Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The New Robber Barons

Just back from my work assignment on the island of Anguilla, I sought to catch up and turned first to Ethicurian.

For those of you unfamiliar, Ethicurian is the best source for news about our world-wide food system. And having come from a place dependent on processed, packaged and frozen foods, a couple of articles immediately drew my attention.

First was an item indicating that even the business-friendly folks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are beginning to cast a wary eye on the rapid consolidation of corporate interests taking place in the food industry.

For instance, the four largest beer makers in the country now control 91 percent of the nation's brewing business. In breakfast cereals, the four largest companies have 78 percent control. For specialty canning, the figure is 71 percent.

Consolidation also means centralization, which means closing down local processing facilities, which means local producers losing control to distant corporations and facing higher transportation costs, meaning less profit for farmers.

In 1972, there were 2,507 milk processing plants across the U.S. By 2002, only 524 remained. That's an 80 percent drop in 30 years. Local dairy operations are literally drying up in favor of massive confinement-style dairy farming that forces cows to eat corn and injects them with hormones to promote milk production.

Consolidation in the meat processing industry just makes it tougher for local farmers to raise quality beef and pork for local markets. Nationwide, more than 20 percent of hog and beef-processing facilities were closed between 1994 and 2004, meaning farmers had to ship their animals increasingly long distances to have them butchered in approved facilities.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that food manufacturers are scouring the globe looking for the cheapest ingredients. These can be anything from flavorings and preservative to additives that just make food smoother or substitute for things like cheeses so that a pizza purchased in Beijing tastes just like the one in you buy in New York City.

The big boys-Kraft, General Mills, Sara Lee--search planet-wide for bargain ingredients essential to their processed products. Ingredients are streaming in from countries such as China, India, the Philippines and countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The quality of those ingredients cannot always be guaranteed. Witness the recent scandal over melamine from China poisoning thousands of pets in this country, or the proliferation of toxic toothpaste, again from China.

Of course, the big U.S. food manufacturers assure us they are on the lookout for any potential problems with these products. The U.S. government finally woke up and appointed a "food safety czar." And the Chinese, for their part, have sentenced to death their former head of food quality on corruption charges.

But a second Times piece details how U.S. investigators trying to follow up on the deaths of 100 Haitian children from bogus Chinese glycerin a decade ago were completely thwarted by officials in China. The Chinese refused to cooperate with investigators from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Chinese business records were either destroyed or went missing. When U.S. investigators finally tracked down the plant where the phony glycerin originated, the factory had been shut down and Chinese companies refused to accept any responsibility for the poisonings.

What does it all add up to?

While some of us have adopted locally raised, organic food as an ethical imperative, the rest of the country is rapidly moving in the opposite direction. Those who either can't afford or aren't interested in locally and naturally raised foods have become the lab rats for a small number of corporations who continue to consolidate their grip on the nation's food supply.

We clearly benefit from vibrant local economies with local agriculture whose products we can trust. If you have any doubt, read this thoughtful post at the Chef Ann blog, actually a response to a New York Times blog suggesting that not eating local might be more efficient for everyone concerned.

The simple dollars and cents imperatives of our shareholder-driven, increasingly globalized food supply are sweeping us like a rip tide into an ocean of corporate food. The consequences are of concern to every man, woman and child in the country. But when was the last time you heard of the U.S. government bringing a trust-busting case in the food industry?

In fact, the multi-national agri-business and food processing complex has forged a cozy relationship with our federal government. Our own tax dollars, to the tune of billions of dollars, are used to subsidize commodity crops that form the basis of this unhealthful, destructive food system. Congress and powerful agencies such as the USDA make it their business to fashion laws and regulations that benefit Big Food Business and hurt small farmers and producers.

Sounds like a wakeup call to me...


The Amazing Mister Marvel said...

Worse yet, those same large companies are arguing fiercely against proposed legislation that would require them to label their foods with the origin of the ingredients.

Ed Bruske said...

Mr. Marvel, do you have a reference for that? News story? Another blog post?