Disparaging Meat

“Free speech not only lives, it rocks!” exulted Oprah Winfrey February 26 upon hearing that an Amarilllo jury had dismissed the “mad cow” case against her and co-defendant Howard Lyman of the Humane Society of the United States. The resounding victory came in the first test case of one of the nation’s 13 “food disparagement” laws, throwing the whole legal strategy in doubt. As juror Pat Gowdy put it, “We felt that a lot of rights have eroded in this country. Our freedom of speech may be the only one we have left to regain what we’ve lost.”

Illustration: Jerry Russell

The welcome verdict makes a fine counterpoint to this issue’s cover story which—no doubt about it—disparages the modern meat industry up, down and sideways. “Mad cow disease” has gotten most of the publicity, but equally deadly contaminations, from E. coli O157:H7 to Salmonella and Campylobater have become pervasive in the American meat supply. A cruel reality is that children are most often the victims, because they are least able to fight off massive infections. Michael James Nole, for instance, was only two years old in 1993 when his mother served him a fast-food hamburger in a Washington State fast-food restaurant. Twelve days later, that undercooked hamburger—infected with E. coli either at the “factory farm” where the cow was raised or, later, at the slaughterhouse—killed him.

The Oprah verdict is only the latest bad news in the meat industry’s offensive against its critics. McDonald’s recently won a pyrrhic victory in its epic court battle, the longest in British history, against a pair of penniless London Greenpeace activists. Gaining publicity they never would have gotten from their smeary handouts, the defense succeeded in getting the corporation to thoroughly embarrass itself. Paul Preston, McDonald’s British president, told the court that Ronald McDonald’s job is not selling meat to kids, but “promoting the McDonald’s experience.”

As several recent exposes, from Nicols Fox’s Spoiled to Gail Eisnitz’ Slaughterhouse, make abundantly clear, the meat industry is in drastic need of top-to-bottom reform that may force it to change the whole way it does business. Sweden provides a model in the way it has effectively rid its chicken population of Salmonella infection, but its solution calls for an end to drastic overcrowding in chicken houses, and a rigid regimen of cleaning and disinfecting. Taking steps like that will cost money, but Americans now pay the lowest food prices in the world.

Meat is truly an international issue, and an environmental one. An increasingly affluent Third World is emulating American lifestyles, and that means a sharp increase in meat consumption, especially in China. As Lester Brown of Worldwatch asks, will we be able to raise enough grain, when 70 percent of it is fed to animals? Grazing is increasingly destroying the world’s rangelands, which cover more than half of the planet’s surface. And animal wastes are washing into streams and rivers, killing fish and breeding disease. As the millennium nears, we need to rethink meat and its role in our lives.

Also in this issue, a dramatic excerpt from Jeremy Rifkin’s new book Biotech Century, revealing corporate plans to “improve” on nature and possibly unleash a new form of “genetic pollution” as a result.

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