Domestic abusers apologize for their behavior, and they often mean it. But that doesn’t stop them from doing it again. It’s the same with drunk drivers and other drug addicts. Why would we expect it to be any different for corporations—in particular for corporate “farms” with a history of health and safety violations?
In late September, Austin DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg, testified before a House of Representatives committee that he was “horrified” that his eggs had made anyone sick during the August salmonella outbreak linked to Wright County and Hillandale Farms. But paying millions of dollars in penalties associated with violating regulations meant to prevent such outbreaks has been a routine business practice for DeCoster since the 1980s. He keeps apologizing, but he apparently keeps producing eggs in brutal, unsanitary conditions, and people keep getting sick.
Hillandale President Orland Bethel, apparently fearful that such commentary would lead to self-incrimination, simply invoked the Fifth Amendment and refused to speak about his company’s role in distributing tainted eggs.
Really? This is where we’re at with food production in the US? A so-called farmer invokes the Fifth Amendment? It’s no surprise when you think about it. In this country, we’ve allowed food production to jump through the same paradigm of regulatory hoops that energy companies follow. The result is an industry that profits more by paying fines (when caught) for failing to meet regulations than by spending the money to meet regulations in the first place. And these are pretty basic regulations—nothing that effectively restricts the environmental damage done by factory farms or seriously attempts to curb the looming health crisis from overuse of antibiotics by such operations.
A couple of weeks before DeCoster and Bethel were called before Congress, the Union of Concerned Scientists released the results of a survey of the 1,700 scientists and inspectors who work for the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture. These are the agencies responsible for creating and enforcing the exact regulations by which DeCoster and Bethel seem unintimidated.
Nearly 40 percent of the scientists surveyed felt that the agencies catered to business interests in a manner that tacitly threatens public health. A full 25 percent—approximately 425 scientists and inspectors—cited firsthand experience with corporations that forced the modification, in favor of the corporations, of policies and actions meant to protect consumers…in the past year alone. A similar percentage claimed to have witnessed corporations withholding information about safety violations.
Not only is the regulatory stick not big enough, it’s clearly well-padded through political influence and corporate cash. The level of denial about the harm being done through profit-first factory farming is now so great that fining the people at the helm of this industry no longer makes sense. They need rehab.
New and stronger food-safety bills are well and good, but imagine sending these salmonella sellers to bland institutes with names lifted from their own product lines, like Hillandale Center for Ethical Rehabilitation. Make them go without money and golf for months, while they watch videos of puking children and spend time in the overcrowded chicken tank.
Maybe there’s nothing that can rehabilitate the kind of person who knowingly, we suspect, uses political cronies to pressure federal agencies to turn a blind eye to dangerous practices, keeps employees in poor working conditions for low wages, and then issues the same hollow apologies to both the ill and the nation’s highest legislative body.
But it’s fun to think about.
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