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The Unsafe Politics of Big Food Agriculture's Bullied Market

Agriculture’s Bullied Market

by JIM FRENCH

The dominant myth about democracy in the United States is that all sides may air points of view, and that through debate truth and justice will win out over power. But under the present regime, it seems the might of capital makes right.

Take the example of Creekstone Farms, a small meat processor that markets high-quality beef here and abroad.

In a move to restore beef sales to Japan that were lost after a U.S. animal with mad cow disease was identified last December, Creekstone requested the right to test all its cattle before slaughter. But after an outcry from U.S. Premium Beef, one of the four major beef packers, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Agriculture Department announced it would continue to ban the comprehensive testing proposed by Creekstone.

The major packers argue that testing every animal would be unreasonably expensive and could give too many false-positive results, hurting the market for U.S. beef. The Agriculture Department asserts that the international scientific consensus is that "100 percent testing is not justified."

The decision is hypocrisy for an agency that claims to promote sales of U.S. farm products. Creekstone is not demanding 100 percent testing of all U.S. beef. It only wants the right to test its own beef so it can sell to an established market in Japan using a standard higher than the minimum.

All it takes is some muscle flexing by the major packers, and independent producers are pushed out of a lucrative market.

The story echoes a previous experience. Europe does not allow meat from cattle given growth hormones, which are widely used in U.S. feedlots. When several states, including Texas and Minnesota, sought in the late 1980s to sell hormone-free beef to Europe, the Agriculture Department stopped them, saying this would call into question the safety and quality of American beef grown with hormones.

In both cases the effect for producers is the same. U.S. beef sales have not suffered from embargoes as much as they have from domestic prohibitions that serve the convenience and profits of the large corporations that market commodities and sell supplies to producers.

Beef producers aren’t the only ones pushed around by corporate might. Consider the case of genetically engineered wheat being developed by Monsanto. In survey after survey of both Canadian and U.S. producers, there is significant resistance to release of this herbicide-resistant crop. Europe and other export markets have said they will shun its import, just as they have restricted genetically modified corn and soybeans. And yet Monsanto, which earlier had sought both U.S. and Canadian approval, plows ahead to release the seed in America regardless of whether Canada approves.

In all of these cases we must question how the mantra of "sound science" is used to quash objections. Opponents of genetic manipulation, antibiotics in feed, hormones to boost milk production or cattle growth, and synthetic pesticides are often accused of being anti-science. But more often it seems money and corporate power dictate the technologies that dominate our food system, not impartial science.

In the past year, Americans have witnessed a massive campaign against country-of-origin labeling to protect large packers who indiscriminately blend imported and domestic ground beef. Now we behold rejection of the kind of cattle testing done in Japan and Europe because we don’t want to risk false-positive results or raise production costs. Japan tests all cattle, and Europe tests all animals older than 30 months.

It is time to recognize that the worship of profits over public safety and the common good should not dominate policy. Our nation insists on strict separation of church and state. We should likewise demand a clear separation between Big Food and the government, which is supposed to protect our health and environment — and our free marketplace.

JIM FRENCH, communications specialist for the Kansas Rural Center, farms and ranches in south-central Kansas. He wrote this essay for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.