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Pathfinders: Flogging a Dead Horse

‘The bread I eat in London is a deleterious paste, mixed up with chalk, alum and bone ashes, insipid to the taste and destructive to the constitution’ (Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Henry Clinker, 1771). Food adulteration and poisoning have probably been with us for as long as food has been a market commodity, and like many other commodities in capitalism, the quality of food is a permanent battleground between profit and regulation. It is not too long since the Chinese melamine scandal, which killed 6 children in 2008 and resulted in the executions of those deemed responsible by the Chinese state. But what is really responsible goes unpunished, because even the Chinese state can’t execute the profit motive, and instead is becoming one of its most ruthless admirers.

More recently, in 2012, the Food Safety Standards Authority of India found that of 1,791 random samples of milk from 33 states only 31.5 percent conformed to quality standards while 68.4 percent were adulterated with glucose, skimmed milk, detergent, fat and urea (Times of India, 10 January 2012).

Across the world, any type of processed food or drink may at any time contain one or more adulterants, usually cheaper ingredients to increase weight, improve appearance or lengthen shelf life. The most adulterated products are ‘extra virgin’ olive oil, milk and honey (‘Food Fraud: The 10 most adulterated foods,’ blog.cncahealth.com, 26 April 2012). Coffee is routinely adulterated with chicory, and chicory itself with peas, beans or wheat. Butter is mixed with lard, wine with diethylene glycol, honey with corn syrup, rice noodles with bleach, and meat, fish and even tofu with formaldehyde. Fish substitution is particularly rife, with recent studies showing that 39 percent of seafood sales in New York were not as claimed on the label, while 94 percent of ‘white tuna’ was in fact escolar, the consumption of more than 100 grams of which leads to violent diarrhoea (New Scientist, 16 February). An indication of how much worse things would be without regulation is given by studies of illicit drugs such as hashish, which has been found to contain a wide range of adulterants including heavy metals, the horse tranquiliser ketamine, shoe polish and human faeces.

So it is with some bemusement that socialists consider all the hysteria about horsemeat being used in cheap burgers. People seem to possess an almost indestructible faith in capitalism’s ability to give them a fair deal at any level. As if the clues aren’t already big enough. At the risk of sounding like old nags, we have to say again that capitalism is about making money and nothing else. This means saving on costs. Regulations do exist but kudos to anyone who can get over or round them and pass off crud as caviar. British workers may be aghast that they have been scoffing My Little Pony all these years but really they don’t have any reason to be surprised. Don’t they know or care that the world is awash with counterfeits in everything from designer jeans to prescription drugs?

Money corrupts in a poverty system. One of many pathetic and preventable disgraces to reach the small news columns recently was the story that over 11,000 African forest elephants in Gabon have been wiped out by poachers since 2004, threatening the very existence of elephants in Africa. But there’s our old friend capitalism at work again, with a booming Asian market driving up the price of pink ivory and making poaching the occupation of choice for many poor people with few other options and no time for animal welfare. And it’s not just poor people. As the World Wildlife Fund pointed out ‘Such a high value commodity is corrupting governance on all levels - when arrests are made, they are often obstructed by government people who have a stake in the trade as well’ (BBC Online, 6 February). Perhaps if the elephants were turning up in local burgers the media might have made more of a fuss about it.

Corruption isn’t just a matter of venal motivations, but of incompetent systems, as with the story of the ‘horse passports’ in Ireland. Mild concern that horses were cantering into the catering turned into galloping paranoia that their phenylbutazone medications might be, too, with the news that Irish horses seemed to have more dodgy passports than a Colombian drugs baron, at least one to record their true medication and a clean one to show the abattoir inspectors who could then pass them fit for consumption. It didn’t take much to fiddle these passports, as it only involved the child’s play of putting a piece of sticky tape over bits of it, or even better, just phoning it in as lost and getting an instant replacement. Whether blind eyes were being turned or blinkers worn we don’t know, but the regulatory process can only be described as spectacularly inept.

The fact that the food industry is really a profit industry with no real interest in food may be lost on workers but it is not lost on the world’s richest speculator, Warren Buffett, who has just bought Heinz for $28bn, making him one of the world’s biggest grocers. So now Beanz Meanz Buffett, but does he actually know anything about food, or what goes on in the food producing process? Probably not. Does he care? Probably not. His money goes where the profit is biggest, that’s all. Perhaps he could have bought a pharmaceutical firm instead and started cranking out cheap or free medical supplies for the world’s poor, but business is business and philanthropy is, let’s face it, a hobby for the weekend.

The falling price of DNA testing means that regulators will be better able to spot Roger Rabbit or Roland Rat climbing into the burger mix in future, however manufacturers have every incentive to look for ways around the testing. One tried and tested tactic is ‘pay the fine, promise change and then carry on regardless,’ a viable strategy because even where regulation is not just voluntary, states are reluctant to penalise their own industries to the point of damaging their ability to be competitive in international markets. Meanwhile, pig farms in largely regulation-free China are releasing a ‘tsunami of antibiotic-resistant bacteria’ in meat that contains up to 149 genes resistant to all classes of antibiotic, and there are predictions that a million Americans will get salmonella poisoning this year, and some hundreds may die, because poultry farms are refusing to invest in the vaccine – ‘it doesn’t hurt the birds, so there’s no profit in prevention’ (New Scientist, same issue).

Regulation, like reformism, fights a perpetually losing battle on an ever-expanding frontline in capitalism because money and how to get it are the only things that matter and anyone who gets in the way becomes just another casualty. The fact is that there is no ‘decent’ capitalism, no ‘fair’ way to play the money game, no honest buck or ethical dollar, and anyone who insists that there is, against all the evidence, is just flogging the same old dead horse.