BY ALEXANDER COCKBURN
There’s America the Mythical, with the White House Easter Egg Roll scheduled for next 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, “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 raucous cackle of chickens mingles polyphonically with the grunts of what Bertie Wooster, commenting to Jeeves on his breakfast bacon, invoked as 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 U.S. 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 Kristallnacht a Jew imported for the ceremony from Auschwitz.
Michelle 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 e-mail, “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. 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.”
Across rural America, in the past 15 years, CAFOs have sprung up. 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 and 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, initially, 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 excrement, 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 go.
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 10 people to run a sow factory, overseeing 2,000 sows, boars and piglets.
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 OK “organic” standards designed to destroy the small farmers and processors.
Michelle Obama campaigns against obesity. She doesn’t campaign against Chicken McNuggets, as sold by the McDonald’s Corporation and devoured by kids across America. Here’s a slice of America the Real, from Michael Pollan’s best-seller, The Omnivore’s Dilemma:
He describes what makes up a McNugget: “Of the thirty-eight ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, I counted thirteen that can be derived from corn”, starting with the corn-fed chicken itself … According to the handout, McNuggets also contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasiedible 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 percent 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 have to 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, but it would be progress nonetheless.
– Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, available through www.counterpunch.com.