Poison Turkey is Us

The recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey this past week by Cargill is not the result of some food-industry aberration. It’s completely predictable – simply the cost of doing business when food is an industry.

Cargill’s turkey was laced with antiobiotic-resistant salmonella. It has killed at least one person and sickened at least 77.

Such disasters are predictable because companies like Cargill are not producing food – they’re producing money.

Being in the business of making money rather than food means companies will take any legal shortcut (and maybe even some illegal ones), no matter how much those shortcuts harm the environment or what risk they pose to the people who buy the company’s products.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that food producers can’t be concerned with making a living. I buy a good deal of my food directly from small farmers, and most of them have been in the business for years.

But making a living isn’t what the Cargills of the world are interested in. What they’re interested in is maximizing profits.That’s a very different thing.

Small farmers want to make money, but they’re not dedicated to maximizing profits. Many are mission-driven, including many organic farmers are. They might be staying small by choice. Or perhaps they are merely declining to make growth their priority. In any case, they’re primarily concerned with making food.

The problem is that in a consumer-capitalist economy, cutting corners is just good business.

Case in point: The likely cause of the antibiotic-resistant salmonella in Cargill turkey was the heavy routine use of antibiotics on healthy turkeys. According to the FDA, U.S. farmers use about 29 million pounds of antibiotics on livestock each year – about four times as much as is used on people.

Cargill acknowledges routinely using the antibiotics on healthy animals simply to make them grow faster. If turkeys unhealthily crowded together in industrial feeding operations are anything like cows, pigs or chickens in similar circumstances, I imagine the antiobiotics are also meant to keep the animals from passing around the diseases of overcrowding.

But that’s just one of the kinds of corner-cutting that makes money. Spraying your crops with synthetic pesticides might sicken your workers, poison your customers and weaken the plants you grow, but you’re not penalized for those things by the only measure that counts: money. Pesticides maximize your profits, so you use them.

Using synthetic fertilizer supports the fossil-fuel industry (synthetic fertilizers are made from natural gas). It also sterilizes your soil and runs off into waterways, causing algae blooms that kill marine life. But you’re not penalized for those things by the only measure that counts: money. Synthetic fertilizer maximizes your profits, so you use it.

Packing livestock together in pens is inhumane. We know it results in vast quantities of animal waste that pollutes waterways and smells horribly. And it requires you to routinely use antibiotics on healthy livestock.

Meanwhile, profit-maximization demands that you feed animals food they’re not made to eat (corn for cows) and give them antiobiotics so they’ll grow faster. That might risk breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But that’s a risk you’re willing to take.

The really horrifying part is, until your food-product actually makes someone ill, all of this corner-cutting is perfectly legal. Producing low-quality food in a way that’s bad for the environment is just what you do. It is, as they say, business as ususal.

It was enough to make you laugh last week to hear from Sherrie Rosenblatt. She’s the National Turkey Federation vice president who, after the Cargill recall, was interviewed on NPR about the antibiotic use.

“We really believe that the responsible use of antibiotics to provide safe, nutritious, affordable foods is the appropriate way to go,” Rosenblatt told NPR.

As usual with spokes-flack statements, it’s hard to find a part of the statement that isn’t a lie of some sort.

Antibiotic-rich turkey is “safe”? Eh, maybe not.

It’s “nutritious”? Well, I guess if you don’t die from eating it, it does contain some of the nutritive properties of food. But I’d be surprised if industrial turkey were as nutritious as meat from a properly grown animal; we know, for instance, that produce grown organically is more nutritious that plants whose immune systems (and the soil they grow in, for that matter) have been weakened by overtreatment with chemicals.

And “affordable”? Yep, if you’re not paying for the damage industrial farming does – including antibiotic-laced turds running off into streams, and a bright future of mutation. And if you’re not paying the hospital bills. Then you can probably make turkey with a lower sticker price than someone who does it right.

But of course the main idea contained in Rosenblatt’s statement the really big lie. It’s to assure consumers of what they already implicitly assume: That Cargill is all about providing food. That this $10 billion multinational isn’t committed solely to making as much money as possible. That they’re really in it … for you!

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