The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

"Mad Cow" Disease:
Food Security and Capitalist Insecurity

Jan 4, 2001

The following article was translated from an article that appeared in the January 2001 issue of Lutte de Classe, the political magazine of the French Trotskyist organization, Lutte Ouvrière. It discusses the development of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ("mad cow" disease) in Europe. While apparently this disease has so far not been discovered in the United States, it could easily show up here, given the international ties of trade and the same lack of real control here over the sanitary conditions in which food is produced. Capitalism, after all, shares the same drive for profits everywhere, leading to the same lack of concern for safety and health everywhere. Furthermore, while "mad cow" disease may not yet have shown up here, we are regularly exposed to hormones in meat, the affect of which on human health is apt to be as devastating as "mad cow" disease may turn out to be in Europe.

On October 21st, the French company Carrefour recalled all beef on sale from 40 of its supermarkets. It did so after an admission that beef coming from a herd which had at least one animal contaminated by Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) had been put on the market. Within a month’s time, consumption of beef in France had fallen by 30% to 50%. Since then, public authorities have been studying how to regain consumer confidence and bring beef sales back up to their previous level rather than how to guarantee food security.

Since the first crisis when beef unfit for consumption was sold in 1996, neither the governments of the European states nor European Community authorities have taken the steps necessary to eradicate sanitary risks.

The French government is now frantically trying to repair consumer confidence in order to put a stop to the fall in sales. But this is not so easy, given official silence and even lies which masked the danger for so long. Consumers quite rightly fear that their health may be threatened in some way or another, especially since scientists still have no means to cure this disease when it is transmitted to humans; nor do they even have a way to check its development.

For years now, infected animals have been entering the food chain without us knowing it, and they will continue to do so for some time still. The probability that any individual who consumes beef would be contaminated by prions, (the agent which causes BSE) is small, but the risk nevertheless does exist. Since the beginning of the crisis in Great Britain, experts have discovered 180,000 proven cases of BSE in animal, but they estimate that between 500,000 and a million contaminated animals have gone into the food chain. Of the 89 human cases discovered so far in Europe, 85 are in Great Britain. The most optimistic estimates of the number of people contaminated in Great Britain range between 100 and 6000 cases no one can be sure at this point since it can take several decades for the illness to be discovered. The most pessimistic estimates put the number of possible cases at about 136,000 people infected. As of December 2000, three cases had been recorded in France. These have resulted in two deaths, with the third person on the verge of death.

The scientists who have studied this problem declare that it is impossible even to determine whether any beef without prions exists in Europe today. It is simply impossible to know the extent to which European cattle are contaminated today. The existing tests can detect only animals whose nervous systems are already severely affected. There is no 100% guarantee that the others including even those whose test results show no signs of contamination are free of the disease. To take an example: every year in France, between five and six million cattle are slaughtered for consumption; even if they were all tested, this would provide no absolute guarantee since among these five or six million cattle there will be a number which test free of the disease but which are in reality contaminated.

Thus in some of the richest countries in Europe England, France and Germany which pretentiously claim to be among the most civilized, the most highly educated and the richest in the world, the population is starting to realize that they do not know what they have been made to eat by those who are in control politically and economically. The population is overcome by fear and with good reason in the face of this food insecurity, and the risks for which there exists no solution at present.

In food production, as in all other domains of capitalist society, the laws of the market interpose themselves between human needs and the material capacity to satisfy these needs. In the capitalist system only profit counts. This is the crux of the matter. The development in recent years of agriculture and more particularly of cattle production as well as the development of the "mad cow" crisis illustrate this point.

The Evolution of Cattle Raising and of Beef Production

In a number of regions throughout the world, the improvement in the population’s standard of living has gone hand in hand with an increase in meat consumption. In France, meat consumption doubled between 1965 and 1980, and this led to a growth in cattle raising. French breeders today have around 20 million cattle. Not all these animals are sent directly to the butcher: 4,400,000 are raised for dairy production and another four million are cows still suckling calves, that is, more than eight million animals which won’t enter the food chain for a number of years; while 11 million cattle are bred directly for their meat.

Over the past thirty years cattle raising has increased and intensified. The number of farmers combining other agricultural activities with cattle production has fallen as intensive raising has come to the fore (not only of cattle but also of pigs and chickens).

Between 1970 and 1997, the number of cattle producers decreased by two thirds from more than a million to slightly more than 300,000, yet at the same time the number of cattle decreased by only 5.8%. The average producer raised 64 animals, more than 3 times as much as in 1970.

In 1993 in the whole European Union, there were over 82 million cattle, mainly in France (20 million), Germany (16 million) and Great Britain (around 12 million).

In 1998, Europe’s 15 member states produced around 8 million tons of butchered beef, of which 21% came from France, 18% from Germany, 15% from Italy and 12% from Great Britain. The young steer, slaughtered at 24, 30 or 36 months, counted for the majority of the meat production. Financial incentives given to cattle producers, according to the rules set by the European Union, encouraged this type of raising which is suited to fattening up cattle in large stables.

Searching for feed richer in elements that favor development and weight gain while shortening the raising time of animals, cattle producers tried different ingredients: vitamins, antibiotics, hormones and, after the latter had been forbidden, meat-and-bone meal. This latter appeared to be very efficient in increasing muscle tissue and thus meat. It was, at the same time, cheaper than vegetable proteins and more efficient. At the beginning of the nineties, no one questioned what consequences this development might have. The animals grew quicker and meat-and-bone meal, cheaper than other food such as that made from imported soy beans provided a use for the remains from slaughterhouses or from sick, dead or injured animals which had been declared unfit for human consumption. The "remains" represent 30% to 40% of the weight of the living animal. This meat-and-bone meal provided an additional profit and every industry benefitted: breeders, slaughterhouses and the packing industry. A number of years passed before the danger became apparent and even more before the first preventative measures were taken.

Facing the Crisis Half-Measures and Beating around the Bush

The first affected cattle were registered between 1982 and 1985, but it was not until November 1986 in Great Britain that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy was really identified as a degenerative disease of the central nervous system caused by infectious agents called "prions," that is, normal protein molecules which become infectious when folded into abnormal shapes. Studies carried out by British veterinary surgeons came to the conclusion that this disease resulted from cattle being fed with meat-and-bone meal made from the carcasses of infected animals.

Thus, at the end of 1986, at the very minimum, measures should have been taken to ban meat-and-bone meal for all animals being raised, if only as a preventive measure. This was not done, and the illness developed rapidly. The policies of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party government in the eighties played a role in this affair. The British government had already loosened up regulations on veterinary inspection services and at the same time privatized them, thereby giving private slaughterhouses and export companies a direct control over the veterinary surgeons who were supposed to be inspecting them. It seems obvious that they were under more pressure to serve the interests of private capital, resulting in more lax inspection of the slaughterhouses. Furthermore for reasons of "economy," regulations were changed allowing lower temperature and less pressure to be used in processing the meal. This resulted in less destruction of the BSE agent which was already very resistant. In Great Britain, by the end of 1987, 136 cases of BSE were registered; by October of 1997, a total of 170,326 cases had been registered since the beginning of the epidemic. Up to date 276 cases have been registered in Switzerland, 217 in Ireland, 74 in Portugal and 28 in France.

As early as 1986, the member states of the European Union were informed that the British cattle herds, widely nourished on meat-and-bone meal, were massively infected by prions and that there were also infected cats that had eaten cat food made of cattle scraps.

In July 1988 the British government decided to ban meat-and-bone meal in feed for cud-chewing animals (cattle, sheep and goats). In 1989, the European Union took the first measures restricting the export of British cattle, and France, in particular, banned the import of British cattle and of British meat-and-bone meal .... but there was no ban on importing meat until May 1996. This was not the only time that half measure were taken by the French authorities.

It was not until July 1990, that meat-and-bone meal was banned for cattle feed in France, and this ban was not extended to include all cud-chewing animals until December 1994. This "deliberate" slowness was not due to a lack of knowledge over the seriousness of the illness, but rather due to accommodation with the commercial and industrial interests which were at stake.

Furthermore, violations of the bans were numerous. In France, as in Great Britain, the failures and the inefficiency of government inspections meant that contamination continued even after the bans. Due to negligence or deliberate fraud, the illness was propagated throughout Europe and then worldwide. In France BSE showed up in animals born after 1990, the year in which the decision was made to ban meat-and-bone meal in cattle feed. This shows, at the least, that there was cross contamination, coming from meat-and-bone meal destined for pigs and poultry having been mixed with that for cattle. Between 1993 and 1996, a long time after the import ban, hundreds of thousands of tons of British meat-and-bone meal feed were imported fraudulently into France, Germany and probably other countries too. In 1997, the customs services discovered operations for laundering British meat-and-bone meal, destined for France in particular. From 1997 to 1999, sample testing of cattle feed showed numerous samples with meat-and-bone meal in it. In 1999, a national veterinary board report stated that "almost all factories manufacturing feed for pigs or poultry as well as for cattle present or have presented risks of cross contamination."

Faced with the fall-off in beef sales, that is to say, facing a real strike of consumers, the French government finally, on the 14th of November 2000, banned (actually, it only suspended and that for 6 months only) the use of meat-and- bone meal, as well as the fat produced by the rendering of bones, in feed for all livestock without exception, including pigs, poultry, fish, etc. BUT the manufacture of this meal was not banned.

In fact, until very recently, the most elementary precautions for raising animals for human consumption were often not taken, and the half measures which were taken left considerable room for maneuver, with a total disrespect for public health and in total impunity.

Profits before Public Health

In the current crisis, the industrial manufacturers of animal feed are never publicly mentioned although they stand in the front rank of those responsible for the gravity of the situation. The meat-and-bone meal in question is produced from animal carcasses, meat and bones collected from slaughterhouses and from the bodies of cattle unsuitable for human consumption. This is a very lucrative business since the raw material is virtually free (except for the cost of transport) and the workers who process it work in small industrial units around the countryside, being paid low wages. There are only a few such companies in France, treating between them more than three million tons of such scraps annually. Furthermore, two companies, subsidiaries of two large international financial groups, control the national market: Saria Industries, with half of the total, and Caillaud, with another quarter. The remainder is treated by regional companies. The meal is then sold to manufacturers of animal feed (which are affiliated in one way or another to the same international financial groups) who then mix them with grain used as feed. These are companies such as Glon-Sanders (the number one animal food manufacturer in France with an annual production of 2.7 million tons), SNC Guyomarch etc. The least one can say is that they carry out their operations in complete secrecy, as far as consumers are concerned.

In January 2000, the European Commission adopted a white paper on food security which included an action plan aimed at "improving European food legislation." This plan is interesting because it highlights certain deficiencies. It requests that different categories of products used for animal feed (additives, supplements, medicinal products) be defined, that regulations be drawn up for evaluating, authorizing and labeling of new animal feed. It also calls for the suppression of antibiotics for speeding up the growth process in animals. Finally, the Commission piously "wishes" that there be an inquiry into the responsibility of the industrial companies in this matter. A reform drawn up by the European Commission, concerning the fifteen member states of the European Union, aims at making it "obligatory to register all companies in the food sector which will be given a number allowing their products to be identified all through the chain from manufacturing to commercialization." Up to now, it has not been possible to trace products, so industrial companies could easily escape sanitary controls. This does not mean that the situation will radically change overnight.

We had to wait for the current crisis to learn that industrial companies producing this feed had only to indicate in a decreasing order the ingredients used for each product, and only by general category. Governments today may be talking about "traceability," but detailed labeling stating the exact origin and quantity of ingredients used for animal feed has never been obligatory. A report drawn up by the French Senate dated November 23 justified this lack of information in the following way: "Manufacturers of animal feed have always opposed any requirement to mention the percentage of each ingredient used, since these percentages are, according to them, difficult to respect due to both technical and economical reasons. The quantity of ingredients used varies according to prices which are regularly subject to fluctuations. Furthermore, the mention of the exact quantity of each ingredient could be detrimental to the notion of industrial secrets."

A Dangerous System for Humanity

Because consumers are boycotting beef, spontaneously applying this "precautionary measure," the entire industrial and commercial chain is worried....and multiplying declarations which are anything but sincere.

Public powers minimize the importance of the epidemic, the French Secretary of Consumer Affairs even declared, in substance, during a recent television program "we should not exaggerate, since there is no such thing as a zero risk"! The largest cattle raisers guarantee that their animals eat grasses from the fields even though, in order to speed up and finish off their development, they are fattened up in stables with feed made, of course, only from vegetable ingredients. Agricultural and food processing industries swear they have always respected the regulations concerning the import and use of meat-and-bone meal. Manufacturers of food products (such as ravioli, sauces etc.) and giant distribution companies which are supplied by the former claim they guarantee total "traceability" of their products which they cover with labels, logos, emblems etc. of all kinds. Only the companies which manufacture the feed keep quiet. In 1999, the European Commission published a report on these companies condemning their use of banned ingredients in the manufacture of meat-and-bone meal. These unscrupulous companies will nonetheless benefit from the state aid now being handed out to those affected economically by the present day crisis that is, to the companies which are harmed.

But what about the consumers how can they be compensated for the sanitary risks they have faced, the consequences of which may perhaps not be known for many more years?

The government talks about "traceability." But the only way to insure "traceability" would be to do away with industrial and commercial secrets, which today allow the entire food industry (and they are not alone) to hide what they do. The population should have the means to control companies and their production, the origin of food products, sourcing, costs, the reasons for decisions made in agriculture, raising of animals and methods of manufacturing; the population should have access to all the necessary information precise information as well as the indispensable support of scientists. The population should have the means to prevent companies from putting profit before public health.

The governments of the European states and the European authorities which have been alerted to the problem have all been incapable of carrying out such a policy; they do not serve the population. They have all beaten around the bush, without taking the measures assuring the safety of food which are required in the situation all in order to preserve private economical interests. This is their true social role.

The French government today talks about substitute products for meat-and-bone meal for feed of cud-chewing animals. But they have done nothing about this since the confirmation that there exists a link between this meal and BSE, that is to say, since the beginning of the eighties. We are now being told that using vegetable feed for ruminants would be like taking a step backward, the excuse being that animals grow less rapidly meaning higher production costs and therefore a price increase for consumers. This is not necessarily so. The price of beef raised on meat-and- bone meal never proved to be cheap. In order to maintain market prices, tons of meat are periodically stocked at state expense or more often than not simply destroyed. Just because this happens to be the law of the market.

Even if one disregards the problems caused by having to stock and destroy millions of tons of meat-and-bone meal and animal fats which exist (and which increase due to new slaughtering), the BSE epidemic in cattle and the unknown factors of its transmission to humans represents a scandalous waste, made even more scandalous by the fact that it could have been avoided.

In our epoch, the level of technical development means that we should eat better than ever before, in Europe and throughout the world. But not only do famines, the worst of the dangers connected to nourishment, continue to rage throughout most of the world. In the rich countries (where there are also millions of people who are permanently malnourished and living below the poverty line), capitalist irresponsibility makes us afraid of catching, merely through eating, insidious and destructive illnesses, about which we know little and for which we have no cure.

In the capitalist system, all production obeys the laws of the marketplace. All the capitalists are competing with each other to realize the largest possible profit. It is this logic or rather this madness which leads the capitalists to consider food as simply one of the many ways in which to make as much money as possible. It is necessary to free society from the grip of this capitalist logic.