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“Big Government” and Bad Food: Open Season at the Table

Rev. David L. Ostendorf • Sep 09, 2010

One can only hope that all the tea partiers who may have recently ended up with salmonella poisoning from Iowa’s bad eggs are rethinking their “big government” attack mantras and, with everyone else, wondering why and how the infamous DeCoster egg operations got away with yet another public food assault after a decade of its “habitual violator” status for environmental degradation.

The DeCoster operations in Iowa have been even more notorious for their treatment of workers—in 2001 the company settled a $1.5 million EEOC discrimination lawsuit over the rape and sexual harassment of its female employees, who suffered immensely at the hands of supervisors. When they suffered there were few national headlines. The company has operated for twenty years with impunity. “Big government” has been in absentia.  It is one of the worst of the corporate predators hovering around the top of the food chain.

Wondering why and how this happened?  The reality is that “big government” doesn’t have enough inspectors nor jurisdictional authority to shut down a food giant that willfully lets its operations go rogue. When it comes to food safety, it is open season on most everyone who eats in this country.

At virtually every point in the food chain “big government” is toothless, or at least acts that way.  It has let a handful of corporate giants take over meat and poultry production, in spite of the trust-busting advances of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  At recent Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture workshops on concentration in the food production sectors, farmers, ranchers, organized labor, and rural and urban folk alike turned out in mass to advance a strong, progressive agenda—calling for government enforcement of longstanding laws to protect independent producers, food workers, and rural communities.  Whether the Departments decide to act is another matter.

Inadequate plant safety enforcement by the overwhelmed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides yet another example of the inadequacies of “big government” to protect workers and to assure food safety.  Safe workplaces produce safe food.  Farm workers still toil in horrendous conditions.  No one seems to have jurisdiction over the speed of lines in meatpacking and poultry processing plants; OSHA does not have the enforcement staff to assure safety in food production plants, let alone in all the other industries it is supposed to oversee.  Listen to workers in a meatpacking plant tell about when they see going down the line and you may never eat meat or poultry again.

And then there’s the retail end of the food chain, where consumers supposedly benefit from the nation’s “cheap food policy.”  As the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) points out so disturbingly in its recent groundbreaking report on Wal-Mart, the shopper is the final victim in the great food ruse.  Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the world, and dominates the nation’s retail grocery sector where it controls more than 30% of the grocery market in every major region. Its power to control purchase prices from even the corporate food giants is astonishing, affecting pricing and wages at virtually every point in the food chain.  Ironically, low-wage food workers themselves—whose incomes are driven down, in part, by Wal-Mart’s global purchasing power—often shop at the retail giant, completing the corporate circle of exploitation.

DeCoster and his kin are big contributors to Iowa Democrats.  Doesn’t matter.  When it comes to food safety, party affiliation is meaningless.  Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley said that “the marketplace” would punish DeCoster in ways the federal government couldn’t—by shoppers discerning the plant code on every dozen eggs, we presume, and then putting them back in the cooler.  Maybe that’s why the Food Safety Modernization Act continues to languish in the Congress, even though Iowa Senator Tom Harkin has been a stalwart supporter. Perhaps it will move this fall, on salmonella eggs.

So, if you want safe food, bring on the inspectors, the enforcers, the attorneys from “big government,” and get them moving at all points in the food chain. Against Big Food and Wal-Mart, they may be the only chance we have to eat well and live.

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