Monday, August 30, 2010

Food poisioning, animal cruelty and rape of employees - the real nice side to America's factory farms

US agriculture is reeling from a salmonella outbreak which has left more than 1500 Americans ill with food poisioning and lead to the recall of more than half a billion eggs. The food firm at the centre of this outbreak had already been named a "habitual violator" of regulations and has been breaking the law since 1994. If there was an ugly face to factory farming, and an example of how loose food regulation is in the US, this is clearly it.

The DeCosters plant in Iowa which is the focus of the outbreak produces 2.3 million dozen eggs a week and has also been sued by neighbours for noxious gases, millions of gallons of uncovered manure and putrid animal carcasses left on roadways,

Not only has Mr. Austin DeCoster habitually broken food and environment regulations, in 2002 he paid a settlement to eleven female workers at his plant. Most of the women were Mexican, and the payment was made for sexual harassment and assault charges, including rapes by supervisors.

Notwithstanding the current salmonella outbreak, here's a quick run down of DeCosters adventures so far -

In 1997, he agreed to pay $2 million in fines for health and safety violations. The US labour secretary at the time, Robert Reich, said conditions on his farm in Maine were "as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop." Reich's successor, called the farms "simply atrocious," citing unguarded machinery, electrical hazards, exposure to harmful bacteria and unsanitary conditions.
In 2000, the state of Iowa designated DeCoster a "habitual violator" of environmental regulations for problems that included run-off of pig manure into local waterways.

In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced the $1.5-million settlement of the lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of the employees who reported sexual harassment, rape, abuse and retaliation by supervising staff at DeCoster's Wright County plants.

In 2007, 51 workers were arrested during an immigration raid at his farms. This was the fourth illegal immigration raid carried out by authorities.

In June 2010, Maine Contract Farming, the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms, agreed to pay $25,000 in penalties and to make a one-off payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were spurred by a hidden-camera investigation by an animal welfare organization.

Why does America continually turn its back on the catastrophic problems evident in their factory farms, if anything, surely their risk to human health should at least prompt a re-think. The Department of Agriculture and the FDA in the US have so far shown little regard for cleaning up anything other than food crises long after they've happened and public health has already been put at risk, let alone the issues surrounding animal cruelty and the monopolies operating food production in the US.
"Light touch" regulation in the US is the order of the day. After all, the FDA still allows growth hormones in cows despite their link with tumours, they also permit the routine feeding of antibiotics to healthy livestock to promote their growth, a practice which allegedly contributes to the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and they also allow cloned animals be be sold without special labelling.
On top of this the Department of Agriculture has just announced a recall of 8,500 pounds of ground beef for possible E. coli contamination. It's sad that we know of food horrors in the US only come to light when it's too late. If you really want to know what does on on American farms read Johnathon Safran Foer's "Eating Animals". It'll tell you not just what's behind the label but also behind the farm, read it. It ain't pretty.
For more on the salmonella outbreak and the incredible flouting of regulations by the DeCosters

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