November 25, 2017

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

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?

See also a longer version published in The Ecologist Special Report June 2001 and republished in Rivista di Biologia (Biology Forum) Vol. 94 No. 3, September–December 2001 here.

“Science is the new religion, and disinfectant is its holy water.”

George Bernard Shaw.

In the world in which we live, small, rather than being beautiful, is considered uneconomic and unnatural, and the global economy we have created is forcing small producers out of business at an unprecedented rate.

Today, to take just one example, just five corporations control some 77 percent of the cereal trade, and 83 percent of the cocoa trade is controlled by three companies, as is 80 percent of the banana trade and 85 percent of the tea trade. [1] The consequences are legion – from the destruction of ‘Third World’ agriculture by subsidised imports from rich nations, to the death of meaningful choice in the rich world: from vast environmental destruction to the increasing impotence of governments before the power of the multinationals who inevitably control the global economy.

Deregulation or reregulation?

All this is fairly widely known. But what is rarely commented on is the role of regulations in promoting this corporate colonialism. Today we are seeing a dual trend. Firstly, the systematic removal of regulations that ‘adversely affect’ big business – in other words, those designed to protect small companies (deregulation), the local economy, people’s health and the natural environment, and secondly, the imposition of new regulations designed, it seems, specifically to drive small producers out of business (reregulation).

Here we are examining just one set of such regulations – those that impose cost installations on food producers and retailers in the name of hygiene. This trend is one of the primary reasons why, all around us, small food producers are disappearing, and the multinational behemoths are increasingly taking control of what we eat.

Globally, regulations drawn up by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and adopted by Codex Alimentarius, the UN agency that sets global food safety standards, have set the stage for this trend. These regulations, as this article shows, have been drawn up, or heavily influenced, by multinational companies. Combined, they have the effect of closing down small producers that cannot meet the costs, leaving the way open for the global players to seize the markets for themselves.

At national level there are many examples of this. Perhaps one of the most notorious was the French government’s national directive, in May last year, that electricity and running water, as well as refrigerated cabinets where fish, meat and dairy produce must be kept at a set temperature, had to be installed at every point of sale in open-air markets.

Such markets are a centre of social life in rural areas throughout France, and are of great cultural and historical significance to the French. The directive, when completed will irrevocably change the way food is sold, by destroying these markets completely. Fortunately, and perhaps predictably, there was a huge public outcry, which led the government to delay the implementation of the directive. Instead it is being smuggled in bit by bit.

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Into your home

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 realise, can itself be comodified, thus providing the food industry with a lucrative market.

In the UK, a compliant Department of Education has removed ‘domestic science’ (which included cooking) from the National Curriculum and replaced it with ‘food technology’. The excuse once more is that school kitchens are ‘unhygienic’. The term ‘kitchen’ is now significantly referred to as a ‘food technology unit’. The curriculum is mainly about teaching children how their food is manufactured in factories.

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

What is this really all about? The government and the food corporations will tell you it is about hygiene. We need hygiene regulations, they will say, to protect public health from unscrupulous producers. The truth is somewhat different. If this were the case, food poisoning incidences would not have increased in the UK by seven times to a figure of approximately one million cases a year. [2]

In the USA, according to the Centre 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. The slew of new regulations introduced in recent years have little to do with public health – and everything to do with destroying small producers, for the benefit of big ones.

However it is not the small producers who are responsible for the epidemic of food poisoning, but the big industrial producers who are replacing them. It is true, in particular, of the large intensive animal farms in which the vast majority of our pigs, chickens and cattle are now kept. Conditions on these farms are absolutely horrific, as Tim O’Brien states;

“Animals are so crowded together that the floor is scarcely visible, and where it is visible, it can be seen to be covered with excrement, the atmosphere is full of dust, and scarcely any sunlight. Would one be surprised if disease were rampant? Of course not. Yet these are the conditions in which many animals are reared as food” [3]

We learn from our Ministry of Agriculture that there is now also a high incidence among our cows of Bovine Aids (BIV), the antibody for which is apparently found in 10 percent of our milk supply. There is also a growing incidence of bovine viral diarrhoea. Bovine tuberculosis, like mastitis, is also a growing problem, which is being blamed on the badger, whereas the real cause is the stress to which our cows are subjected by being fed on a disgraceful diet, the appalling conditions in which they are kept and transported and the fact that they are made to produce more milk than they can possibly do with impunity.

To add yet more stress to the cows lives, and therefore deteriorate their health further, the government is considering Monsanto’s determined marketing of rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) – a genetically modified form of a naturally recurring hormone that will apparently increase milk production by a further 15 percent.

It is also proved to increase the number of stillborn calves, reduce the cattle’s lifespan and make the cows more prone to mastitis. Among other things, we know that the milk of cows suffering from mastitis contains pus, traces of the antibiotics used to treat mastitis and also high levels of the hormone, IGF-1, the consumption of which, incidentally, has been linked to an increased incidence of cancer.

It is glaringly obvious that intensive farming breeds ill health. Only a fool can believe that feeding people with milk, eggs and meat derived from animals that live, are transported and die in stressed, filthy and unhygienic conditions, can be done without risks. Yet it is in the name of ‘public health’ that the small-scale farms are being systematically ‘regulated’ out of existence to be replaced by multinational-run intensive producers.

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Importing disease

Within the context of the global trading system, the massive increase in imports and exports make it inevitable that a disease that effects animals in one locality, which in normal conditions would only affect the local population, can now rapidly spread to just about everywhere in the world.

Outbreaks of infectious diseases have occurred as the result of importing food produced in poor conditions; there was a large outbreak of Shigella sonnei infections in Great Britain, Norway and Sweden in 1994, due to contaminated lettuce imported from southern Europe. This is also exactly what happened with the dioxin-tainted chicken that caused such a scandal in Belgium in 1999, and the same has now happened with foot and mouth disease.

The growth in imports is already straining the food safety system. David Kessler, ex-commisioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), explains that “we built a system back 100 years ago that served us very well for a world within our borders. We didn’t build a system for the global marketplace”. [4]

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Much of the basis of the new slew of food and hygiene regulations is also based on a new mindset – one that has developed with industrial society itself, and which has accelerated in recent decades. It could be called germophobia. The work of Koch and Pasteur, the two fathers of modern microbiology, was interpreted in such a way that it gave rise, as early as the 1890s, to a hysteria over hygiene.

One historian of ‘germophobia’ has described how “people stripped their homes of allegedly microbe-laden furnishings”, how they learned to shy away from familiar social customs such as handshaking and baby-kissing, how hotels “began to use extra-long sheets so that sleepers might fold them back over potentially germ-ridden blankets”, and how all efforts to avoid contact with germs was seen as “a fine action, a sort of religion, a step in the conquering of evil, for dirt is sin”. [4]

This attitude was – and is – a bonanza for entrepreneurs. It provided a market for all sorts of products that could contribute to ‘the war against germs’. Thus the Johnson and Johnson Company informed readers of the Ladies Home Journal that

there are invisible, ever-present living particles (called germs) everywhere, they quickly lodge in the open flesh by contact with the air, dirt, unboiled water, clothing, skin, unclean bandages and unsterilised hands. The consequences may be blood poisoning, inflammation, gangrene, fever, lockjaw, and a train of complications. [5]

Buy Johnson and Johnson’s ‘Red Cross Absorbent Cotton’, of course, and you might yet be saved. Public hysteria over ‘germs’ is nothing new. But it is newly rampant today, promoted by commercial interests that seek to maximise the market for the countless disinfectants and antibiotics that they market.

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Losing the ‘war’

Of course, the ‘war’ against germs can never be won. Germs – microbes – are everywhere and can flourish in almost any conditions. And crucially, many of them are good for us – a sterile society does not prevent disease – rather, by weakening immune systems, it increases it. The ‘war’ against disease vectors is similarly unsound – mosquitoes have not been killed off by the ‘war’ against malaria; their resistance to DDT has merely been strengthened.

The great microbiologist, Rene Dubos warned explicitly of this problem. The “elimination of one type of micro-organism”, he wrote, “simply creates better opportunities for other potential pathogens”. [6] Thus the pasteurisation of milk, for example, creates a sterile medium that is vulnerable to colonisation by a potential pathogen.

Raw milk, on the other hand, harbours a large number of different microorganisms providing only a small niche for the potential pathogenic invader to occupy. “It is far from certain”, wrote Dubos, “that trying to eliminate living species is a wiser and more effective course than learning to achieve peaceful coexistence with them through an understanding of their habits”. [7] To try to exterminate them he even refers to as a “Utopian strategy”.

Dubos noted, too, that

“more often than not humans can harbour all sorts of extremely dangerous bugs like salmonella and diphtheria with total impunity, while it is only in exceptional circumstances that they give rise to the diseases associated with them.” [8]

And that

“among people who live without sanitary facilities, polio viruses are ubiquitous and contaminate everyone; as a result, immunisation to them occurs spontaneously during the first months of life, and paralytic disease is rare. In our communities, sanitary practices minimise early contact with the polio viruses and thereby prevent the spontaneous development of immunity.”

What we have here, in other words, are diseases caused by hygiene. Too much hygiene, paradoxical though it may seem, is actually bad for us. Dubos summed up his position on this subject very clearly, and he is worth quoting it in full:

“The more important reason for the stubborn persistence of infection lies in our lack of understanding of the interrelationships between man and his biological environment. There are many forms of infectious diseases that are not prevented or cured by sanitation, vaccines, or drugs, and indeed are probably not amenable to control by these approaches . . . The microbial diseases most common in our communities today arise from the activities of microorganisms that are ubiquitous in the environment, persist in the body without causing any obvious harm under ordinary circumstances, and exert pathological effects only when the infected person is under conditions of physiological stress . . . This is the reason why the orthodox methods based on the classical doctrines of epidemiology, immunology, and chemotherapy are not sufficient to deal with the problem of endogenous disease.” [9]

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Time to wake up

Society is only just beginning to understand this. Thus we hear Dr John Warner of the Department of Child Health at Southampton University saying

“there is less and less dispute that the absence of dirt in our lives is responsible for the dramatic rise in asthma rates.” [5 percent of children were affected 20 years ago – today the figure is 20 percent.]

All the evidence in asthma research, he tells us, is beginning to make it clear that our relatively sterile lives fail to expose a baby, at the right time, to bacteria that should kick-start the immune system to fight off allergens.

Ironically, there is money to be made, too, in the realisation that we are now too sterile a society! A new veterinary medicine called ‘CF-3′, or ‘Pre-empt’, was recently launched which contains a mixture of ‘beneficial microbes’ that occur naturally in chickens, it was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the USA in 1998.

If one wished to be a purist, one could argue that Pre-empt is merely providing, in a contrived and expensive way, a measure of immunity against the action of pathogens that would be naturally transferred from a mother hen to her chicks anyway, if she were not isolated from them in her factory environment. The idea that the real solution might be to return to smaller-scale, more natural and indeed less hygienic methods of rearing chickens, if it occurred to the makers at all, was obviously not a popular one.

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Answers needed

Increasingly, any sensible person today must surely realise that industrial food production must be phased out, and phased out very quickly. At the same time, the appropriate regulatory measures must be taken to assure the re-emergence of a decentralised food production system in the hands of small independent farmers, cheese makers, bakers, butchers and grocers, geared to producing healthy, natural, organic foods, catering for a largely local market.

Significantly, both the German and the Italian ministers of Agriculture have recently stated that the era of industrial food production is now over. Not so in Britain, sadly, or elsewhere in the industrialized world. But the first steps have been tentatively taken. Now they must be followed by others.

The public appears to be increasingly ready for this transition. It is disenchanted with industrially produced food, and it has every reason to be. Sales of organic food are booming. The market for it in the UK is increasing at the rate of 40 percent per annum and will continue to increase, especially if the government cooperates in creating the right conditions, which it has totally failed to do in the UK in particular until now.

Only such a food production system is compatible with ensuring the health of the general public, providing a stable livelihood for a significant proportion of our population, and providing the economic infrastructure for a healthy community-based rural society. I will go further and say that only such a food production system can begin to satisfy basic biological, social, ecological and moral imperatives.

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1. Kai Mander & Alex Boston, in Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith, The Case Against The Global Economy, and For A Turn Towards The Local, 1996.
2. Fact Sheet No. 124, WHO/OMS 1998. Concept 23 May 2002.
3. Tim O’Brien, “Factory Farming and Human Health”, in The Ecologist Report p.30, June 2001.
4. Insight Team, International Herald Tribune, 7 December 2000.
5. Joanne Brown, “Crime, Commerce & Contagion. The Political Language Of Public Health and the Popularisation of Germ Theory in the United States, 1870 – 1950″. In: Ronald G. Walters, ed., Scientific Authority in the Twentieth Century”, p.10. John Hopkins University, Baltimore & London, 1997.
6. Nancy Tomes, The Gospel Of Germs, p.247. Harvard University Press, 1999.
7. Rene Dubos, Pacific World No. 55, July 1999.
8. Rene Dubos, Man Adapting. Longmans, 1962, p.110.
9. Rene Dubos, ibid., p.184.
10. Sarah Bosely, The Guardian 3 May 2000.
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