1990s >> 1990 >> no-1031-july-1990

Mad cows and Englishmen

Angry noises from the House of Commons: how dare the French and German authorities ban “our” beef? Apparently the British cows have gone mad, largely as a result of being fed on the cheap from the rotten corpses of diseased animals.

Selwyn Gummer, the Agriculture Minister, has been force-feeding his children with beef burgers to demonstrate that British cows are to be trusted implicitly. If his children start to go soft in the head in ten years time nobody will know whether it was the mad cows or Gummer’s influence which is to blame. Red-faced British farm-owners appear before TV cameras calling upon the government to tell the workers that British beef is safe to eat. The government obliges, and the mad-cow Prime Minister offers her most soothing of tones as she assures us that roast beef and yorkshire pudding will do us no harm—as long as the eggs used to make the pudding are not infected with salmonella of course.

What is it all about? Cheapness. It is about producing food for workers who cannot afford to pay high prices. So, how can profits be kept high while prices are brought to an affordable level? Simple answer: produce dodgy meat. You do not need to be a Marxist to see that this is what is going on. Jan Walsh, who was Consumer Journalist of the Year in 1986. states in her book, The Meat Machine—The Inside Story of the Meat Business, that:

More than any other food, meat has been debased. Its finest points—flavour, texture and nutritional value—have been swept aside by an industry ever greedy for an extra penny profit. Price has been its downfall. We spend more on meat each week than on anything else in our shopping baskets. No other staple food costs so much a pound and yet is such a necessity for the vast majority of the population. Manufacturers, too, have to pay a lot for the meat they transform into such high-value products. So every scrap they can save, every corner they can cut, means money in the bank.

One corner which can be cut concerns the feeding of animals. By forcing cattle to eat sheep’s offal farmers reduce the cost to them of producing marketable cows. If such feeding makes cows ill it is in the economic interest of the farm-owners to cover this up. Their purpose is not determined by the callousness of agricultural capitalists—many of them are decent folk who do not want to make people ill. But under capitalism profits must always come before care, health and human needs.

An old story

Mad cow disease is just the latest symptom of capitalism’s drive to produce food on the cheap. Food adulteration is as old as the profit system. Writing of working-class life in the middle of the last century, Engels described how:

      The potatoes which the workers buy are usually poor, the vegetables wilted, the cheese old and of poor quality, the bacon rancid, the meat lean, tough, taken from old, often diseased, cattle . . . The sellers are usually small hucksters who buy up inferior goods, and sell them cheaply by reason of their badness.

After nearly a century-and-a-half of capitalist reform and “progress”, what is new? The wage slaves are still being sold second-rate food because they cannot afford the best. The only difference is that back in the last century the workers living on poverty rations were visibly poor; these days the consumers of cheap and rotten meat are often salaried workers who imagine that they can escape malnutrition because they have a few pounds in the bank.

It is unknown how many workers suffer needlessly and die prematurely because of being malnourished. We know that there are many millions world-wide who die each year due to the lack of proper nutrition and clean water to drink, including 15 million children under five But aside from these obscene images of pot-bellied victims of a system which lets humans starve while food is destroyed in order to keep prices and profits up, there are millions more who are ill not because of lack of food, but because the food which they can afford to live on is bad for them. It is easy enough for government Ministers to tell workers to eat healthier diets—grilled steaks and plenty of green vegetables are recommended—but when you are a parent living on income support the freedom to choose an alternative to a Big Mac—which is adulterated by twenty-seven different chemicals in each hamburger—is pretty limited.

Mad Economic System

It is quite obvious that capitalism can never feed everyone, or allow those who can only afford to buy cheap food to eat well. In terms of both adequate nutrition and quality taste, the diet of workers will always be inferior to that of capitalists who can afford to eat what they like. Capitalism is polluting the very soil in which food is grown, and profit can never be compatible with human wellbeing.

The real problem facing us is not just mad cow disease, but the Mad Economic Social System, otherwise known as MESS. To get rid of the capitalist mess we need to abolish production for profit and establish a global community of production solely for need. In such a new system of society cattle would not be reared on the cheap and killed for sale and profit. If people still chose to eat meat in a world socialist society they would free access to it. The production of meat would not be on the cheap, but would involve care for the health of the animal while it was living and concern for the best quality food for those who consume it.

There would be no need to pump hormones into pigs and cows to increase their market price by increasing their weight, and there would be no need for animals to be fed in ways that would make them diseased. In a socialist society the first priority will be that needs are satisfied, healthily and pleasurably. It is quite possible, once production is no longer under the control of a minority class, people will decide to evolve diets which will not involving the killing of animals at all.

Our society currently faces a major food problem. Millions starve and many millions more are malnourished. Each month brings news of a new foodstuff which is harming us so that some capitalist can make a profit. Only by taking into the common possession of humankind the means of producing food—and all other wealth—can we tackle the urgent task of feeding the starving, providing decent food for the ill-fed. and living in harmony with the other animals which inhabit the Earth.

Steve Coleman