Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Not—so—bon appetit (1989)

From the March 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

One thing is clear in all the fuss and confusion about salmonella in eggs, listeria in cheese and BSE in beef: the statements of, and advice from, ministers have not been fit for human consumption. There is nothing new in that: at the time when the radioactive cloud from Chernobyl passed over Britain, letting fall its lethal chemicals with the rain onto the sheep of North Wales and Cumberland, the then Minister of Agriculture was self-sacrificially emphatic about how harmless it was. He declared that he was going to spend that week-end “enthusiastically" eating British lamb. So far he has not grown two heads, but evidence has emerged that the meat in those parts was dangerous to eat then and will remain so years after the fall-out.

Although the most recent row became public with Edwina Currie's famous remark about how widespread salmonella is in egg production, that was by no means the beginning of the affair. Currie's reputation for valuing career-sustaining self publicity over facts made her vulnerable to the kind of assault which the farming interests launched on her. When we saw TV pictures of adorably fluffy chicks on their way to being gassed because of her ill-considered words, her fate was sealed.

But anyone with the most cursory acquaintance with what passes for farming and methods of the food industry had known for a long time about the active threats to health which they represented. There has been no shortage of information, available to anyone who wanted it, about the effects on cattle and on the people who eat beef of pumping the poor beasts full of hormones, not to cure them of some disease but to make them more copious producers of milk and beef. Yet another hormone — bovine somatropin — is now under test, although an unusually sensitive National Farmers' Union seems to be opposed to its use, presumably because they are anxious to avoid more bad publicity for their members.

Battery hens — quite apart from the sickening conditions in which they spend their brief, wretched lives — have long been known to be a source of salmonella poisoning, made worse by the fact that they have commonly been fed on the already diseased remains of slaughtered hens. That is why there have been warnings, albeit muted, about the need to cook chickens thoroughly and to avoid re-heating them.

So why didn't the government simply publicise the whole issue, a long time ago? Why didn't they tell us not to touch any intensively reared meat, or eggs from battery hens, or soft cheese? Or, more effective, why didn't they rush through parliament some sort of legislation to outlaw the production methods which cause the illnesses?

We saw the answers to these questions in the Currie affair. Intensive food production was developed because it is more profitable than the old, slower, less certain methods. The big drugs companies have enormous investments tied up in the production of the chemicals which the farmers shove into their animals. If enough people become scared of buying the food, demand for it can collapse to the point at which it becomes unprofitable to produce it. That may save a few lives and prevent a lot of very distressing sickness but it would play havoc with the profits of the farmers and the drug companies and that is not what the government is there for. Governments exist, not to look after the wellbeing of what is called the consumer — workers who spend their wages on the things they need to re-produce their energies — but to protect the profits of the class who own the means of production, which in this case means the farming industry. the food production firms and the drug companies.

That is why the first official reaction to the slightest breath of truth about something like salmonella in eggs is to rush to conceal the facts. If public pressure becomes so fierce that some of the facts must be allowed out they will often be so mangled and restricted as to be unreconcilable with the truth. This stubborn rearguard action can go on for a very long time, while workers endure painful and possibly fatal illnesses because of their ignorance of the facts.

The great food scandal brings us once again up against the reality that capitalism puts profits before people. Currie's big mistake was that, while she so ardently supports this social system, she allowed herself to voice a passing doubt about the effects of this principle. The penalty she paid, was a lot less distressing than what was endured by those who experienced what it meant from the business end of a sick-bed.

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