1980s >> 1981 >> no-917-january-1981

How food is poisoned for profit

The EEC Council of Ministers decided at the end of September that the injection of hormones into animals for human consumption to accelerate their growth should be banned throughout the nine Common Market countries. A regulation to this effect has now been prepared.


This decision was sparked off by two events: a very successful boycott of veal launched by a consumers organisation in France and the discovery in Italy that a number of babies had developed premature sexual characteristics as a result of eating baby food made from meat containing injected hormones.


The injection of hormones into calves has in fact been illegal in France since 1976 and the boycott was called simply to get this law enforced. Like many such laws, it remained a dead letter, with farmers and chemists widely ignoring it. The discussion provoked by the boycott brought out some interesting “justifications” for not respecting the law, all of them illustrating that profits come before human welfare under capitalism, and that sometimes the capitalist state has to check its own economic system which might otherwise poison the lot of us in its search for profits.


Veal production is in a sense a by-product of mass dairy farming since to keep giving milk a cow has to regularly have a calf. Some of these are used to restock the dairy herd, but what to do with the rest? In France the dairy farmer generally sells his surplus calves when a few weeks old to another farmer who fattens them up for three or four months before sending them off to be slaughtered and sold as veal.


The horror story begins after the calves have passed from the dairy farmer to the livestock farmer. Only about 20 per cent of calves in France are fattened “naturally” in the sense that they are fed on their mother’s milk and allowed to roam free in the fields, absorbing naturally the hormones they need to grow. The other 80 per cent are raised under factory-farm conditions: crowded together in huge sheds, often never seeing the light of day let alone being allowed out, and fed on powdered milk. Here we can mention, but only in passing since it is not linked to the question of hormones, another widely-employed practice. Consumers, apparently, like their veal to be white-coloured and the way this is done is to feed the calves on powdered milk with a greatly reduced iron content; the result is that they become anaemic—and so their meat is white.It normally takes three or four months for a calf to become fat enough to be sent to the slaughter-house. Clearly, if the required weight can be reached in a shorter time, the producer is going to make more profit—and it is precisely this faster fattening that the injection of hormones brings about. Hormones are organic substances which affect growth. Two sorts are used to fatten calves: so-called “natural” hormones, (hormones that exist in nature but which are nevertheless produced artificially by the pharmaceutical industry) and artificial hormones, which have been entirely created by the chemists and which are not to be found in nature.


If all scientists are agreed that artificial hormones can be harmful when consumed by humans —one of them, diethyl-stilboestrol (DES), banned but still used, has long been identified as a potential cause of cancer —they are not agreed about the effects of natural hormones. It is clear that even if so-called natural hormones, in a “natural” dose, cannot be harmful since they need to be absorbed even by “free range” calves, the doses injected into the factory-farmed calves are way above what would be absorbed naturally.

At one stage the French Minister of Agriculture floated the idea of amending the 1976 law so as to legalise the injection of natural hormones but, in view of the hostile response, quickly dropped the idea. And now, under the proposed Common Market regulation, all hormones, whether natural or artificial, are to be banned. In Britain, incidentally, certain hormones were allowed to be administered under licence; according to the press, they have not been used on veal, only on beef. So perhaps the Roast Beef of Old England hasn’t always been as traditional as claimed. Hormones have also been used in beef in France, but the Minister of Agriculture intervened to tone down an article in another consumer magazine which highlighted this. He evidently felt that, with pressure being brought to bear on him by irate calf-raisers threatened with ruin by the consumer boycott (consumption and prices of veal really did fall off dramatically), he could well do without a similar pressure from beef-producers.


Many of the veal producers were not after huge profits but only trying to ensure that they got a living income; it was the capitalist system which obliged them to resort to the practice. The farmers’ organisations, in fact, did not hesitate to explain that it was economic pressures that forced some (said the consumer organisations) livestock farmers to break the law. A spokesman for one organisation was quoted as saying, after complaining about competition from imported hormone-injected veal:

   the livestock farmers are forced to cheat since it is often the difference in weight arising from the administration of hormones that represents their margin of profit (Republicain Lorrain, 13 August 1980).

Another organisation explained that some farmers broke the law because “the low level of profit does not always allow the heavy investments to be amortised” (Ouest-France, 12 September 1980).

These claims were confirmed by a Working Party of scientists set up by the Ministry of Agriculture which concluded that, if cheating went on, this was because anabolisants generally, with or without hormones, “are useful to the profitability of stock-farms” (Republicain Lorrain, 19 September 1980). The same issue of this paper quoted “professional circles” for figures which showed that the use of anabolisants (what some weight-lifters and shot-putters use to put on weight) without hormones allowed a stock-farmer to increase his production by 5 per cent; of anabolisants with natural hormones to increase it by 5-10 per cent and with artificial hormones by 10-15 per cent. “In these circumstances”, the paper concluded, “it is logical that the stock-farmer who is in any case going to take the risk of cheating should choose the most profitable product”. Which also happens to be the most dangerous to human health.

Although many of the farmers involved did so just to get a living income, big profits were still to be made out of the use of hormones in veal production. The hormone’s themselves— including DES (only its use, not its production, was illegal) —had to be produced industrially by a complicated chemical process and it was the big drug firms which were involved in this. They encouraged the practice, sending out their pushers to try to convince farmers to use their products and chemists and vets to prescribe and administer them.

The real lesson of this episode of Veau aux hormones is not that there should be stricter laws governing the quality of meat on sale, but that we live under an economic and social system which makes such laws necessary. The fall in consumption and prices was undoubtedly the key factor which got the French government to say that in future it would enforce the law banning hormones and to press for a similar ban at Common Market level. But, quite apart from the fact that it remains to be seen whether the French (and other) governments will in fact make available the number of inspectors and laboratories that will be needed to enforce the ban, the same sort of battle will have to be fought over and over again, with consumers organisations always on the defensive, reacting to some new way round the law which some capitalist firm has thought up. Already in fact it is being suggested that the drug companies, which have made millions out of the hormones in question, will now switch to manufacturing other anabolisant drugs which will have the same effect on the growth of calves. These, apparently, have not been pushed till now since hormones were cheaper. In a few years time then the fight will still be on for drug-free meat.

So-called “consumer protection” laws, in any event, are passed in the general interest of the capitalist class as a whole and not to protect that nebulous entity, the “consumer”. Most consumers of food are wage and salary earners and, if they are being poisoned by the activities of a section of the capitalist class, then it is the other sections who will in the end be harmed since the quality of the labour power which they consume, and for which they pay the worker a wage or salary, will be diminished. It is because a reasonably healthy workforce is in the interests of employers generally that consumer protection laws are passed. The consumer who is being protected is the consumer of labour power.

The very need for the capitalist class to have to pass such laws against their own excesses is in itself a condemnation of the capitalist system. For what sort of economic system is it that has to threaten to use the force of the state machine to try to ensure that one group does not poison the rest of society? If production was for use and not for sale, as it will be in socialism, on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, such a problem just could not arise. It is quite inconceivable that anybody would even think of adopting a practice which was known to be a risk to human beings. Production being carried on solely to satisfy human needs, nothing would be produced and no processes would be used that might in any way be a threat to human health and well-being.

Adam Buick