SAN FRANCISCO–”Organic farming is a fraud. And so is the health food industry. So are the notions that preservatives, pesticides, drugs and plant foods are bad, and ‘natural’ is good,” writes Dick Beeler in his monthly column which appears in the two glossy agriculture magazines, Animal Health and Nutrition and Agrichemical Age, which he edits.
This “inspired anti-chemical and anti-science group”, says Beeler, is “out to kill the capitalist system, and they know that the surest way to accomplish this is to destroy modern food production.”
“…The greedy die-hard promoters of the ‘organic’ and health food movements, and those who oppose modern science and industry are working in concert, and they are in it for everything they have,” continues Beeler in another column. “Theirs is a crime against us, our families, friends and neighbors.”
“Our choice is simple: Wake up or go hungry.”
From Dick Beeler’s perspective, America has in fact woken up. It woke up last November 4th, to be precise, when Ronald Reagan was elected President. It was a day Beeler describes almost reverently as, “The start of a new life.”
What kind of a new life?
“Politically agriculture has just had ten black years,” he writes. “We’ve been saddled with regulations we never dreamed of before. But for the last two months we have been rejoicing that maybe the pendulum has begun to swing back.”
Dick Beeler is not rejoicing alone in what he calls the “agricultural community”.
Animal Drug News, published by the Animal Health Institute, the main lobbying organization in Washington for scores of large drug companies, proclaims enthusiastically that, “The new administration looks like it will provide an opportunity for a more moderate approach to food safety issues…Livestock producers…are likely to find the next generation of regulations a lot easier to live with…’Deregulation’ is a buzz word which will be used often and with telling effect in the next four years.”
David A. Stockman, President Reagan’s budget director recently spoke of the “staggering” possibilities he foresaw to “defer, revise and rescind” regulations which related to food testing and drug safety.
To get a hint of how this new crew of Republican de-regulators views the question of food safety, I dropped in on Dick Beeler in his San Francisco office.
Having followed his editorials throughout the Carter years, which had portrayed the United States as if it were a captive nation enslaved by the bureaucratic oppression of a “lunatic fringe of activists”, “zealots”, and “a bunch of long-haired social economists…. and professors of ecology and land-use philosophy”, I was prepared for a stereotype of a cliched agribusiness ogre the presentiment of which lurks in the hearts of many liberal environmentalists. Instead I found a well-tanned, affable middleaged man who announced proudly that he swims regularly in San Francisco Bay to keep in shape. While it is true that Beeler minces no words in attacking those trends and people in America which he sees as “making all the goddamn trouble for our great agricultural and industrial enterprises,” he does so with humor and a sense of the absurd. But Beeler, like his Republican colleagues who are slowly filling the appointive offices of the various regulatory agencies in Washington, does not allow himself to get bogged down in discerning different shades of grey. Dick Beeler’s mind does not appear to be filled with troublesome shadows. He sees things in black or white. He is an impatient man who is sick and tired of watching the productive genius of America tied up in regulatory knots. And when it comes to agriculture, he’d rather not dwell on all the potential hazards of complexity of the new chemical technology being utilized. What he sees is the American farmer being strangled by what Reagan’s new Secretary of Agriculture caustically calls governmental ” meddling” “The best thing for the consumer (an almost blasphemous word for Beeler) is good healthy agriculture,” says Block, meaning, of course, an agriculture left to its own devices.
Tug of War
So when Dick Beeler looks out at the United States from his office at the California Farmer Building, he sees a country divided up into two teams, engaged in a do-or-die combat. For the last four years his team has been taking a drubbing. Now, suddenly they have won and are in power. And Dick Beeler no longer sounds like a discordant voice from the margins.
“There are always a few who will read some long chemical name on the wrapper, and say, “Oh God! What’s that awful thing” instead of saying, ‘Thank God! That’s keeping me
from getting sick!’,” says Beeler, tipping back in his swivel desk chair as we begin to talk.
“You know that you can go almost any place in this country and get good clean meat. And I don’t know of any case where feed additives or animal health products have caused any deaths, disease, mutations or human suffering. It’s all been the other way around,” says Beeler, making one of his sweeping generalizations and more conveying his point of view rather than verifiable scientific fact.
“Just stop and think of the disgusting, sick situation that most animals live in when they are not cared for. They’re boney, full of worms, saggy, they’ve got disease, they die early. This sort of thing has all been cleaned up in this country. The development of all these drugs and chemical agents have made a tremendous contribution to the health of livestock in the U.S. It has contributed not only to the quantity but the quality of meat made available to more and more people. Americans only spend 17 percent of their disposable income for food. That’s by far the lowest percentage of any people in the world.
“How the hell could you raise enough chickens, to produce broilers at 49 cents a pound if there were no confinement systems, no drugs and you had to chase each chicken or pig around the barnyard trying to catch it? How could you go to Kentucky Fried Chicken and be sure you’d get exactly the same quality and quantity every time? Remember, Kentucky Fried provides more meals for Americans than any other single source including the U.S. Army. That’s what people want. They don’t care if it’s made in Salt Lake City or Taiwan. They just want it cheap and they don’t want to get the runs from eating it.
“Often you hear that animal health products are nothing but a cover-up for poor management. Well, that’s just a lot of baloney. We’ve taken animals out of nature and bred them for our own purposes so we don’t have to go out and shoot them with a bow and arrow. We’ve developed animals which are suited for this purpose and put them into confined areas. We’ve done a lot of abnormal things that Mother Nature didn’t intend when she originally designed the animals. So we’ve got all these animals packed into a house, and a disease comes floating through, they’re all going to get it unless you shoot them up with some kind of vaccine or antibiotic. Do you think it is wrong to shoot an animal full of something to make him healthy? Thirty or forty years ago a lot more people got sick from eating them than do today. We put these drugs and things into the meat for the benefit of the human race, not so that the fifteenth generation from now will mutate and be born with two noses”
You Could Get Hit by a Brick
Beeler takes a sip of coffee from a cup emblazoned, “Dick.” “So,” I ask, “you don’t at all have the sense that we are heading off into some new and uncharted territory with all these drugs and chemicals in our meat and lives?”
“Nahhh. Hell, no. I think that’s just inflammatory rhetoric. It doesn’t make any sense. I mean, sure everything changes. We’ve always had mutants, freaks and once in a while you’ll get an albino or a cleft palate. I don’t believe in all this crap about abortions from spraying things like 2-4-5-T”
Beeler wears a bemused smile at his own insouciance.
“Basically, I don’t think we have any cause for alarm. I don’t know of a single agricultural chemical in any kind of widespread use that has presented any kind of threat to anyone. Of course, I am assuming that they are used properly. Most of those materials are dangerous if you are careless with them, although they are probably not half as dangerous as an automobile.”
“Do you think the government should be regulating any of these toxic drugs and chemicals?”
“Sure. I believe in some regulation to keep unhealthy things like botulism and salmonella out of food,” rejoins Beeler without much enthusiasm. “But for every dollar that goes into the monstrous regulatory apparatus, as well as those required by industries to respond to that process, those are dollars which will not be used effectively in the search for cancer’s cause and cure.”
“When I look at their direct and indirect costs I seriously question the value of regulatory agencies like the EPA. They’ve got thousands of people on the payroll. They have thousands of regulations. But what kind of benefits have the American people had from EPA? I mean, there is more smog than there ever was in L.A. They haven’t solved any problems. They’ve just made problems, not only for agriculture, but for almost every enterprise in the country.
“Then take the USDA. For years and years it was the friend of the farmer. It was a benign regulatory agency, a service agency. No one had any widespread complaints about it. Then, all of a sudden the USDA becomes the adversary of the farmer.”
“Do you think they ought to rescind the Delaney Amendment?” (The Delaney Amendment of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act specifies that no carcinogenic substance may presently be added to foods in any amount regardless of how its benefits may outweigh its risks. There is a discussion in the Reagan administration about repealing it.)
“Yes, I believe that the Delaney Amendment is a bunch of political hot air designed to fool the public and buy votes. And I wrote that in one of my editorials.
“Okay, now, there is widespread agreement that things thought to be carcinogenic are dangerous only at certain levels. That’s a matter of just plain fact. I mean, if they can establish acceptable levels of rodent hairs and droppings in your food, they can set tolerable levels of DES [a growth promoter in livestock] and other things that benefit mankind. They ought to try that rather then just banning them as they do now according to the Delaney Clause. Most of these elements are existing anyway in your body, and you don’t have cancer. So there must be levels of these things which don’t cause cancer. And if they help us produce or process meat or other foods, why shouldn’t they be used at those safe levels?
“Well, take selenium. That’s a carcinogen. They looked at the best scientific evidence, and it demonstrated that the absence of adequate selenium in the diet of certain meat animals causes disease. So, hell, they couldn’t ignore that, so they set acceptable levels even though it’s a carcinogen. Even though the Delaney Amendment said, ‘No way!’ So I just think the Delaney Amendment is a cheap shot and a phoney device. It isn’t serving any useful purpose.”
“But what I really object to about it, is that it feeds on the blind fear of the people. I think that’s why the guy put it in there. I mean, from a political standpoint, what could be better than a law which outlaws cancer? It’s just great! But it’s a fraud on the American people. What they should do is weigh the risks against the benefits in each case rather than just getting terrified and banning all of these things.”
“What about the cumulative effect of all these new chemical compounds being introduced into our food?” I ask.
“People can always raise questions on things like the unknown cumulative effect of drugs and chemicals in the environment. You can’t prove their danger one way or another. I mean the components of these compounds have been around forever. After all, we’re not creating any new matter on this earth. Maybe we would have had three legs or wings if we hadn’t been eating something for the last few thousand years. I think that kind of question is ridiculous. When you start talking in vague generalities like that, you scare the hell out of people. You have to take every compound and test them. But you have to do it on a scientific basis”
“Do you really believe that finally scientific truth will always come down clearly on one side?”
“You mean you don’t understand how I can believe one of these experts over another? Well, what the hell, I suppose part of it is because I just want to believe something, I guess. Finally, I just have a faith in human nature; that the basic motivation of people is okay; that they want to accomplish things that are worthwhile and good.”
“You hear people say that things are never black and white. But I think that’s a real stupid way of looking at things. You’re not thinking if you always say that.”
“How are we actually going to decide which of these agents is too toxic for use?” I ask.
“You know how it has worked. If you have a very controversial compound, often the public ends up making the decision on whether or not it will be used. But how in the hell is the average voter going to decide about something like that? You have to take the word of the expert!
“The average opponent of putting these scientific discoveries into use, is always some guy who can devote almost 100 percent of his energy to it. He’s an activist. That’s his job. So, while you and I are working someplace, this guy is out in a picket-line saying ‘Hell with the experts! ‘”
“But whom should we follow when the experts don’t agree?”
“Well, we hear that all the time. It just depends on your definition of an expert. But by and large I think the real experts do agree on most of these things. I think if you took a vote among nuclear scientists you’d find more than 95 percent supporting nuclear power. The problem comes when you have people like Jane Fonda and Barry Commoner out there beating drums and getting everyone worried. So all these bewildered people they lead around don’t understand. They get confused, but they still have to make a decision in the voting booth:’
Beeler pauses to scratch his balding head with a white ballpoint pen which he had been twirling between his fingers as we have been talking.
“But,” I ask, “if our problems in democracy have gotten so complicated that the average voter can’t understand them, isn’t that a dangerous situation?”
“They don’t understand them. They believe one thing today, and another tomorrow. Where we’ve been let down is that the people who know about what kinds of drugs and chemicals are used in meat have not gotten out and explained them. And it won’t be easy for them when they finally have to do it because they will always be suspect if they stand to make a buck out of the deal. So people will think they can’t expect them to tell the truth.”
“But is it the job of the spokesmen for companies selling a chemical or a drug to ‘tell the truth’? Aren’t they trying to sell a product rather than conduct an educational campaign?”
“Sure the drug and chemical companies have their lobbyists and advertising budgets. But it’s surprising how naive they have often been. A lot of people don’t believe that.”
“When you hear all those bad things about those big companies, the picture is always painted of great big monolithic corporations with no heart, profit at the expense of the real people. No one ever stops to think that there isn’t such a thing as a big money-grubbing corporation. It’s just a whole bunch of people running this enterprise.”
Learning to Trust
“There has been a long twenty-five year history in this country of building a vague distrust of business, of the drug companies, chemical companies, even the large farmers. I hope we’re coming to the end of that now.”
“You don’t just throw all these drugs and chemicals aside and go back two hundred years just because some cattlemen or hog farmers don’t observe withdrawal times before slaughter or misuse these products. I mean, you have to be enough of a believer in your fellow men to believe that most of the time most people will be honest and do the right thing.”
“Don’t you think that considerations of profit and loss sometimes influence a drug or chemical company, particularly if danger is only potential or not yet clearly understood?”
“Well, we’ve all got a little bit of crook in us, and some of us have nothing but. And we’ve got ignorance. But you don’t penalize the whole industry or public because of those few people. You don’t outlaw automobiles because some people don’t know how to drive safely.”
©1981 Orville Schell
Orville Schell concludes his fellowship study on Drugs and Chemicals in the U. S. Meat Industry with this issue.