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The Food Safety Shell Game

What isn’t being discussed in Congress, during the ongoing debate on the broken federal food safety system, is the root cause of the most serious pathogenic outbreaks in our food—the elephant (poop) in the room.

The relatively new phenomena of nationwide pathogenic outbreaks, be they from salmonella or E. coli variants, are intimately tied to the fecal contamination of our food supply and the intermingling of millions of unhealthy animals. It’s one of the best kept secrets in the modern livestock industry.

Mountains of manure are piling up at our nation’s mammoth industrial-scale “factory farms.” Thousands of dairy cows and tens of thousands of beef cattle are concentrated on feedlots; hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of chickens are confined in henhouses at one location for the production of eggs and meat.

Livestock producing manure is nothing new. But the epic scale of animal numbers at single locations and the incredible volumes of animal waste is a recipe for disaster. It eclipses anything that was happening on old McDonald’s farm.

Feces carrying infectious bacteria transfer to the environment and into our food supply. Feeding heavily subsidized corn and soybeans to cattle, instead of grazing the ruminants on grass, as they were genetically designed to do, changes the pH in their digestive tracts, creating a hospitable environment for pathogenic E. coli to breed. The new phenomenon of feeding “distillers grains” (a byproduct of the ethanol refining industry) is making this risk even more grave.

The current near-nationwide contamination in the egg supply can be directly linked to industrial producers that confine millions of birds, a product of massive, centralized breeding, in manure-rich henhouses, and feeding the birds a ration spiked with antibiotics. These are chickens that the McDonald family would likely have slaughtered on the farm because they were “sickly.”

Thirteen corporations each have more than 5 million laying hens, and 192 companies have flocks of more than 75,000 birds. According to the industry lobby group, United Egg Producers (UEP), this represents 95% of all the laying hens in the United States. UEP also says that “eggs on commercial egg-laying farms are never touched until they are handled by the food service operator or consumer.” Obviously, their approach been ineffective and their smokescreen is not the straight poop.

In addition to our national dependence on factory farms, the meatpacking industry, like egg production, has consolidated as well to more easily service the vast numbers of animals sent to slaughter from fewer locations. Just four companies now control over 80% of the country’s beef slaughter. Production line speed-ups have made it even harder to keep intestinal contents from landing in hamburger and meat on cutting tables.

All of these problems are further amplified by the scope of the industrial-scale food system. Now, a single contamination problem at a single national processing facility, be it meat, eggs, spinach or peanut butter, can virtually infect the entire country through their national distribution model.

As an antidote, consumers are voting with their pocketbooks by purchasing food they can trust. They are encouraging a shift back towards a more decentralized, local and organic livestock production model. Witnessing the exponential growth of farmers markets, community supported farms, direct marketing and supermarket organics, a percentage of our population is not waiting for government regulation to protect their families.

The irony of the current debate on improving our federal food safety regulatory infrastructure, now centered in the Senate, is that at the same time the erosion of FDA/USDA oversight justifies aggressive legislation, the safest farmers in this country, local and organic, might be snared in the dragnet—the proposed rules could disproportionally escalate their costs and drive some out of business.

While many in the good food movement have voiced strong concerns about the pending legislation—it’s sorely needed—corporate agribusiness, in pursuit of profit, is poisoning our children!

When Congress returns to Washington, we have no doubt that food safety legislation, which has languished for months, will get fast-tracked. In an election-year our politicians don’t want to be left with egg on their face.

We only hope that Senators will seriously consider not just passing comprehensive reform but incorporating an amendment sponsored by John Tester (D-MT), a certified organic farmer himself, that will exempt the safest farms in our country—small, local direct marketers. We need to allocate our scarce, limited resources based on greatest risk.

Farmers and ranchers milking 60 cows, raising a few hundred head of beef, or free ranging laying hens (many times these animals have names not numbers), offer the only true competition to corporate agribusinesses that dominate our food production system.

Mark Kastel and Will Fantle are codirectors of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin.

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