Joanne Knight

September 28, 2009

Chemical Chicken

‘If you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’ it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.’ Lewis Carrol, Alice in Wonderland

The suing of KFC by an Australian family in New South Wales for causing serious injury to their 7 year old daughter opens the whole bucket of chicken for industrial agriculture once again. This is not a localized issue of whether something nasty got into the food because of poor hygiene standards of the local store but goes to the issue of how food is manufactured in our world today.

In October 2005, Monika Samaan, now 11, collapsed and had to be rushed to hospital after eating part of a Twister from Villawood KFC. Her salmonella poisoning developed into acquired spastic quadriplegia, acquired profound intellectual disability and liver dysfunction. She is now confined to a wheel chair.

We all know that eating junk food is bad for us but the fast food chains seem to like to add an extra bullet in the game of dining roulette. In 2003, the Food Safety Information Council estimated that a whopping 5 million Australians are affected by food-poisoning every year and a 2005 report found that approximately 120 people die from food-borne illnesses in Australia every year.

KFC only stopped using partially-hydrogenated oils, one of the worst sources of trans fats which massively increases the risk of heart disease, to fry their chicken when the Centre for Science in the Public Interest took them to court in 2006. Health authorities worldwide recommend that consumption of trans fats be reduced to trace amounts. Baskin and Robbins makes a large Fudge Brownie (‘vanilla soft serve blended with brownie chunks and hot fudge’) which packs two days’ worth of saturated fat (39 grams) and almost a day’s worth of recommended calorie intake (1,900 calories) into a snack.

If that doesn’t put you off, listen to this. In the United States in 1994, health investigators found that contamination of icecream pre-mix occurred because it was transported in tanker trailers that had previously been used to haul liquid eggs contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis. The contamination was not detected until the icecream had been distributed across the nation. Researchers estimated that 224,000 people in many different states contracted gastroenteritis as a result of eating the contaminated icecream. The practice of mass-distribution and transporting food long distances contains extensive risks as well.

The principles of the fast-food restaurants are coming to dominate more and more sectors of society and everyday life. Producing things in similar, standardized ways embodies four principal processes: ‘efficiency’, ‘calculability’ based on quantitative indicators, such as profit, ‘predictability’ as standard products are delivered in predictable ways, and ‘control’ through technology.

These principles seem to be applied so that even routines to ensure food safety and hygiene operate at their most economical and efficient rather than their most effective. KFC’s own internal hygiene review found the Villawood outlet, the subject of the legal action, regularly failed to comply with standards around food cooking, storage temperature and shelf life. In March, the NSW Food Authority dished out a $73,000 fine to two KFC restaurants in Sydney for poor hygiene and QSR Pty Ltd, which operates the outlets, was convicted of 11 charges of breaching food hygiene laws.

Such principles become especially problematic when applied to large-scale agricultural production from which KFC and other fast food chains source their never-ending demand for chicken and beef. The connection between flu viruses, now a source of global epidemics, and the practices of agribusiness have been strengthened by the findings of a report by Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (2009) produced in association with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

‘Industrial farm animal production is characterized by confining large numbers of animals of the same species in relatively small areas, generally in enclosed facilities that restrict movement. In many cases, the waste produced by the animals is eliminated through liquid systems and stored in open pit lagoons.’ This image of farms surrounded by lakes of excrement is almost enough to put you off your 2-Piece Feed.

One of the report’s damning findings is that the ‘intensive confinement production system’ or factory farming increases antibiotic resistance because of their misuse in the industry. OK we all want clean, healthy animals killed for our gastronomic pleasure. But antibiotics are administered in huge quantities, not just for disease prevention, but also for growth promotion. Tender, juicy breasts of chicken so big that the poor chicken cannot stand up and lies face down in its own excrement.

Reports show that between 17.8 to 24.6 million pounds of antibiotics per year are pumped into these animals. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of the antibiotics dispensed in the United States annually are used in farm animals. The practice of adding low levels of antibiotics and growth hormones has become common practice among battery farm operations.

Disease experts are investigating the links between this widespread use of antibiotics in animals and the role of antimicrobial resistance in epidemics. Benign or beneficial bacteria, which normally live in the human digestive tract or on human skin, such as Golden Staph, may pass antimicrobial resistance to harmful bacteria. Golden Staph is an enduring problem in many large Australian hospitals, attacking intravenous lines, catheters and wounds after operations.

The Pew report states ‘While it is difficult to measure what percent of resistant infections in humans are caused by antimicrobial use in agriculture as opposed to other settings, it can be assumed that the wider the use of antimicrobials, the greater the chance for the development of resistance.’

The essentially unregulated use of antibiotics in US industrial farming has serious implications for the incubation of epidemics. Public health experts are studying the correlation between conditions in industrial food animal production and the spread of the influenza virus. Dr. Ann Marie Kimball, at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health says influenza surveillance may be missing the key bridging populations, such as farmers, veterinarians and meat packers. Just as avian influenza (H5N1) and SARS had connections to human contact with animals, reports point to a swine flu epicenter around a huge hog farm in Veracruz.

Industrial food animal production and fast food consumption are intimately linked. These production centres are no longer farms. We must relinquish our bucolic dreams of cows peacefully chewing in lush fields and chickens clucking contently in the farm yard. They have now been replaced by the clamour and bustle of something more like the cross between a science lab and a factory but with more shit, blood and pain. Surprisingly, these images are produced by dispassionate scientists not by animal activists in the street. Monika Samaan is a symbol for everybody on the planet. We are all at risk from this dehumanised factory system.

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