October 23, 2017

Are small food producers responsible for the food poisoning epidemic?

This is one of a series of six talks by Edward Goldsmith, broadcast on the World Business Report programme of the BBC World Service, 15-19 December 2003.

See Related Articles on the right for others in the series.

I shared a bedroom with the late José Lutzenberger – the great Brazilian agronomist who later became Minister of the Environment – at a conference in Nairobi in June 1982 to mark the tenth anniversary of the Stockholm conference – the first United Nations ‘Earth Summit’. And until his untimely death we always remained in touch.

In his latter years he was highly preoccupied by the way in which often highly skilled small food producers are being held responsible by the WTO for the current epidemic of food poisoning and are being systematically put out of business by being forced to invest in costly installations which few can possibly afford.

Thus he pointed out that in his State of Rio Grande do Sul, chickens have to be packed in special rooms of a prescribed size whose walls have to be tiled at considerable cost to a height of four metres.

In the UK the situation is very similar. Thus, though less than 1 percent of the cases of food poisoning are associated with the consumption of dairy produce of any kind, stringent hygiene laws impose costly installations on small cheese producers, in particular those who use unpasteurized milk.

In France the government recently passed a directive requiring that electricity and running water, as well as refrigerated cabinets, be installed at every point of sale in open-air markets. Needless to say, at least 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 there was a public outcry and the government withdrew the directive, presumably to smuggle it in later in a less visible form.

Of course, there is no evidence whatsoever that small unhygienic food producers are responsible for the current food poisoning epidemic. Indeed, government policies have already killed off most of them. Today something like 80 percent of dairy production in the USA is controlled by no more than three or four corporations and just five multinational giants control some 80 percent of the UK’s grocery trade. Indeed, if the World Trade Organization has got it right the food poisoning epidemic should be a thing of the past, yet the opposite is true: in the UK it has actually grown seven-fold to a figure of approximately one million cases a year, and in the USA, according to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), 81 million Americans now suffer from food poisoning every year.

Surely it must be time the WTO dreams up another pretext for killing off small food producers in order to assure the further expansion of their bigger rivals – because that is what it is really all about.


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