A Food Safety Double Standard

On August 3rd of this year, armed government agents, including representatives from the FDA, FBI, California Dept. of Food and Agriculture, LA County Health Department, and the LAPD, raided Rawesome Foods, a raw food co-op in Venice Beach, California, that was accused of selling raw milk without a license. The agents confiscated cash, computers and files, and carted away or destroyed $70,000 worth of farm-fresh produce. Surveillance cameras show that Rawesome volunteers were lined up against a wall and frisked at gunpoint. The agents arrested volunteer and organizer James Stewart, among others, whose bail was initially set at $123,000 – far more than is typical for alleged drug dealers, child molesters and killers.  And yet, in its 12-year history, Rawesome had never been linked to a single case of foodborne illness, despite the fact that its products included not just raw cow milk but raw goat, sheep, and camel milk, and even unwashed eggs.  In fact, Rawesome had even been raided a year prior so that its products could be randomly inspected – but no dangerous contamination was found. It appears that the authorities spent the interim trying find another justification for shutting down the co-op, even having its agents pose as members for a year to seek out evidence of wrongdoing.

While it’s true that Rawesome did not have a license, the coop did not operate as a purveyor of milk nor a business in the strict sense. All members were volunteers and all the money that was paid for the products went directly to the farmers to cover their costs. Essentially, the members were pooling their money to buy from farmers more efficiently, and each member was required to sign a waiver acknowledging the potential pathogenic content of raw foods.  The same waiver also guaranteed the organic and grass-fed diet  and free-range lifestyle of the cows, goats, chickens etc.  By signing the waiver, the members were taking responsibility for their personal, health-motivated, food choices. Although raw milk can be sold legally in California, it is so tightly regulated that only one or two companies can afford to offer it, and do not provide as much variety as is available when going directly to trustworthy farms. As can be seen from the case of Rawesome, the government is ready and waiting to devote its resources to prosecuting any apparent deviation from the already strict rules.

Meanwhile, also on August 3rd, Cargill, Inc., an agricultural company that is the largest privately held corporation in the US in terms of revenue, and which supplies about 22% of the domestic meat market, announced that it would be recalling 36 million pounds of ground turkey due to contamination with an antibiotic-resistant strain of Salmonella bacteria. The recall was in response to an announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the contaminated turkey had been traced to Cargill’s Arkansas processing plant. At the time of the recall, the turkey had been linked to 77 cases of illness, 22 hospitalizations, and one death. More recently, the number of illnesses has been reported at 129 with 33 hospitalizations, all across 34 states. Since the CDC estimates that Salmonella cases occur on the order of 30 times the number reported, that means as many as 4,000 people were sickened by Cargill’s food product. Cargill’s meat (none of which can be identified in stores; most of the contaminated turkey was sold under a brand called Honeysuckle White, with the name Cargill nowhere to be found), it should be noted, has a history of contamination going back decades.

How did this happen? Antibiotic-resistant pathogens develop when antibiotics are routinely used on factory farmed animals that are constantly sick due to the toxic environment in which they are raised.  It’s inevitable that resistant strains will develop and wind up in the meat we eat from these “farms.”  Of course, given that the government is so zealous and meticulous in protecting our nation’s health that they will even locate and shut down the smallest raw milk co-ops (most of which serve a few hundred fully informed people at most) just because of the mere possibility of contamination, they would be even more quick to crack down on a business producing factory farmed meat that actually hospitalized hundreds of unsuspecting people and sickened thousands more, right? On the contrary. As an article in the Wall Street Journal reported,

 

Federal officials said they turned up a dangerous form of salmonella at a Cargill Inc. turkey plant last year, and then four times this year at stores selling the Cargill turkey, but didn’t move for a recall until an outbreak killed one person and sickened 77 others.

 

As for the recall, it was only a request on the USDA’s part, not an order, as the USDA lacks the legal authority to force a recall.  Cargill’s was voluntary and, once the truth was out, aimed at salvaging their image; most of the recalled meat dated back as far as March and had already been consumed. But the most amazing part is that Cargill’s lack of quality control wasn’t even against the law. Federal regulations permit up to 49% of all samples tested at poultry plants to be contaminated with salmonella, and since new antibiotic-resistant strains pop up all the time, thanks to factory farming methods, the government doesn’t have bans on all of them. In fact, only one food-borne pathogen, E.coli O157, is classified as an “adulterant” by the government, meaning it’s against the law for it to be present in food.  In other words, even if inspectors find salmonella contamination, they can’t really do anything about it. No one at Cargill was charged with any crime, nor did Cargill even receive a fine. In their own carefully chosen words, they weren’t even responsible:

 

“It is regrettable that people may have become ill from eating one of our ground turkey products and, for anyone who did, we are truly sorry,” Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill’s turkey processing business, said in a written statement.

 

Ironically, it’s the very same small farms that are in trouble with the government that are producing meat and milk from healthy animals that don’t require regular antibiotics, if they require any at all. That means their meat isn’t contaminated with the “superbugs” present in factory farmed meat, and that their milk is safe enough to drink raw. Yet these farms, which are the antidote to the food safety dangers confronting us, are the ones under pressure.  According to the FDA, it is shutting down on raw milk clubs in order to protect health – particularly the health of children.  From theNew York Times:

 

Siobhan DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the federal Food and Drug Administration, which participated in the investigation of Rawesome, said the administration banned the interstate sale of raw milk products because they could be dangerous for those with compromised immune systems.  “Our biggest concern is really with children, because pathogens that can be in raw milk can be extremely dangerous for the classically at-risk,” she said. “We’ve seen people wind up as paraplegics.”

 

Ironically, the gradual increase in numbers of children with compromised immune systems is likely due to the fact that children with still-developing digestive systems consume, on a daily basis, hard-to-digest pasteurized milk and white bread that ultimately inflames their immune systems and results in autoimmune disorders. Nevertheless, Ms. DeLancey seems uninterested in how these children came to be immunocompromised in the first place.  In fact, the government’s actions have very little to do with promoting health and ensuring food safety, and a lot to do with satisfying lobbyists for large, wealthy food corporations that have influenced legislators and thereby the law so that such corporations are very difficult to regulate, despite their grievous lapses in quality control, while small family farms that produce food according to traditional methods are very tightly regulated and are easy targets for obliteration if they make a single misstep – or even if they don’t. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the conventional food industry is using the government to suppress small businesses that produce high quality, fresh food, because such corporations cannot imitate this model – and when it comes to food, more and more people are concerned about healthfulness, flavor, and freshness of food and less concerned about paying the cheapest price regardless of quality.

There are reasons to be wary of small raw-food providers. Raw milk is only as healthy as the cow it came from. It’s happened before that unscrupulous or just plain ignorant dairies have tried to cash in on the raw milk fad by selling some of their milk raw, without taking care to make sure their cows are grass-fed, free-range, and in good health, and that their operations are sanitized. If you’re going to drink raw milk, buy it from a farmer you can trust, and one who also tests his milk for pathogens. They’re extremely unlikely to be in there (in fact, raw milk from healthy cows tests far lower in pathogens than what is required for pasteurized milk), but there’s no harm in being extra safe. If you’ve taken this precaution, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

On the other hand, if you’re buying a product such as ground beef from a faceless company such as Cargill, whose quality you can’t verify until it’s too late, you’ll be on much shakier ground, in hoping such companies police themselves. After all, they benefit so much from agricultural subsidies that they can recall millions of pounds of meat and still keep chugging along. The same tax dollars we’re paying for the authorities to shut down the small farms that sell good quality food, we’re also paying the big food corporations to perpetuate their existence and crush their competition.

However, as more people become aware of what’s going on and choose to pay a little more for truly good food, and then benefit from their healthier, more satisfying diet, the more small farms will prosper despite the pressures being put upon them from above. When enough people want these farms to be legitimized, the laws will change and the pressure will be on companies like Cargill to adapt or fail. To find sources of raw milk and other natural food-producing farms in your area, try http://www.realmilk.com/.