of the banana trade and 85 percent of the tea trade.

Under such conditions small food producers, more often than not, must buy their inputs from the same monster corporations to whom they must also sell their produce and which are thereby in a position to decide exactly what margin the small food producers are to be allowed.

It is thereby not surprising, for instance, that only about 2 percent of the price we pay for bananas in a supermarket goes to the field worker, 5 percent to the farmer, the rest going to the various intermediaries or more often to the subsidiaries of the same transnational corporation. [2]

Big corporations can also afford to sell below cost. They don’t mind losing money for a while, long enough in any case, to put their small and even quite big rivals out of business.

Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer is known to do just that. When it establishes itself in a new town, it often sells staple foods below their cost price. This is sufficient to kill off small shops in the area and even smaller supermarkets. But once they have closed their doors, then Wal-Mart puts up its prices. [3]

This same thing happens of course in Third World countries where big American, European or Japanese exporters are quite often willing to sell below cost in order to kill off local producers. Vandana Shiva refers to this as “pseudo competition”. [4] It can also be referred to as ‘dumping’, which is illegal, but it is difficult to win a case against these giants whose activities nearly always have full government backing.

In addition, when they small food producers manage to find a new niche which enables them to survive in such an economically and politically hostile environment, they are only allowed to do so until it is big enough for the big companies to regard it as worth taking over for themselves, which they then proceed to do – often by getting the government or the relevant international agency to pass the requisite new regulations.

Thus, in the USA, organic food is now a $5 billion market and is growing at the rate of 20 percent per annum. But to the big corporations, the idea that it should remain outside their grasp, and in the hands of a host of small local companies, is more than they can bear, so in 1999 they persuaded the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to propose new regulations that would allow the sort of food that it is most profitable for them to produce – food that is genetically modified, nuclear irradiated, grown on land that has been ‘fertilised’ with toxic sludge and that contains very high levels of pesticides, to be classified as organic, while at the same time making it illegal for any non government organisation (NGO) to set more stringent standards.

Fortunately there was a tremendous public outcry and the USDA was made to withdraw its proposal, at least for the time being. However the mere fact that it had dared suggest passing such an outrageous regulation clearly shows to what extent it is willing to sacrifice the health of the American public and that of its environment to the immediate interests of the large corporations in the food business.

“the systematic replacement of regulations that have been specifically designed to protect small companies . . . people’s health and the natural environment”

This is of course, but an instance of a much wider trend that is occurring everywhere today: the systematic replacement of regulations that have been specifically designed to protect small companies, the local economy, local communities, people’s health and the natural environment by regulations designed exclusively to protect the immediate interests of the large corporations. In this talk I shall examine just one such set of regulations – those that impose costly installations on small food producers, which few can afford and which thereby pushes many of them out of business on the pretext that their activities are not hygienic

These hygienic regulations were drawn up in 1995 by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) but governments were allowed a 5-year period before having to apply them. They are designed to assure that food production conforms to the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Limit (HACCP), originally designed by Pillsbury, a multinational food company that markets Haagen-Dazs and Burger King, at the request of NASA that, at the time, wanted to assure the purity of the food available to its astronauts.

In the 1970s the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also adopted the HACCP as a means of doing this for the food sold on the US market and in 1991 it was also adopted by the Codex Alimentarius, an agency of the United Nations, that sets food-safety standards. [5] This agency, that is totally controlled by TNCs, as has been carefully documented in The Ecologist, is at present playing a leading role in enabling big pharmaceutical corporations to take over the fast-growing food-supplement market, in particular that for vitamins, which up till now has largely remained in the hands of smaller companies.

In addition, both the Codex and the FDA have clearly shown what are their real priorities when, under heavy corporate pressure, they authorized the use of sex hormones in meat and fully accepted the production and distribution of genetically modified foods.

It goes without saying that corporations normally want the regulations governing their activities to be as lax as possible, as are most of the regulations set by the Codex Alimentarius regarding the acceptable levels of the different chemicals in the food we eat – but not always. Sometimes it is in their interests to ensure that the regulations are very stringent as a means of eliminating weaker competitors that cannot afford to comply with them.

Significantly, the biotech giant Monsanto opposed a bill in the US Congress that proposed to ease Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on genetically engineered plants. Dr Miller of the Hoover Institute openly states that

“Monsanto has had a policy of trying to keep regulatory barriers high so as to assure that other companies, even the large seed companies with which they compete, would find compliance too expensive for them to enter the market”. [6]

As Steve Gorelick has commented, if regulatory barriers can limit the options of large seed companies, then “it is not difficult to imagine the burden they can place on really small-scale business”. [7] Wendell Berry in his seminal book The Unsettling of America also notes how “sanitation laws have almost invariably worked against the small producer, destroying his markets and prohibitively increasing the cost of production”, and as a result

“nowhere now is there a market for minor produce: a bucket of cream, a hen, a few dozen eggs. One cannot sell milk from a few cows any more, the law-required – equipment is too expensive. Those markets were done away with in the name of sanitation – but of course, in reality to the enrichment of the large producers. Future historians will no doubt remark upon the inevitable association, with us, between sanitation and filthy lucre.” [8]

Helen J. Simon notes how, in the state of Vermont, where cider has never been linked to any illness, the FDA proposes that all apple cider be pasteurised or else carry a label that warns consumers that the product “might contain harmful bacteria known to cause serious illness”, a rule which would put many of the state’s small cider makers out of business. Needless to say, the two largest cider producers – who account for 80 percent of production – already pasteurise their product and would benefit from the losses of their 45 smaller competitors. [9]

In the USA hygiene laws are also killing off small cheese makers. This is particularly true of those who make their cheese from raw milk that the FDA claims to be unsafe, in spite of the fact that an FDA study in 1988 identified nine cheese-related outbreaks of disease and that contaminated pasteurised cheese caused all nine of them. [10]

In the UK, even though less than 1 percent of the cases of food poisoning in the country have occurred as the result of the consumption of dairy produce of any kind, stringent hygiene laws have been passed that threaten small cheese producers and in particular those who use unpasteurised milk. [11]

In the State of Rio Grande del Sul in Brazil new hygiene laws ban free-range chickens on family farms, as they are accused of transmitting diseases to battery chickens. Chickens must also be packed in special rooms of a prescribed size, and the walls to the height of four metres must be tiled, which few small producers can afford. Hygiene laws are killing off citrus nurseries so that they can be taken over by the large citrus companies. [12] [see “Killing off small farms in Brazil“.]

“In Italy hygiene laws are putting an end to the production of an ancient local Italian delicacy, the lardo di Colonnata”

In Italy hygiene laws are putting at an end to the production of an ancient local Italian delicacy, the lardo di Colonnata – which has been produced for five centuries without causing any health problems of any kind, together with a host of other traditional delicacies. [13]

In the UK 50 percent of Britain’s abattoirs have closed down because they too were judged unhygienic and could not comply with preposterous EU regulations. As a result it is now necessary for farmers to transport their cattle great distances, all crammed together in very unhygienic conditions, to the few remaining abattoirs – putting the cattle under considerable stress, reducing the quality of the meat and forcing small producers to incur transport costs that most of them cannot afford. [14]

In India, a case of mustard oil adulteration, which even the Health Minister considers was probably the work of those who would profit by it, provided the government with a pretext for passing a regulation that bans the production and consumption of that key crop. This, as Vandana Shiva points out, can only lead to the extinction of a crop that is central to the Indian farming system and food culture and to the destruction of the livelihoods of millions of small farmers.

The only possible purpose of this new regulation, she insists, is to justify the mass importation of soya oil from the USA – much of which seems to have been made from genetically-modified round-up ready soya beans produced by the Monsanto corporation, which is now very difficult to sell in Europe and increasingly in other parts of the world too. [15] Worse still the government has passed a law that makes the packaging of edible oil compulsory, again in the name of hygiene, thereby increasing its cost and causing the closure of more than 1 million small village cold-press mills.

In May of last year the French government went a little too far when it issued a directive requiring that electricity and running water as well as refrigerated cabinets where fish, meat and dairy produce must be kept at a set temperature, be installed at every point of sale in open-air markets, which needless to say are seen to be totally unhygienic and hence a serious threat to our health. It is generally recognized that these markets are a centre of social life in rural areas throughout France and a large proportion of France’s small farmers are dependent on them for the sale of their produce.

It goes without saying that a large number – possible as many as 40 percent – of the local councils that run the 6,000 towns and villages in which some 20,000 street markets still thrive, cannot afford these costly installations. Fortunately, but very predictably, there was a huge public outcry that led the government to withdraw the directive – at least temporarily – presumably waiting for a more opportune moment in which to reintroduce it in a less visible form.

Killing off family cooking

But hygiene regulations are not only being introduced to kill off small commercial food-producers and retailers, the big companies even seek to take over those activities that have always been fulfilled for free in the home itself. Cooking the family meal, they realize, can be monetized and commodified, thereby providing the food industry with a lucrative market.

In the UK a compliant Ministry of Education has removed ‘domestic science’ which included cooking from the National Curriculum, and a modernised, technology-intensive version has replaced it. It is appropriately called ‘food technology’ just as a kitchen is now referred to as a ‘food technology unit’. The curriculum seems to include teaching children how their food is manufactured (not cooked) in factories. It is made quite clear that this is the most ‘efficient’ and the most ‘economic’ way of producing what is at once the most nutritious, the most hygienic and hence the safest food

One of the things that students learn on the food- technology course is how to make a pizza. Of course they must use hygienically produced ready-made ingredients. Once these have been chosen, they must be keyed into the computers. The students must then analyse the pizza for its ‘nutritional content’, and design the appropriate plastic packaging, on which the nutritional information, calculated of course by the computers, will figure prominently.

If home kitchens are now seen as little more than relics of our unhygienic past, school kitchens, or rather ‘food technology units’ are also seen as terribly unhygienic and are being systematically closed down so that our children can be fed on cheap, industrial, mass-produced and largely devitalised food, churned out on the assembly-lines of large ultra-hygienic food-catering companies. [16]

But as Tim O’Brien makes it clear, “the blame should not be heaped on hygiene in the kitchen but on the squalid conditions in the intensive farms”. [17] He documents how factory farming, by its very nature, can only lead to the spread of disease. He rejects the prevalent view that small unhygienic food producers are responsible for the current food poisoning epidemics. Indeed, government policies have already killed off most of them, and there have never been less of them than there are today. Instead food production, as already noted, is now in the hands of a tiny number of massive companies.

Of course, under such ‘ideal conditions’ food poisoning should now be a thing of the past – but the very opposite is true. In the UK it has actually grown by seven times to a figure of approximately one million cases a year. [18] And in the USA, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 81 million Americans suffer from food poisoning every year, though the figure of 266 million that is suggested by one of its officials (Maurice Potts) may be closer to the mark. [19]

This should make it perfectly clear that it is the big intensive food producers, not the small ones that are responsible for the epidemic of food poisoning and, as it happens, for the growing incidence of other diseases as well.

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The health of our intensive-farm animals

When one considers the hideous conditions in which they are kept, it comes as no surprise that the health of our intensively reared farm animals is very poor. In addition to foot and mouth disease, which has just broken out again in the UK and mad-cow disease, we learn from our Ministry of Agriculture that there is now a high incidence among our cows of Bovine Aids (referred to as BIV instead of HIV) the antibody for which is apparently found in 10 percent of our milk supply. [20]

There is also a growing incidence of bovine viral diarrhoea, and also of Johne’s disease that has been linked with Crohn’s disease in humans. [21] Bovine tuberculosis like mastitis is also a growing problem. It is increasing in the UK at about 18 percent per annum. [22] It is blamed on the badger whereas the real cause is the stress to which our cows are being subjected by being fed on a disgraceful diet and made to produce more milk than they can possibly do with impunity.

What is more, the health of our intensively farmed animals can only further deteriorate if our government accepts the use of rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone), a genetically modified form of a naturally recurring hormone that will apparently increase milk production by 15 percent or more, and that Monsanto has been aggressively marketing. This will make our cows much more prone to develop mastitis, to increase the number of deformed and stillborn calves, and reduce the life span of the cows themselves

Only a fool can believe that feeding people with milk derived from such unhealthy animals can be done with impunity. This is particularly true of milk obtained from animals that have been treated with rBGH. Among other things we know that the milk of cows suffering from mastitis, to which most of them will be afflicted, contains pus, and the disease is usually treated with antibiotics, of which traces are bound to be found in the milk produced, and which also contains high levels of another hormone – IGF-1 – whose consumption by humans has been linked to an increased incidence of cancer. [23]

If keeping animals in intensive conditions, and in particular in factory farms, must lead to the spread of disease, much the same can be said for the highly intensive salmon-farming industry. [24]

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