Published: 15/12/2001

Recent food scandals in Europe have placed the issue of food safety at the forefront of public concern. Dioxin- and PCB-contamination of Belgian meat, poultry and dairy products, followed by lurid revelations of sewage sludge in French animal feed, have prompted a growing number of European citizens to call into question the ability of current farming and processing techniques to supply wholesome food.

In this situation, unions face a double challenge. They must defend the thousands of workers who have been penalized through job losses or reduced income resulting from the actions of unscrupulous employers. But they can also seek to channel the political fallout from the massive crisis of consumer confidence into a broad-based movement for developing a system of food production that is environmentally and socially sustainable, delivering healthy, nutritious food at prices working people can afford. This movement must be built on a foundation of public awareness that strong food industry unions are the indispensable condition for safe food.

The current ‘beef war’ between France and the UK highlights the political blind alley that can arise when the labour movement fails to set the basic terms of the food safety debate. The French refusal to lift the ban on British beef imports, in defiance of a decision by the European Commission, has given rise to populist calls – echoed even inside the Labour Party − for a retaliatory ban on French food products. The dispute has favoured the growth of xenophobia and the more reactionary forms of anti-EU sentiment in both countries while obscuring the root cause of the problem, namely hyperintensive production techniques in the pursuit of maximum profit. Meanwhile, employment in the British beef industry remains well below pre-mad cow levels, and European consumers who wish to eat beef have good reason to rebel against feeling forced to choose between mad cows and cows fed on sewage sludge.

In the controversy over beef, it has been forgotten that agriculture and meat processing, even in the European Union, are sectors that are highly dangerous and sometimes fatal for the workers they employ. The present food system fails workers both as consumers and as wage earners. If we are serious about transforming it we must transform the debate on food safety. The assumptions underlying recent proposals for establishing public food safety agencies illustrate the pitfalls of that debate in its current form.

Pitfall number one: national food safety agencies are sufficient to restore control of the food we eat. The French government was in fact the first to set up a new public food safety agency in the wake of the BSE scare. It was on the advice of this body that the Jospin government chose to defy the EU decision to lift the ban on British beef. The European Commission has now struck down that decision. Moreover, a European food safety agency imposing stringent controls on food quality would be vulnerable to challenge at international level, a lesson hammered home by the recent WTO ruling that the EU ban on US hormone-fed beef imports constitutes an illegal barrier to trade.

Sweden banned the use of growth hormones in meat production – with the firm support of the trade unions – in 1986, leading to broad changes in the way meat is produced in that country. As a consequence, Sweden is the only country in Europe where salmonella resistance to antibiotics is declining. If aggressive exporters were to challenge Swedish regulations at the WTO, however, this progress in safer meat production and consumption would be immediately jeopardized.

In a world where the decisions of the WTO increasingly dictate how food is produced, national and regional food safety standards are only as secure as the international system that underpins them. The labour movement should indeed support national food safety agencies, properly set up, but they are no panacea. The fight for food safety requires giving equal priority to upgrading the international standards which set the terms of reference for the WTO, and these are laid down by the food and ‘life science’ transnationals which dominate the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Pitfall number two: food safety is a technical issue requiring technical solutions, which are best left to ‘experts’. Nothing could be further from the truth. The current system of food production, built on factory farming and intensive processing methods, is the result of a series of fundamentally political decisions and enforcement regimes which have shaped the market forces the WTO claims to be setting free by establishing a ‘level playing field’. Export subsidies and related measures, which force smaller producers to adopt socially and environmentally destructive production methods or be driven to the wall, are entirely political in nature. International food safety guidelines that permit high levels of pesticide residues are the outcome of a political process, one that is stacked in favour of pesticide makers and users. Laws that permit, and even encourage, employers to fire workers seeking to organize a trade union and set up a health and safety committee at the workplace, are the political expression of the power relations that shape our present food system.

The doubling and tripling of slaughter and processing line speeds in recent decades has been the principle vector for spreading the filth and pathogens behind the rising incidence of meat-related food poisoning. No system of technical controls, including the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) system of microbial testing, now mandatory in some US processing plants and increasingly adopted internationally, can succeed in reversing this trend unless workers are empowered, through their unions, to slow down and control the lines in the interest of both worker health and safety and the health of consumers. The fallacy of the technical quick-fix is highlighted by the fact that the HACCP system is being implemented in the US as part of a deregulatory package in which the industry is being asked to police itself and federal inspection is being cut back.

A key issue in the strike led by the UFCW at the Tyson poultry plant in Corydon, Indiana earlier this year was the demand that workers have the right to refuse to process diseased or damaged chickens. It is precisely this demand that evokes the toughest resistance on the part of the employers, for whom increased line speeds and the avoidance of ‘downtime’ have become crucial determinants of profits. The human impact of continual speedup is measured in the dramatic increase in repetitive strain injury, which in many countries is still not officially recognized as an occupational disease.

The first round in the battle for safe food will be won when we succeed in getting across the message that the upsurge in food-borne diseases, the crippling of food workers by repetitive strain injury, pesticide poisoning and the hazards of factory farming are related symptoms of a system of food production that places profit ahead of human needs. And that an essential antidote is union power, reaching up from the factory and the farm to the international bodies which write the rules determining what we eat; whether, how and in whose interests it is produced; and who will live and who will die as a result of the quality and availability of the food which is an essential and fundamental right for all.