Agribusiness: Food Safety’s Greatest Enemy
By Luis R. Miranda
The Real Agenda
May 11, 2011
Misinformed people enjoy calling population growth the menace of the 21st century, especially when it is related to food availability. Although access to food is one of the most important issues that humanity faces today, the “food problem” has everything to do with its safety and nothing to do with the lack of it due to planetary overpopulation. The world has changed in many ways in the last fifty years and many of those changes have been for good, but many important ones for very bad. In the past, most countries produced their own food, and people were food independent. Today, a handful of corporations control the whole process of seed and food production and distribution. When it comes to food supply, perhaps there is a worse consequence than monopolistic practices and policies. Food, which is supposed to provide us with nutrition is actually making us sick and in many cases killing us.
In the United Kingdom, a bacteria called Campylobacter found in chickens causes diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain and cramping. Often times, it worsens and produces chronic, life-threatening, conditions. It is estimated that 85% of the chickens in the UK are infected. Meanwhile, in the United States, the Norovirus, which is transmitted through manipulation of food with dirty hands, as well as Salmonella, that infects people who ingest food with feces, cause vomiting and diarrhea, fever and cramps. These are only two examples of poor food management in what we call the “developed world”. But it gets worse in third world countries, where rules for food safety are less clear or simply ignored by the food industry.
In China, for example, a 2008 case of food contamination with melamine caused the death of six babies and made 300,000 others ill. The contamination occurred when melamine, and industrial chemical got into the milk supply. Back in the “developed world”, Germany had its own case of massive food poisoning with dioxin in some 4,000 farms around the country. A German company sold 200,000 tones of animal feed contaminated with dioxins and this feed was given to thousands of animals. Dioxins are poisons that cause cancer.
Although there is not a formal process to record food poisoning cases and other health threats carried around by tainted food, the data made available shows that food contamination is a common affair in most nations. Even countries that manage to have their own system to keep food clean from chemicals and natural born bacteria and viruses cannot avoid massive cases of poisoning among its citizens. In Singapore, 3 million people die every year as a result of food poisoning.
Unsafe to Eat
A recent assessment issued by GRAIN, an international non-profit organisation that reports on food safety issues around the world and whether a crop is suitable to eat or not, described a series of reasons to consider when determining food safety. “Bad practices (poor hygiene, animal abuse, reliance on antibiotics and pesticides), unproven or risky technologies (genetic modification, nanotechnology, irradiation, cloning), deliberate contamination (such as tampering), or just poor supervision” are just a few of the reasons why food arrives contaminated to your table. That is why a relevant matter with food safety has to do with the size of the corporations that produce the things we all eat. It is a fact that the industrialized food scheme that governs food production and distribution is the main cause of today’s food pollution. It all comes to size. If a small producer of meat or vegetables provides contaminated food, the impact is small, but if a large company that produces and distributes food all around the world manages its processes badly, the result is more often than not, thousands of people ill and many others dying as a consequence of tainted food.
Big scale production and distribution is one of the main causes of massive food poisoning. Not only are standards more difficult to enforce when a company produces large amounts of packed meat or grains, but also it is likely those companies are not as concerned with enforcing practices that guarantee good hygiene and work security, for example. The quantity of product that enters and exits a meat packing plant or a grain processing facility makes it almost impossible to keep an eye on every single item that circulates in and out. The policies that govern large producing units are to receive, pack and send out as much of the product as possible.
Where are the regulators?
In one sentence, government regulators are usually in bed with Big Corp. It is not realistic to believe that bureaucrats who oversee food safety are simply unaware of problems with the production and distribution of food, although that is usually the excuse given by them and the government to justify their inaction. There is plenty of proof that both government agencies and corporations are continuously colluding to avoid enforcing the laws that protect consumers. Almost every new law passed regarding food safety opens a new door for the food industry to untie a regulation and produce food their own way. Take for example the case of raw milk. Milk is processed through pasteurization and homogenization literally everywhere. Countries that have not banned the sale and consumption of raw milk are currently working on legislation to do it. Milk processing is needed, governments and corporations say, to avoid the ingestion of bacteria that may exist in the milk when it is raw. However, it is also true that milk pasteurization and homogenization simply kills all nutrients that natural raw milk has. Did anyone say calcium deficiency pandemic? Osteoporosis? There is a pill to solve those problems of course.
Raw milk is one of the most important sources of nutrition for poor folks around the world. It is one of a few affordable sources of nutrition and it can be easily boiled at home to guarantee its safety. So why are governments enforcing laws or regulations that ban raw milk? They are effectively creating and imposing regulations sent to them by the World Trade Organization, an institution that works for the international food cartel that controls most of the production and distribution of food. Other reasons commonly given to justify banning the sale of raw milk is the idea that it will help modernize the dairy industry, which in turn will bring benefits because the companies will be able to compete with others that import and export milk and other products. None of this is true. The real reason is that countries affiliated to the WTO are mandated to adhere to its regulations if they want to have a chance to participate in so called Free Trade Agreements. Free Trade Agreements are tools used by the corporations to amass control over most if not all productive activities. Truly, food safety policies have little to do with public health and everything to do with complete control of market, monopolies, profits and dominance.
Free Trade Agreements are the materialization of monopolistic controls executed by multilateral organizations on behalf of Big Corp. The negotiation rounds that are held often within a country or at the WTO’s headquarters regarding food production, are dealt with as matters of commerce and not as issues related to science or food accessibility. Around the world, corporations dictate more and more what is allowed as a practice for food production and manipulation and what isn’t. GRAIN cites the cases of companies that feed cows with animal parts as a way to provide protein to them. This practice in many cases leads to Mad Cow Disease, but it is still permitted in countries like the Unites States and Japan. Another case is that of ractopamine, a substance given to pigs to promote their growth. This element is added to their feed. In a rare siding with food safety, even countries like China and whole regions like the European Union, that together produce around 70 percent of the world’s supply of pork, banned its use in meat. Other countries like the U.S. continue to use ractopamine in the feed given to pigs, turkeys, chickens and cows. The U.S. government not only allows its use but often times defends the producer of ractopamine, Eli Lilly and its meat exports from being banned in countries with whom it has trade agreements. Not only are American consumers being contaminated with this chemical, but also every person in every country that accepts American pork, beef, turkey and chickens.
Free Trade Agreements as Tools to Impose Corporate Regulations
In the last 3 decades, Free Trade Agreements have become the default tool used by Big Corp and enabled by the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization to enforce their rules and carry out their game. It all began back in the 80’s with negotiations known as GATT. Later came the free trade agreements between Europe and Latin American countries and others between North America and Latin American countries such as ALCA, CAFTA and NAFTA. Contained in those agreements are all kinds of tricks written by the corporations to definitely manipulate and control markets. This is so, because there are few restrictions as related to what can be commercialized. The goal that all the previous negotiations had in common was that they promoted the exchange of the cheapest goods at the lowest prices. This would be positive if it wasn’t because cheap goods mean contaminated food, endless abuses to labor laws and laborers and the conquest of global markets by a few corporations that now decide what is produced, sold, bought, tariffed, quotaed, and who want to “protect” everything, including what is not theirs, against “theft” by using absurd intellectual property laws that are attached to all trade agreements.
Free Trade Agreements have nothing to do with free trade, benefiting consumers or enabling the growth of small or mid-size farmers. What the corporations that control governments around the world want is a free pass to invade all markets and produce everything we eat and use, so everyone else but them is dependent on products made across the world for their survival. As GRAIN cites it, free trade agreements are mechanisms to create backdoors used to limit market access. These agreements do nothing to promote or guarantee food safety or public health, but to assure the corporations unlimited growth and gigantic profit margins. Companies achieve market monopolies by creating policies that although inexplicably ridiculous, are accepted as the standard around the world. These policies are adapted to limit fair competition in every country in a way that only those countries where the big corporations run or have an interest in, are allowed to actually exchange anything.
The European Union banned Indian fish imports because the producers did not comply with European rules such as that fish processing facilities had to be sanitized with potable water, even though India lacks the infrastructure to provide clean water to most of its population. In Tanzania, fishermen had the same experience. They used to get 80 percent of their income from Europe, but after the E.U. banned their product, the fishermen had no market for it. Uganda also suffered a similar outcome. The Ugandan case cost the country $40 million in loses. So how did Europe manage to eat fish? Corporations such as Pescanova moved into Africa and began to serve the european market. Once it installed itself in the continent, the company acquired the whole production and distribution business.
The Case for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)
What could be more unsafe to eat than genetically modified organisms that have been proven, time after time, to be harmful to humans and animals. Regardless of conclusive evidence that GMO’s are dangerous to our health, government agencies around the world continue to authorize the use of genetically modified ingredients in the food supply. Not only that, they also refuse to label the products that contain GMO’s alleging it is unfair to the companies that manufacture them and that it may actually be confusing for consumers. In the case of GMO salmon, for example, the pro GMO industry says salmon should not be labeled because their product is identical to the wild salmon. The same is true for other products such as corn, soy, milk and vegetables. The thought that a well informed consumer is the best tool for strong businesses just doesn’t do it anymore for Big Corp. As far as they are concerned, a pool of consumers with the least information possible, is the best scenario to carry out their business practices. A diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks details how the Bush administration pressured the government of France to ease their concerns about genetically modified organisms. The cable read:
“we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU since this [acceptance of GMOs] is a collective responsibility, but that also focuses in part on the worst culprits “. The list should be measured rather than vicious and must be sustainable over the long term, since we should not expect an early victory”.
This push to impose the use of genetically modified organisms is a clear example of how Big Corp exercises its control of governments so giants like Monsanto, DuPont, ConAgra, Cargill and other biotechnology corporations have no interruptions in countries that may want to ban GM seeds or foods, or require labels that inform consumers. Along with France, the corporations that control the United States government also mine the sovereignty of third world countries that have no say over the safety practices utilized in the production, import and export of food crops in their own land. As it happens in developed countries, third world nations are also ordered to “relax” their opposition to GMO’s and to eliminate any “exageration” of the risks that come with the use and consumption of GMO’s. With the creation and implementation of Codex Alimentarius, Big Corp has been strengthened even more. The set of regulations contained in the Codex Alimentarius documents make it clear that neither the corporations nor the transnational agencies that govern food safety and global health are interested in healthy humans or safe food. In fact, it is through Codex Alimentarius that the corporations intend to control the natural foods and supplement markets, by banning natural food production and commercialization and substituting it with laboratory created pharmaceutical products labeled as “natural supplements”.
Codex Alimentarius is the United Nations and World Health Organization’s FrankenScience to push Restrictions on what you are allowed to eat. Since the 1960´s there is a concerted effort not only to limit the choices we as consumers and human beings have in order to take care of our health, but also to restrict the access to food itself as we know it. Codex Alimentarius (Codex for short) means “Food Code.” This world food code is a United Nations agency, jointly sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). It has existed for nearly 50 years and its international statute gives it a joint mission: protecting food safety and promoting world food trade. It is supposed to do so by adopting voluntary guidelines and standards (defining foods in international trade) and its decisions are enforced through the World Trade Organization (WTO) which considers its guidelines and standards as presumptive evidence in WTO trade disputes. It has become a creature of the Bigs – Big Govt, Big Agra, Big Pharma… etc.
In order to understand what Codex Alimentarius is, one needs to know it has nothing to do with consumer protection as its charter says. Such statement is just a catchy phrase to have the people and the nations approve its implementation. “Codex Alimentarius” means “food rules” in Latin. The plan was born in 1962 when the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) was founded by the U.N. to supposedly facilitate trade relations. In reality, it was created to regulate and control the way in which food and nutrition are guided and how products are sold to people. It is indeed all about the profits of multi-national corporations. The relation is very simple: the more natural products people use, the less profits the pharmaceutical corporations make. Codex Alimentarius was created to protect Big Pharma´s profits through the elimination of natural health products and treatments. What is more alarming at this point is that Codex was approved on December 31st, 2009. After this plan was signed, it was mandated on all member countries through its approval by Congresses around the world; a lot like the Copenhagen Treaty.
Superbugs within Big Corp
Superbugs are bacteria that developed an ability to fight antibiotics. Examples of superbugs first appeared in Europe in the 60’s and since then they spread freely around the world. In the United States, deaths from the MRSA superbug infections reached 17,000 in 2005. A survey conducted in 2007 found that ST398, a new version of MRSA, was present in 39% of pigs and 81% of local piggeries in the Netherlands. Further research has found that MRSA is in at least two thirds of the farms located in E.U. member countries. In studies conducted around Europe, researchers found that Spain and Germany were two of the countries with the highest incidence of MRSA in their farms; with over 40% of pigs testing positive for MRSA. That is why it does not come as a surprise that the Europeans send most of their pork meat overseas. According to the University of Guelph, a study of pigs in Ontario, Canada, showed that ST398 was present in a quarter of local pigs, and one-fifth of the pig farmers that were tested.
A Superbug’s ability to resist antibiotics, as it happens with humans, occurs due to the heavy use of this product in animals. According to the Union for Concerned Scientists, livestock in the United States consume about 80 percent of the antibiotics that are sold in that country. Meanwhile, in China the number ascends to 50 percent of the animals. A report from February 2011 on the Sydney Morning Herald reveals that in Germany, livestock are given three times more antibiotics than the amount humans consume. The existence and spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the so called factory farms is the main cause of food poisoning cases, which are spurred by the use of antibiotics that are fed to animals.
The Walmartization of Food
If Monsanto, ConAgra, Cargill and other bio-tech giants are known for their desire to conquer the seed and food market, Walmart may be seen as their equivalent when it comes to the supermarket fad. Food that is delivered to most places today goes directly through and depends on the connections made by big chain supermarkets. Long gone are the days when the producer himself went out to sell his apples, bananas, pineapples or carrots. Today, transnational companies like Walmart and Carrefour control the supply of food to most areas of the planet. This corporations not only transport and distribute the food we eat, but also decide what is produced and what is not, where the products go, when they are shipped and what prices they will have when you grab them from your local supermarket shelf. Large supermarket chains indeed control global food markets.
Walmart’s annual sales reach $405 billion, which is more than the gross domestic product of nations like Argentina, Norway, Greece and Denmark. The corporate success that this number represents has prompted more supermarket chains to put their eyes in regions of the world they can exploit either as a production spot, usually by monopolizing the production and distribution of food, or by securing the purchase of food that is produced cheaply and under their own guidelines. Big retailers like Tesco, Walmart, Carrefour and Lotte are currently acquiring or negotiating their operations in India, China, Brazil and Indonesia. These and other third world nations that still rely on the traditional door to door, street fair sale of food staples, co-ops and local or regional wholesalers for the nutrition of their population. What the big chain supermarkets want to do is go in and cheaply buy their way into those markets by signing contracts with producers, distributors and local supermarkets so they can control the food production and distribution. Once they manage to absorb the markets, Big Corp chains impose their own models and establish the same standards and rules they mandated everywhere else. The direct and immediate consequence of this practice is the start of a new line of dependent consumers who will no longer be able to plant, pick or sell their food. Dependence is the name of the game.
As if one hungry supermarket chain wasn’t bad enough for the consumer, these large corporations also work as a cartel. They meet and define what the standards for the industry will be so that they continue to be what they are and continue to control it all. As Barry Harper puts it in his book “Breaking the chain: the antitrust case against Wal-Mart”, the power and size of the corporations are two of the many weapons they have to influence the global food system. Imagine what they can accomplish when working together against a country, a local supermarket in a third world nation or a small farmer. These companies simply have the power and ability to tell suppliers, farmers and food processors what the rules of the game are going to be. The power that food corporations have is so significant that governments are capable of putting their profit making scheme first, and the health of the people second, when it comes to food safety. An example of this is the ban the United States imposed on Mexican cantaloupes due to contamination with Salmonella in 2002. After a round of negotiations between the governments of both countries, which of course counted with the participation of Big Corp, the ban was lifted after a new “program” attached to a new bureaucracy was created. The creation of this new set of rules did nothing to guarantee the safety of the cantaloupes, because the farmers did not provide toilet facilities or water analyses as the new program requested. In fact 94 percent of the farms did not have portable toilets and 88 percent of them used water from rivers to supply their plantations.
Doing away with the local farmer
The agro-colonization of the world by a handful of corporations seems to have the same common denominator everywhere: the disappearance of the farmer. Supermarket giants have many ways to force themselves into new markets, or to increase their share of those markets. The invasion of Big Corp supermarkets in the southern hemisphere converted developing countries in sources of food for the rest of the world and in many cases made those very same regions dependent on big chain supermarket’s capacity and willingness to supply food to them. Because large supermarket chains have the prerogative to decide how much they pay for the food they buy, the standards producers must follow, the delivery timetables, the distribution procedures and so on, it is easy for them to manipulate local, regional and national markets. But when they don’t get their way, supermarkets are capable of importing fruit and vegetables from across the planet in order to drive small or mid-size competitors off the market. Many times, large supermarket chains use false advertising in order to maintain or increase the flow of customers to their shops. For example, when Walmart invaded Central America by purchasing local food chains, the company decided to maintain their original names due to the fact Walmart was already known in those places for its bad reputation abroad.
What this kind of falsehood allows is to keep controlling the demand and supply of food using different names. This practice gives large chains enough time to settle down and absorb more customers until they decide to reveal themselves. But controlling food markets is not only about window dressing. Large supermarket chains don’t even have to establish themselves in a country in order to control the food supply. So called partnerships with producers and distributors can be established from abroad so the food business is monopolized from within. A whole city or country may experience lack of rice or beans, for example, not because they aren’t available, but because they are stored in large supermarket bodegas where they await to be shipped overseas to whomever pays the price the supermarkets want. How does this practice affect farmers? Although the price farmers receive for their grains, fruit or vegetables may be considered fair at some point, in many cases those same farmers could have obtained better yields if they had sold them to local buyers instead of selling to the large supermarkets. The artificial scarcity that food corporations cause by storing food until someone decides to pay what they want is what causes price speculation, which in turn makes it more difficult for more people to feed themselves and their families. In addition, some farmers are held hostage to promises of future purchases while they wait to receive payment for current or older sales to the big chain supermarkets.
In many countries of Asia and Latin America, farmers do not have the cash to start a new planting season because the payment they received does not meet the new costs; and if it does, there is little money left as profit. When the large supermarket chains are not the ones exploiting local farmers, the local supermarket chains take on that role. The tough competition national or regional chains get when fighting against transnational corporations for a share of the market, turns local, regional and national supermarkets into the predators. Competition is such that the national companies that were business partners in the past, suddenly adopt Big Corp’s model and transform the farmers in a group of agro-colonized workers. This is the case with ShopRite of South Africa and DMA in Brazil.
In China, where supermarkets are expanding at a furious pace, these trends are biting hard. The major supermarket chains, both foreign and domestic, are working hand-in-glove with suppliers and local governments to develop farms to supply fruit and vegetables. As part of a drive to improve food safety and integrate its 700 million small-scale farmers into “high value food chains” with “scientific methods of farming”, the Chinese government has been pursuing the establishment of fruit- and vegetable-growing bases in partnership with the private sector. In each of these designated production zones, local authorities negotiate deals with private companies whereby the company comes in, leases an area of land from the farmers currently occupying it, or acquires their land use rights, and then sets up large-scale production, hiring the displaced farmers as labourers or in contract production arrangements.- Food Safety Briefing
We don’t have to eat the way Big Corp says
The movement to firmly reject the current food safety policies and the corporate business model that is imposed on consumers is a reason for hope. United States produced meat is not accepted by people in Taiwan, Australia, Japan or South Korea. The melamine intoxication in China woke up thousands of others in that country and millions outside the chinese land to reject melamine contaminated milk. In all of Latin America, Europe and some parts of the United States there are growing loud voices that question the current industrial system used to produce, distribute and sell food. The cases of food poisoning with Salmonella, mad cow disease, superbugs and genetically modified organisms spurred the creation and growth of grassroots groups that are becoming the guardians of food safety and that call for better agricultural practices that replace the current agro-colonial policies created by Big Corp and enabled by corrupt governments and international organizations. In Korea, the people’s resistance towards U.S. Beef resulted in massive questioning of their supposed representative democracy. In Oceania, Australians campaign to regain control of their food system as more people find out more and more consumers share their desire to manage their lifestyle, which of course includes their food supply. As for GMO, the number of citizen groups around the world are as numerous and diverse as the cultures they represent.
One, however, seems to be the common goal of most of these groups: overcoming the social, economic, health and environmental challenges that the industrial food system model has brought upon the populations. More co-ops of organic, locally grown food are appearing even in developed countries, where Big Corp has a strong handle on the food market. Local groups continue to organize campaigns to expose the dangers of genetically modified organisms, industrially produced pork, beef and turkey. Supermarkets that adopt a more environmentally friendly approach to agriculture, farms and farmers are attracting more customers. But perhaps more important than all of this is the fact that more people now understand that food independence is one of the main goals anyone should pursue. New educational campaigns are launched explaining the concept of food sovereignty and the right of the people to healthy food. One of the keys to food independence and safe environmental practices is to avoid agricultural models that promote the plantation and commercialization of one single crop, such as soy, corn, sugar and others. Food diversity in naturally fertilized soils is what proves to be the most effective model to guarantee that there will be food available for anyone who needs it. The creation and promotion of local associations or cooperatives that employ local workers for the cultivation and harvest of locally grown fruits, vegetables and meat continue to yield the best results for people around the world. Local food production is the only way to guarantee safety, fair prices and food availability that has the potential to end with hunger anywhere and everywhere.
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