There’s America the mythical, with the White House Easter Egg Roll scheduled last Monday and activities, in the words of the White House press release, designed to “encourage children to lead healthy and active lives and follow the First Lady’s ‘Let’s Move!’ initiative, a national campaign to combat childhood obesity. The White House will open its South Lawn for children aged 12 years and younger and their families.”
Then there’s America the Real, where on March 23 a big fire in Ohio in a warehouse at a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, owned by Ohio Fresh Eggs, prompted the euthanizing of 250,000 laying hens after — in the words of a local news report — “electricity in some of the buildings had to be shut off, and some of the birds suffered from issues with ventilation and smoke inhalation.”
Rotten luck on the birds, of course. But, fire or no fire, their future was not bright. The same news story quoted Kevin Elder, executive director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Livestock Environmental Permitting program, as saying Ohio Fresh Eggs was permitted to keep 2.4 million birds and had about 2.2 million on hand. He said the birds were euthanized according to industry standards and none were known to have died in the fire. He said those euthanized were nearing the end of their laying cycle “and would have been euthanized soon, regardless of the fire.”
As Martha Rosenberg, a freelance journalist who covers America’s ghastly agro-industrial landscape wrote on our CounterPunch.org, “At Ohio Fresh Eggs, only eight employees were tending 16 barns when the fire was reported … What kind of ‘care’ can workers give animals in fume-filled barns the size of football fields? Removing the dead and putting the half dead into kill carts, say those who've worked there.”
Mythical America is interminably featured in pastoral commercials and cute cartoons, where contentment reigns at Animal Farm. The cackle of chickens mingles euphonically with the grunts of what Bertie Wooster, commenting to Jeeves on his breakfast bacon, invoked as coming from “contented pigs.”
There aren’t many contented pigs on this continent, certainly not those imprisoned in the Netley Hutterite Colony hog farm in Manitoba, where 8,700 pigs perished in a 2008 fire. Witnesses reported hearing the animals' “ear shattering” squeals and “screams.” Only six full-time employees tended the animals, and bulldozers could not breach the factory farm manure pits. Fires at two other Hutterite Colonies, Vermillion Farms and Rainbow, both near Winnipeg, incinerated 8,500 pigs previously.
Every Thanksgiving, the US president pardons a turkey, a cute ceremony — in fairness, Obama did not look enthusiastic — as repulsive as would have been the spectacle of Adolf Hitler excusing from the gas chamber on each anniversary of Kristalnacht a Jew imported for the ceremony from Auschwitz.
Michele Obama has planted an organic garden on the White House grounds. The symbolism would be more admirable if one did not know that Obama installed as his secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa and a notorious supporter of everything that is awful in the mass production of food in America — from bioengineered crops from Monsanto to the treatment of compromised meat with ammonia to produce what one USDA microbiologist, Gerald Zirnstein, called “pink slime,” saying to colleagues in an email, “I do not consider the stuff to be ground beef, and I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.” It’s in fast-food chain hamburgers and school meals.
These days, animals in the days before slaughter are dosed with a dangerous chemical additive fed to animals in the last days before slaughter. To quote Rosenberg again, “Ractopamine, aka Paylean and Optaflexx, is banned in 160 countries, including Europe, Taiwan and China… Yet, in the United States 45% of pigs, 30% of ration-fed cattle, and an unknown percentage of turkeys are pumped full of this drug in the days leading up to slaughter. This drug increases protein synthesis. In other words, it makes animals more muscular … and this increases the food growers’ bottom line.” How does a drug marked, “Not for use in humans. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask” become ‘safe’ in human food? With no washout period?” asks Rosenberg.
“The same way Elanco's other two blockbusters, Stilbosol (diethylstilbestrol or DES), now withdrawn, and Posilac or bovine growth hormone (rBST), bought from Monsanto in 2008, became part of the nation's food supply: shameless corporate lobbying.”
Across rural America, in the past 15 years have spring up CAFOs. As Steve Higgs writes in our current CounterPunch newsletter, “In most instances, the C in CAFO means ‘concentrated,’ but it can also stand for ‘confined,’ as in Confined Feeding Operations (CFOs). Regardless what the letters stand for, the meaning is the same: the concentration and confinement of huge numbers of hogs, cows, chickens and turkeys in places where sustainable agriculture had served both farmers and society for centuries.” These animal gulags emit appalling stinks, clouds of methane so toxic that they kill, sewage filling vast poisonous lagoons.
America the Mythical loves backyard barbecue. America the Real services the myth with hogs from Gulag-Ag. The coastal plains and piedmont of North Carolina, and now many other states, are pocked by vast pig factories and pig slaughterhouses. People living there sicken from the stink of 25-foot deep lagoons of pig shit, which have poisoned the water table and decanted nitrogen and phosphorous-laced sludge into such rivers as the Neuse, the Tar-Pamlico and the Albemarle. Ammonia gas burdens the air. In North Carolina, it is as though the sewage of 15 million people were being flushed into open pits and sprayed onto fields, with almost no restrictions. That's where the millions of pigs’ worth of manure goes.
The reeking lagoons surround darkened warehouses of animals trapped in metal crates barely larger than their bodies, tails chopped off, pumped with corn, soy beans and chemicals until, in six months, they weigh about 240 pounds, at which point they are shipped off to abattoirs to be killed, sometimes by prisoners on work release from the county jail. The sows are killed after about two years or whenever their reproductive performance declines. It takes maybe eight to ten people to run a sow factory, overseeing 2,000 sows, boars and piglets. A computerized “finishing” farm, where the pigs are fattened, may just require a part-time caretaker to check the equipment and clean up between arriving and departing cohorts of hogs.
The noise in these factories is ghastly, and many workers wear ear pads against the squealing and crashing of the animals in their cages. When the Raleigh News and Observer did a series on North Carolina's pig barons in the mid 1990s, readers were told they could call the paper's number in Raleigh, 549-5100, extension 4647, and listen to a recording of this terrible sound.
America’s food corporations, only a handful of them, wield huge political power. Their lobbyists shuttle in and out of government. Their bought politicians safeguard the CAFOs from local regulation and okay “organic” standards designed to destroy the small farmers and processors.
Only last week Obama recess-appointed Islam Siddiqui to be chief agricultural negotiator in the office of the US trade representative. Dr. Siddiqui’s nomination had been held up in the Senate and was opposed by the Center for Biological Diversity and more than 80 other environmental, small-farm, and consumer groups. More than 90,000 concerned citizens contacted the White House and Senate to oppose the nomination. Siddiqui is a former pesticide lobbyist and is currently vice president of science and regulatory affairs at CropLife America, a biotech and pesticide trade group that lobbies to weaken environmental laws.
As the Center for Biological Diversity remarked, “As undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs at the US Department of Agriculture, Siddiqui oversaw the development of the first national organic labeling standards, which allowed sewage sludge-fertilized, genetically modified, and irradiated food to be labeled as organic before public outcry forced more stringent standards. Siddiqui has derided the European Union’s ban on hormone-treated beef and has vowed to pressure the European Union to accept more genetically modified crops.”
Michele Obama campaigns against obesity. She doesn’t campaign against Chicken McNuggets, as sold by the McDonalds Corporation and devoured by kids across America. Here’s a slice of America the Real, from Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”:
“Of the 38 ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, I counted 13 that can be derived from corn starting with the corn-fed chicken itself …McNuggets also contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasi-edible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but from a petroleum refinery or chemical plant … But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to ‘help preserve freshness.’ According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e., lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: it can comprise no more than 0.02% of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause ‘nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse.’ Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill.”
Many Americans eat at fast food outlets because it’s all they can afford or have time for. I count myself lucky. I live in the country, and I take care to know which pasture and farm yard the pig, the steer and the lamb in my freezer came from. There’s no reason why there couldn’t be mass online ordering from small farms and real-time footage to show how the creatures are treated. No, it’s not veganism, thank God, but it would be progress nonetheless.
Aside on Pope Benedict XVI
I laugh when I read furious appeals by unbelievers that Pope Benedict should quit, on the grounds he’s bringing the Catholic Church into disrepute. It’s like the progressives’ fury against Bush Jr for making America a laughing stock among the nations. Isn’t that what we want? For the mighty to be brought low? There are noble, radical Catholic priests. Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (previous name: “Office of the Holy Inquisition”) has spent his career seeking to destroy them, with kindred energies devoted to crushing overpowering testimony about Catholic priests abusing boys. Does he not bear the marks of the classic closet case, savagely denouncing homosexuality while effectively protecting child abuse? The Italian press loses no opportunity to comment on the manly beauty and stylish apparel of his personal secretary and constant companion, Monsignor Georg Ganswein.
As Mathew Fox, formerly a Dominican, kicked out by Ratzinger for denying the concept of original sin, and now an Episcopalian, wrote in Tikkun, “Over the course of the last 23 years, Cardinal Ratzinger (with the complete approval of John Paul II) brought back the Inquisition. One prominent theologian, Father Bernard Haering, who was the first church thinker to be attacked by Ratzinger, had also been interrogated by the Nazis [no doubt many of them Bavarian Catholics] during the Second World War. He reported that his interrogations in Ratzinger's office were far more scary. Ratzinger's attitude has been that he alone (or the pope, in his name) knows theology, and that all real theologians can find work elsewhere. Similarly, Ratzinger denies women any church leadership roles, even though the best scholarship today makes it clear that women were leading from the get-go in the early Christian movement.
“This first ever Chief Inquisitor-made-pope (who appointed 112 of the 115 cardinals who elected him pope) pushed through in record time the canonization of a Hitler-admiring, Franco-supporting, fascist priest named Jose Escriva founder of the infamous and secretive Opus Dei Society. This clandestine group the present pope and the past one used as a bludgeon to kill off liberation theologians and base communities in Latin America (with CIA assistance) and substitute its motto of ‘a preferential option for the poor’ with a preferential option for the rich and powerful.”
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com.