This column appeared originally in a June, 2001 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader.


A glowing food safety report announces we’ve gene-mapped the E-coli 157 bacterium responsible for some 20 deaths in the past 5 years. This is a step toward eliminating the illness entirely, by means of  – a vaccine! What a relief!

Americans have been titillated by food scares ever since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Along with revolting practices in meatpacking, it exposed an arrogant business mentality convinced it knew what was best for the country. Agribusiness today cultivates the same know-it-all image, with its tame university researchers and feed-the-starving-world statistics. Well, it bears responsibility for the horror stories, as well. 

Worried about mad-cow disease? Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE, develops in cattle fed on processed animal parts. The FDA has now banned use of these feeds. But why feed ground-up sheep brains to cows in the first place? To keep costs down, of course. So-called high-yield agriculture operates on such a narrow profit margin that even carcasses of animals which die before slaughter must be put to use.

Salmonella, not as scary as BSE, can still be lethal, and today’s large-scale poultry operations are a setup. To combat disease in confined flocks, chickens are fed antibiotics. Resistant bacteria evolve, requiring newer, naturally more expensive, antibiotics. Forced to economize, operations consolidate, meaning more cost-cutting, and ironically, greater food-safety risks. Cheap food requires cheap labor, and cheap labor cuts corners, for example, handwashing. You don’t want a factory farm across the road from your yuppie subdivision, but if you want $1.29# chicken and 89¢-dozen eggs, you’re keeping factory farms alive, along with your own food worries.

20 E-coli deaths are scary enough, but there are simpler solutions than gene-mapping. E-coli occurs naturally, and most often harmlessly, in cattle, and the deadly 157 strain did not emerge until it became routine to lace cattle feed with antibiotics. Pasture-fed cattle are not as subject to the risk as grain-fed. Cornell researchers have proposed that feeding hay for five days before slaughter would get rid of most of the E-coli.

But most cattle aren’t shipped straight from farm to slaughter. Apart from a few local operations, most go to feedlots, where the prime is put on their ribs with a concentrated grain diet. In typical agroeconomic irony, farmers are paid less(!) for fatter calves, because feedlots make their money putting weight on the animals. At their pennies-a-pound operating margins, they cannot afford to lose five days of grain feeding. Presumably they can afford to vaccinate cattle, but there’s no reason to assume that this won’t lead to more resistant E-coli.

That would be fine with bureacrats – they want a system they can keep regulating. The more problems arise – health, environmental, etc – the happier they are, because the broader their mission and the greater their job security. Pioneering sociologist Max Weber said any bureaucracy, within two years of its creation, will forsake its original purpose in favor of activities that perpetuate its own existence. The Department of Agriculture has been no exception to this maxim.</P

It’s said that if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Politicians deal in manipulated alarm and reassurance – oh, and spending money. So their problem isn’t really unhealthy, exploitive large-scale agriculture: it’s frightened voters. The solution doesn’t require an in-depth questioning of the assumptions of our farm program, just reassurance. Tell’em we’re spending a couple bil to establish a program to develop standards to ensure strict monitoring to enforce compliance, blah blah blah. 

On the other hand, if you’re well-informed and concerned about the impact of present-day farming methods, the solution is in your own hands. (Politicians hate that!) It is possible to buy chicken that’s free-ranged on a natural diet of greenery, insects and grain, and slaughtered one by one. Or beef from an integrated-operation farm that raises its own grain and hay, and has its cattle butchered locally.

Of course, it costs more. Organic pasture-fed beef costs an average of $4.50 a pound, free-range chicken $2.50, organic eggs between $2 and $4 a dozen. But At feedlot and factory-farm prices, you’re buying disease fear. At organic prices, consumers share only financial risk. Organic farmers are thus compensated for not using dead animals to feed live ones, or pumping their herds and flocks full of antibiotics. The choice: give money to politicians, pay bureacrat salaries and hear reassuring statistics (it’s always possible to produce reassuring statistics.) Or pay a farmer or local meat processor for beef or chicken raised in a natural and humane way, and slaughtered cleanly and safely. Which sounds like a better deal?