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Food: why we don't get the best

Food matters to everyone. People have been led to revolt if unable to obtain enough. But quality, rather than quantity, is just as important. Politicians, their profit-chasing overlords and the marketplace that unites them, are attracting unfavourable scrutiny after successive well-publicised poisonings, adulterations, scams and animal abuse cases Following salmonella, E. coli, BSE and a spate of more recent food scandals, people are unsurprisingly alarmed over just what they are eating and just what can be done to ensure meals are safe. Here are just four disturbing news reports of late which emerged in less than one week: The [Pesticide Safety Directorate] working party on pesticide residues found that some of the largest retailers, including Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, Tesco and Safeway, sold produce that had levels of pesticides above the maximum residues limit, including illegal growth regulators and known carcinogens (Guardian, 17 September). Food hygiene inspectors from the European Commission are to start an urgent investigation into standards in French rendering plants following allegations that untreated water, blood and discharges from animal carcasses, and sewage have been used in making poultry and pig feed. The Commission and the French government have been anxious to play down the accusation for fear of sparking a new European food crisis . . . The common factor in this summer's crises has been manufacturers' failure to maintain hygiene standards in the highly competitive food industry (Guardian, 18 August) Children who eat fishfingers are being fed 'undesirable' levels of two of the world's most feared poisons, reveals an official report. Dioxins and PCBs—believed to cause cancer and have 'gender bending' effects—were found by Government researchers in all the samples of fishfingers bought in different supermarkets. Higher levels were found in the fresh fish on sale, particularly in oily fish such as herring which the Government has been urging people to eat for health reasons . . . Despite the fears, the Government has decided against issuing any warnings when the research—the first of its kind by the Agriculture Ministry—was published quietly in August on an official website (Daily Mail, 20 September). Belgium yesterday warned the EU that tests carried out on meat for export . . . show that livestock reared on farms near industrial plants carries higher levels of dioxin contamination . . . Belgium's food crisis in May caused consumer panic after the revelation that animal feed had been contaminated by potentially cancer-causing dioxins at a food plant in Flanders which allegedly mixed motor oil with fats to bind the feed . . . the Belgian crisis of confidence in food safety worsened yesterday after revelations that sewerage sludge had been mixed into fodder, as in France . . . sludge from toilets and showers, water from slaughterhouses and cleaning products had got into the food chain (Guardian, 22 September). The September 18 "highly competitive food industry" reference says it all, and should enlighten concerned shoppers to the total incompatibility between access to continuously high-quality comestibles and competitive production for financial gain, due to market forces always tending to value profits ahead of excellence. There will never be a time when most people become wealthy enough to buy only the very best, since while competitive production exists so, too, will competitive employment. And with competing employers, driven by those same market forces to hold down wages and salaries (and taxes that provide welfare benefits) so as to favour profits and stay in businesses, there will always exist a great many working and non-working people with limited incomes who nevertheless must purchase sustenance. This section will vary in size according to the needs of capital. Official DSS figures released in February showed that, after deducting housing costs, no fewer than 14.1 million people had below half the average income. While food producers are going to be keen to obtain this poorly-paid group's money, competition to grab a greater market share by supplying the least expensive food means there will be an ever-present pressure to minimise quality, because superior ingredients, more thorough procedures, better trained employees, etc all cost more. Include today's international intensification of competitiveness through deregulation and the steady removal of tariffs, trade barriers and subsidies in pursuit of a correctly functioning global market, and the seemingly endless appalling procession of scandalous headlines becomes perfectly clear. Uncompetitive regulations The Blair Government knows that inferior and dangerous food means antagonistic voters; a situation to be earnestly avoided. Labour certainly doesn't want to end up like the former Belgium government of Jean-Luc Dehaene—booted out of office largely due to carcinogenic dioxin at up to 700 times permitted "acceptable limits" being found in eggs, chickens and then pigs, just weeks before a general election. So what's their approach? A proposed "independent" Food Standards Agency. The FSA proposal emerged not long after Blair came to power. Large retail firms and manufacturing interests were soon applying pressure, insisting the agency be made less regulatory. Then businesses caused the agency to remain on the drawing board longer by complaining that the FSA should not be funded through levies on their food outlets. And despite the BSE catastrophe under Tory rule, the Ministry of Agriculture—which former minister Edwina Currie said "had long ago set itself up as a trade union for producers"-was once again siding with the food industry. Yum, yum: prole food Yum, yum: prole food There is to be publication of an annual report from the Working Party on Pesticide Residues, who will have a small number of food samples tested, and name retailers selling produce with residues above the "maximum residue limit", and identify the goods concerned. However, this can be nothing more than a show to dispel the public crisis of confidence in food. Can consumers turn to organic foods? Perhaps some will be able to keep paying higher prices to reduce their contamination levels (except from equally dangerous airborne chemicals). But the majority can never have high quality organic food and freedom from various other sources of pollution, because of the international competition that is an integral feature of capitalism. Britain cannot go "green" alone. The additional financial burden on capital to establish and maintain a far safer and healthier environment would result in an economic crisis in no time. Britain simply cannot impose rigorous standards on producers without increasing their costs, and in a global market, that would spell disaster for UK firms. Everyone concerned about avoiding dangerous and inferior produce has to ask themselves this question: "What did I vote for at election time?" Since, whenever the electorate empower yet another bunch of politicians to—unavoidably—cater to the needs of business as the priority, the very conditions that give rise to food scandals will remain in place. If different competing groups retain ownership of productive resources, they must continue exploiting those assets in the most profitable manner in order to sell and prosper from what is produced. One result? BSE and 43 people dead (that we know of), and a renewed chilling warning this September from Professor Liam Donaldson, the government's own chief medical officer: "What is absolutely certain is that the present relatively low number of cases [of nv-CJD] should not lead anyone to conclude that the worst is over. Levels of human exposure at the height of the BSE epidemic would have been high." Misuse of GM technology; pesticide-induced cancers; animal maltreatment; cover-ups; no or inadequate labelling; abysmal hygiene standards. None of these need happen. We do not have to futilely hope profit-biased governments will impose uncompetitive regulations and strict enforcement. There is another option to capitalism's inability to deliver continuously high-quality food for all. If we all own the means of producing food, then we all own the produce, which means never buying it or having any financial restraints on its quality. MAX HESS