Oprah Winfrey and Mad Cow

The verdict in favor of Oprah Winfrey raises a number of interesting political and economic questions. Before reviewing them, it might be useful to take a look at how the beef industry currently produces its commodities. I am sure that the jury in Amarillo, Texas heard plenty of this sort of thing and found it difficult not to identify with Oprah who said that she would never eat another hamburger.

"In order to obtain the optimum weight gain in the minimum time, feedlot managers administer a panoply of pharmaceuticals to the cattle, including growth-stimulating hormones and feed additives. Anabolic steroids, in the form of small time-release pellets, are implanted in the animals' ears. The hormones slowly seep into the bloodstream, increasing hormone levels by two to five times. Cattle are given estradiol, testosterone, and progesterone. The hormones stimulate the cells to synthesize additional protein, adding muscle and fat tissue more rapidly. Anabolic steroids improve weight gain by 5 to 20 percent, feed efficiency by 5 to 12 percent, and lean meat growth by 15 to 25 percent. Over 95 percent of all feedlot-raised cattle in the United States are currently being administered growth-promoting hormones.

"In the past, managers used to add massive doses of antibiotics to the cattle feed to promote growth and fight diseases that run rampant through the animals' cramped, contaminated pens and feedlots. In 1988, over 15 million pounds of antibiotics were used as feed additives for livestock in the United States. While the cattle industry claims that it has discontinued the widespread use of antibiotics in cattle feed, antibiotics are still being given to dairy cows, which make up nearly 15 percent of all beef consumed in the United States. Antibiotic residues often show up in the meat people consume, making the human population increasingly vulnerable to more virulent strains of disease-carrying bacteria.

"Castrated, drugged, and docile, cattle spend long hours at the feed troughs consuming corn, sorghum, other grains, and an array of exotic feeds. The feed is saturated with insecticides. Today 80 percent of all the herbicides used in the United States are sprayed on corn and soybeans, which are used primarily as feed for cattle and other livestock. When consumed by the animals, the pesticides accumulate in their bodies. The pesticides are then passed along to the consumer in the finished cuts of beef. Beef ranks second only to tomatoes as the food posing the greatest cancer risk due to pesticide contamination, according to the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences. Beef is the most dangerous food in herbicide contamination and ranks third in insecticide contamination. The NRC estimates that beef pesticide contamination represents about 11 percent of the total cancer risk from pesticides of all foods on the market today.

"Some feedlots have begun research trials adding cardboard, newspaper, and sawdust to the feeding programs to reduce costs. Other factory farms scrape up the manure from chicken houses and pigpens, adding it directly to cattle feed. Cement dust may become a particularly attractive feed supplement in the future, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, because it produces a 30 percent faster weight gain than cattle on only regular feed. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officials say that it's not uncommon for some feedlot operators to mix industrial sewage and oils into the feed to reduce costs and fatten animals more quickly.

"At Kansas State University, scientists have experimented with plastic feed, small pellets containing 80 to 90 percent ethylene and 10 to 20 percent propylene, as an artificial form of cheap roughage to feed cattle. Researchers point to the extra savings of using the new plastic feed at slaughter time when upward of '20 pounds of the stuff from each cow's rumen can be recovered, melt[ed] down and recycle[d] into new pellets.' The new pellets are much cheaper than hay and can provide roughage requirements at a significant savings."

(from Jeremy Rifkin's "Beyond Beef")

There are a number of critical overlapping issues of class, race and gender in the Winfrey case. They intersect with what is certainly the most important free speech issue of today, the right to criticize unsafe food.

The "food libel" laws started to appear shortly after news coverage on the dangers of ALAR caused apple sales to plummet. They were inspired by the epochal McLibel case in Great Britain, when the fast food giant sued two penniless food/ecology activists who had been distributing leaflets outside a London McDonald's restaurant. Since almost all food produced by agribusiness in the United States is produced under potentially unhealthy conditions, such controversies are almost inevitable.

The problems are deeply rooted in the contradictions of late capitalism that the Wallerstein and Mezsaros posts addressed. Capital is driven to accumulate under conditions of increased competition and decreased land and water availability. This means that all sorts of technological fixes are applied to reduce the expense and time it takes to get a product to market. This means increased use of insecticides and pesticides. It also means experiments with "cannibalism," the source of the BSE threat. Obviously, when increased land and water costs confront agribusiness, it is economically tempting to "recycle" animal parts.

The reason that Oprah Winfrey's identification with food activists is so explosive is that it threatens the profits not only of the cattle industry, but McDonalds, Burger King and other fast food outlets. These are enormously profitable pillars of American capitalism who, as anybody who watches their ads understands, target the black community as their number one market.

Jane Brophy, one of the expert witnesses for the defense, estimated that 30-70% of all cancers are linked to diet and the incidence of bowel cancer has been strongly linked to meat consumption. Tim Lobstein, another expert, stated that there was a consensus view that diets high in saturated fat and sodium are related to the health problems of obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease. It is easy to understand why leaders of the black community, who are concerned about the high incidence of heart disease and cancer, might start to look critically at McDonalds. In some respects, what Winfrey was doing was analogous to the direct action taken in Harlem in the recent past when tobacco and alcohol advertising posters were ripped down. The ads for high-priced sneakers, fast food restaurants, cigarettes and Colt 45 were enriching the capitalist class at the black community's expense.

The other interesting issue is Winfrey's personal travails with obesity. She has shared with her largely female audience her life-long struggle to shed weight. Since obesity is a national epidemic, it comes as no surprise that her audience has such a strong identification with her anguish. The phenomenon of fast food does indeed raise all sorts of questions about our own health and the health of those we interact with in far-off lands. Food activists have worked hard to provide answers to these questions.

The political economy of the fast food industry really gets to the heart of the contradictions of late capitalism. The cattle industry is world-wide. It searches relentlessly for new pastures for the animals that are destined for fast food restaurants. In the 1960s and 70s, Central American became a prime location for cattle ranches to satisfy this market. Campesinos were driven off their land in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala in order to allow multinationals to do business. This caused revolutionary explosions that took years to suppress.

Meanwhile, the inexorable tide of capitalism seeks new markets everywhere. The prime symbol of this expansion is the evil golden arch of McDonalds. As soon as the "evil" Soviet empire collapsed, the first flag to be planted on the soil of the vanquished nations was McDonald's. Nowadays the pathetic Gorbachev is a shill for Burger King. How appropriate. India and China are the next new immense markets to be targeted.

As the system unfolds, more and more forests will be chopped down to free up land for cattle-ranching. Each acre of chopped down forest will enhance the prospects for global warming. Campesinos who are driven from their small, subsistence farms will be drawn to the big cities like Mexico City or Rio, where they will put additional pressure on strained ecosystems.

Socialism is the only alternative to this madness. What will test us is the need to retheoretize the way all these questions relate to one another. Those of us who expect the next radicalization to be a replay of the 1930s might find themselves disappointed. The rest of us have to roll up our sleeves and work out new responses to these inevitable crises.

Louis Proyect