No human practice, other than the overuse of antibiotics and international travel, has a greater effect on disease transmission than agriculture and food processing. Many of the disease related byproducts created by the agriculture and food processing industries could be easily avoided through the application of the practices of the old ways. Throughout the pre agricultural revolution era, disease existed in our food supplies, just not on the scale that is seen today.
Meat, agriculture’s money maker, and the diseases contained within, is a far greater threat to human health than plant life could be. The animals which we consume are much more closely related to human beings than plants are for obvious reasons and therefore many of the viruses and bacteria, some of which are even good for that animal but are not for us, are able to take home inside our bodies and sometimes cause adverse effects when we consume them. Many of these diseases are known now and some of them have been known to some degree for centuries. The problem arises when these contaminated meats are allowed to enter our grocery store shelves. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed it acceptable for meat companies to cook and sell meat on which E. coli, a bacterium that can sicken and even kill humans, is found during processing” (Hedges, 2007). Practices such as these go on every day in the world of food processing and agriculture. The Food and Drug Administration inspects less than two percent of the imported food that enters the United States, and rightly so food safety experts believe that the United States government and its agencies does not have the resources, or at least does not provide enough funding for the resources, to ensure that the food we receive is safe for consumption (AP, 2007).
Not only is the processing of food a source of disease transmission through its poor regulation and dangerous mechanics, but also many of the diseases that get further spread at the processing plant have already been greatly traveled before they have even left the farm. Little livestock is actually owned by farm families any more with most of the industry being run by large corporations. “Mass production factory farms have replaced family farms, and, with this transition, it could be argued that hygiene standards have also slipped” (Hill, 2005) These large companies want great output at the lowest possible financial cost and the way that they achieve that goal is through the packing animals into the tightest of spaces and force feeding them antibiotics. “People [are] impacting global systems and disrupting the natural ecology of animals through artificial diets and intense husbandry. This, in turn, impacts our health” (Walters, 2003).
The food industry needs to take a step back and analyze the pitfalls that its current practices have. Future generations may have no way to consume the foods that we currently hold as staples to our diet. Some day there may develop a bacterium, imagine in cattle, which could not be cooked off, like E. coli can be, or cured with antibiotics. The industry would have to face up to the fact that it then has a product which no one can safely consume. The cost to the industry would be great, but the cost of the potential millions who would die before the cause was known is even greater. The industry needs to take a look at itself and change the way it practices. Equally as much the government needs to stop looking the other way when it comes to keeping the standards of safety for the foods which we consume. It is the government’s duty to keep its citizens safe from harm, especially if that harm is coming from within its own borders.
The Associated Press. U.S. food imports rarely inspected. April 16, 2007.
Hedges, Stephen. Washington Bureau. E. coli loophole cited in recalls. November 11, 2007.
Hill, Stuart. 2006. Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Walters, Mark. 2003. Six Modern Plagues and How We Are Causing Them.
This article originally written December 15th, 2008 as a final for OU IPE 3913 - Human Health, Disease, and the Environment.