In a speech at a cattle industry convention last week, the president added yet another item to the ever-expanding list of things essential to our national security: food.
Now, I've been thinking for some time that we should be doing something about the danger of someone poisoning America's food supply. Unfortunately, many of the prime suspects are the folks the president was chewing the fat with at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association confab.
"It's in our national security interests that we be able to feed ourselves," George Bush told the red meat meeting. "This nation has got to eat." That's very true, Mr. President. Second grade clearly wasn't wasted on you! But does the menu have to include beef brimming with growth-enhancing steroids and chicken laced with heavy-duty antibiotics?
I realize that the rancher in chief has an affinity for guys wearing Stetsons (especially guys with Stetsons and cash-rich political action committees), but listening to him sing the praises of "America's healthy beef" was, if you'll excuse me, hard to swallow.
Since the 1950s, American farmers have been fattening their cattle with growth hormones. Like a bovine version of those steroid-addled bodybuilders Hans and Franz, these cattlemen are looking to pump up their profits by bulking up their beef. Fully two-thirds of this country's 36 million beef cattle are currently on the juice. Hormones are also regularly used to make cows more fertile and increase the amount of milk they produce.
Fears about the health hazards posed by the chronic use of these drugs led the European Union in 1989 to ban the importation of all hormone-treated meat. But, instead of taking these concerns to heart and reexamining U.S. policy, both the Clinton and Bush administrations imposed retaliatory trade sanctions against the E.U.
And the contamination goes beyond the meat itself. Giant cattle feed lots and factory hog farms are generating massive manure runoffs that are responsible for the polluting of 60,000 miles of rivers and streams -- putting our drinking water at risk and killing millions of fish.
So while Tom Ridge is busy trying to figure out how to keep terrorists from slipping unwanted chemicals into your food and water, the meat industry is doing just that on a daily basis -- with the government's cheerful backing. If that's not enough to give you a serious case of 'roid rage, I don't know what is.
And the situation isn't any more mouth-watering on the poultry portion of the menu. Chickens, cooped up in jampacked factory feed lots, are routinely dosed with antibiotics just to help them survive the horrendous living conditions. Of the 26.6 million pounds of antibiotics stuffed down the throats of animals every year, only two million are used for treating specific illnesses. No wonder Colonel Sanders was always so diligent about keeping his vaunted recipe a secret.
As a result of this pervasive use of antibiotics, scientists have documented an alarming, though not surprising, increase in drug-resistant bacteria in humans -- particularly since 1995, when the FDA, over the protests of the Centers for Disease Control, allowed the poultry industry to begin giving chickens a new class of powerful antibiotics that include Cipro.
At a time when we are counting on drugs like these to save us from the horrors of biological warfare, there is the very real possibility that America's chicken farmers will have rendered these miracle cures useless. It's a clucking shame.
Of course, as that famous chicken lover Emily Dickinson wrote, "Hope is the thing with feathers." And a number of poultry producers, responding to public pressure, have recently promised to substantially cut back on the antibiotics they feed healthy chickens. On the other hand, since our leaders in Washington -- who were fed close to $9 million in campaign donations by the meat and dairy industries in the 2000 election cycle -- don't require farmers to keep track of how much of the stuff they use, we'll apparently just have to take their word for it.
But, hey, I'm sure we'll be OK. Just look how well the combination of corporate greed and lack of oversight worked out at Enron.
I think I'll have veggies for dinner tonight. Care to join me?