As the back-to-the-future American food movement implores U.S. food policymakers to look to Old World models of local and artisanal production, the Old World itself is changing beyond recognition. This week Europe ended the decade much as it began it--buffeted by food scares. In the wake of the storm comes a stark sanitize-or-perish ultimatum for food producers that could spell the end for many small farmers, butchers and cheese makers.
The latest panic was sparked when a new diagnostic test revealed cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), the lethal mad cow disease, in slaughterhouses in Spain, France and Germany. Continental beef consumption plummeted by 40%, cattle markets emptied, sweetbreads were scrubbed from menus and the world's press bore down on even the tiniest Bavarian bratwurst stalls.
Ten years before that, charges over listeria in French cheese and salmonella in British eggs sparked a cross-Channel trade dispute likened in the right-wing French press to the Hundred Years' War.
If the paroxysms have become familiar over the years, government reactions to them could scarcely have changed more radically. When the era of food scares first dawned in the 1980s, the stock official response was to deny or downplay the danger. This French disclaimer about listeria in 1989 was typical: "It would take a lot to convince a Frenchman that his beloved Camembert, which he had been eating since childhood, was poisonous, even if it was--which it isn't."
Today, the requisite response is calls for accelerated testing programs, ever-tighter hygiene protocols and the formation of tough new watchdog agencies.
It took an unprecedented disaster involving a deadly new peril to precipitate the shift. In 1996, the deaths of 10 young people from the human form of mad cow disease forced the terrifying realization: Cattle products were in such universal use in food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics that 59 million Britons had potentially been exposed to an incurable, mind-rotting disease.
The following year, when Tony Blair's Labor Party swept to power in the U.K. on the back of the crisis, the first day in office it unveiled plans for a new Food Standards Agency. Elsewhere in Europe, Ireland and France also created new agencies. To top it off, last month in France, leaders of the 15 member states of the European Union just approved plans for an overarching European Food Authority.
For the reformers, uncompromising regulation is the only way to safeguard food and buoy consumer confidence in a globalized industry. This galvanized new safety movement has also fired a series of warning shots toward Europe's American trading partners, expressing fear and loathing of genetic modification of crops and hormone-treated beef.
"We have to regain public confidence in the capacity of the food industry and in public authorities to ensure that food is safe," insists EU Health and Consumer Commissioner David Byrne.
But to the minds of an array of Europe's most traditional food handlers--butchers, cheese makers, chefs, cookery writers and even safety experts--U.S. genetically modified crops and drug-enhanced beef are far from the only threat to consumer confidence. They charge that the new European safety movement itself is also wreaking irreparable damage. Holding local artisans to the same standards as global companies, they say, is a death sentence for small producers and timeless regional traditions.
Their objections come in the face of a formidable PR blitz. Byrne, a lawyer by training, has spent much of the last year flying from European capital to capital promoting the benefits of the new "farm to fork" regulation, "rapid alert system" and "critical hazard control checks." The party line: "Safety is the most important ingredient in our food."
Sources close to Byrne are, if anything, even more enthusiastic. "It is only positive and not negative," insists one spokesperson. "I don't see how anyone could possibly be against safe food."
But among Byrne's most passionate critics are his own countrymen in Ireland. "David Byrne needs to come back over here and meet real people who are trying to produce safe, quality food," says Darina Allen, proprietor of the Ballymaloe Cooking School in Cork County and a best-selling cookbook author.
"He needs to follow them around and find out what their lives are really like. Quality food producers are being hassled out of existence."
A Butcher's Tale
She points to Ed Hick, a fourth-generation Irish butcher.
"Quality is a word I wouldn't use anymore," says Hick. "It doesn't necessarily mean good; it means clean or spotless."
Hick, who used to supply his Dublin butcher shop with pork that he and his brother processed at a tiny nearby slaughterhouse, no longer slaughters his own pigs. The silky caul he used to produce for terrines, the chitterlings, the kidneys that used to come with the loins are all unavailable.
According to Hick, it's not any one rule that forced his family to close the slaughterhouse where they killed at most 25 pigs a week, but a succession of them. First, the local pig-keepers began to disappear.
"We've seen pretty much all the small guys we used to deal with go out of business," he says. "There was a coal man and a bus driver and just local people for whom it was a tradition to keep pigs on the side. These guys would have six or eight pigs at a time. They fed them on vegetable waste that they collected from the hotels. But then there was legislation requiring these guys to tool up with thousands and thousands of pounds' worth of equipment just to cook swill for the pigs."
Then came the 1992 structural requirements of the European Union Fresh Meat Directive that would condemn thousands of slaughterhouses across Europe. "Nobody came out and told us to close," he says. "It just became more and more apparent. We had people asking us to open up doorways through walls and others asking us to close them. There was quite considerable cost, as well. I think we figured out it was costing us [$7,000 to $10,000] a year."
If he found it hard to comply with regulations, he admits that he was also hard to regulate. Toward the end, he says, it was not uncommon for three inspectors--a veterinarian, a meat inspector and a hygiene inspector--to be dispatched to supervise him and his brother at work. "If we had taken them on in football, we would have lost," he says. "We were seen as a huge waste of veterinary time and manpower."
The meat Hick now sells comes from massive EU-approved slaughterhouses that process more than a thousand pigs a day. While he does not question the hygiene in large plants, Hick is not impressed by the animal husbandry or quality of the meat.
"I don't get as long a shelf life out of my product," he says. "Bad handling of the animal while it's alive, bad handling when it's killed and after it's killed all reduces the quality of the meat. A sympathetic hand probably tacks another two day's shelf life onto your meat. It's to do with the animals being rested and not too stressed."
His craft, he says, is dying. "Because of the way things have gone and this policy of centralization and intensification, basically the trade aspect of slaughtering has gone by the board," he says. "There isn't a huge amount of training. One person works one section of a line only."
When it comes to traceability of foods--a hot topic in the wake of massive recalls sparked by both BSE and a 1999 Belgian dioxin in poultry and pork scare--Hick is unimpressed by the new systems. "To be honest, I think we offered more traceability in the old days than all these new tattoo export animals. My brother and I slaughtered animals that we bought from local people then sold the meat back to local people," he says.
Death of the Slaughterhouse
British food safety advisor Richard North chronicled the death of the local slaughterhouse in the United Kingdom in the 1993 pamphlet "Death by Regulation" for the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs. Since 1980, by his count, the number of slaughterhouses has fallen from 1,500 to 350.
"The net effect of scares is always to concentrate the industry into fewer and fewer hands," he says.
EU officials counter that concentration of food industries is an international trend, not a result of their policies.
Whatever the cause, nobody disputes that food production is intensifying at a fierce pace. When Britain joined the European Union in 1972, it had more than 100,000 dairy farms. Today it has an estimated 30,000. While farm numbers plummet, herd sizes rise and animals once given names like Daisy and Dewdrop are now more likely to be called Cow 133 and 134.
Among its shopkeepers, a network of 35,000 butcher shops is now down to fewer than 14,000, with closures since the 1996 BSE crisis estimated at seven a week. Meanwhile, in the country Napoleon derided as a "nation of shopkeepers," six major supermarkets now control sale of more than 75% of the food.
Worst are the farm failures. December figures released by the British Ministry of Agriculture show that in the last year, more than 450 farmers and farm workers were driven out of business every week in what is now being described in the British press as "the worst collapse in farm incomes for 60 years."
North, a confessed Europhobe and now a research director in Brussels for the policy group Europe of Democracies and Diversity, argues that the new regulations can only speed the collapse. He points to the egg farmers whom he consulted during the 1989 salmonella scare. Having only just paid off the sizing machines to grade "legal" eggs, they must now buy identification machines to comply with new tracing regulations. "These can cost about [$100,000] apiece," he says. "Farm incomes are so marginal, this could effectively wipe out small producers."
In Spain, these are the village traders. Alastair Brown is an Englishman who bottles organic chestnuts near Seville. His business is new, and he had no choice but to tool up to meet the latest requirements. He says while at first he resented the stringent protocols, now he respects them. "However," he adds, "where the regulations can become a nonsense is for the smaller artisanal producers."
These, he says, have been disappearing before his eyes at the local market. "The local market used to be a thriving, boisterous place with half a dozen fish stalls, a handful of butchers and various fruit and veg people. It has been completely neutered by having all sorts of remodeling done to comply with new regulations. The result is that rents have gone up and less than a third of the stall holders are back. So it has pushed what was a pretty marginal activity for people beyond the point of nonexistence."
Andrea Petrini, a French food writer in Lyons, reports that a now constant feature of the city's famous La Croix-Rousse organic food market are fluttering petitions complaining about the same sort of new refrigeration, plumbing and structural requirements. "These cost lots of money," he says.
But again, the EU objects. "The standards that are set are very basic," retorts an official from Brussels. "They consist of temperature control for milk or meat and things, like in a market you have to have hot water and soap. It's really very basic stuff." France and Italy, they add, have been actively assisting traditional food businesses cope with the regulatory burdens.
The most unpopular aspect of the new regulations is the paperwork. Every food handling establishment, from farm to restaurant, must now abide by a process called HACCP, an acronym for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. This requires that crucial actions are routinely logged. Local inspectors will then check the records, and their scrutiny will be double-checked periodically by the new European authority.
Irish butcher Hick describes the burden of having to log one's every move as the equivalent of "having to do a written test on the rules of the road while you are driving."
Scottish chef Jeremy Lee agrees. He runs the Blueprint Cafe in London, a 120-seat restaurant above the Design Museum that is part of a larger chain owned by Sir Terence Conran. Lee estimates that logging fridge temperatures, cleaning schedules, training and risk assessment takes 15 hours a week. "We're lucky to be part of a large organization," he says. "You'd be running ragged to keep up with it if you were a wee independent."
But the new policies also have determined supporters. David Hicks--no relation to the butcher--runs a 15-year-old restaurant meat supply business in Dublin. "We have benefited tremendously from the EC [European Commission]," he says. At his newly revamped factory, meat arrives by the ton already boned, shrink-wrapped and boxed. Hicks likes it that way. "The meat factories have got to get it right in the farms, the abattoirs, the factories--the whole lot--so that the consumer can be assured that the product leaving Ireland is coming from the best conditions," he says.
Representatives of Europe's most powerful cooperatives also welcome the plan. David Biltchik, U.S. representative for the Consortium of Prosciutto di Parma argues that the new rules provide "equivalency" of safety measures in the world market. He says that since the 1970s, the 200 ham producers belonging to his consortium have "spent millions" on upgrades and safety research that has protected, not destroyed, a traditional product. "I do not accept for a minute that the quality or the tastiness of Italian food is being destroyed by all this regulation. Nonsense."
French officials, once so skilled at denying risk in eating their soft, raw milk cheeses, also now concur. In 1999, seven years after an EU directive instructed it to adopt a zero-tolerance standard for listeria in soft cheese, France has finally complied, causing a storm among producers of Epoisses, Maroilles, Saint-Felicien and Camembert.
At the same time, the Wall Street Journal reported the rise of pasteurized "vrai faux" cheeses: industrial cheese in rustic packaging.
French officials are unrepentant. "It would be very difficult to say to the consumers that the rules should not be the same because of the size of the company," says a delegate to the EU. "Food safety is food safety."
Whether or not harmonization of food safety standards will check the impact of bacterial pathogens such as salmonella, listeria and campylobacter is not only unknown, it may be unknowable. The EU's Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures relating to Public Health reported in May that existing food poisoning statistics from member states are too inconsistent to be reliable.
But safety expert North, who charted the British salmonella-in-eggs scare for his doctoral thesis, argues that we had long lived with these bugs quite peaceably, that the dangers have been grossly overblown and public fear cynically manipulated, not least by the media. " . . . in the night imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed a bear," he says, quoting Shakespeare.
Yet North also acknowledges that in the shadow of the BSE crisis, the scale of the impact of these old, largely gastrointestinal scourges now hardly matters. Since the first 10 of now almost 90 human deaths linked to mad cow disease were announced in 1996, the argument has not been just over consumer welfare, but liability when something goes wrong. Who is to blame in case of another food catastrophe?
BSE forever changed old notions of risk and responsibility. Multinational rendering and livestock feed companies may have recycled the lethal pathogen in contaminated feed, but last October a public inquiry into BSE by the British government could not find fault with their behavior. Technically, they had behaved legally, even when they had knowingly exported suspect rations for almost a decade after feed was determined to be the cause of BSE in Britain.
The inquiry did, however, censure U.K. officials for dozens of regulatory failures and "sedating" consumers with unfounded reassurances. Last October, in the wake of the inquiry, the British government only managed to preempt a class action lawsuit brought by families of the now almost 90 human victims by promising a no-fault compensation package. The cost, now estimated in millions of dollars, could rise to billions, depending on the final human toll.
Under the new European Food Authority, the diligence of complying member states may well be unassailable. Bang up front in the hygiene section of the new legislation is the warning: "The leitmotif throughout the recast of the hygiene rules is that food operators bear full responsibility for the safety of the food they produce."
But to the mind of North, while the mandatory implementation of HACCP might prove a death sentence for small producers, it could serve as the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card for businesses big enough to devote the time to it.
"Failures in food safety will be legally defendable provided the paperwork has been maintained," he says. "Strict adherence to HACCP makes it legally impossible to prosecute anybody for causing food poisoning."
John Jackson of the Times library contributed to this report.
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EUROPEAN FOOD SCARES
1981, SPAIN: Adulterated olive oil is recorded as the cause of more than 600 deaths and more than 25,000 illnesses, though arguments persist that the actual cause might be pesticide poisoning.
1988-93, UNITED KINGDOM: A junior health minister remarks on a TV news show, "We do warn people now that most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now infected with salmonella." Panic ensues. The minister is sacked. Egg consumption plummets; 3.5 million hens are killed, 9,000 producers go out of business and the incidence of salmonellosis continues to rise. The sacked minister writes a romance novel.
1983-89, EUROPE: Hundreds die across Europe from listeriosis. Soft cheese made on the French-Swiss border, known to have killed 31, is blamed. British health authorities warn pregnant women against eating French soft cheeses. French editorials retort that Britain's petits pois are not petits, its milk products are adulterated with vegetable fats and its sausages short on meat, and that it is flooding France with bad eggs. Germany and Sweden also ban some French cheeses. The main culprit behind many of the deaths proves to be Belgian pa^te.
1990, EUROPE: Discovery of benzene in Perrier causes withdrawal of 160 million bottles throughout Europe.
1990, NORTHERN IRELAND: Cattle carcasses held back by butchers because of "unusual characteristics" lead to exposure of widespread abuse of Clembuterol, a hormone banned by the EU since 1988. By the time a detection test is developed in 1993, two farmers are dead from inhaling it, customs officials have made dozens of seizures of the drug and Irish beef livers are recalled from more than 200 supermarkets in the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain.
1991-94, ITALY: The country's Istituto Superiore di Sanita (its National Institute of Health) reports that the most frequently implicated dish in food-borne salmonellosis cases is tiramisu.
1992, FRANCE: At least 29 people die in France from a Listeria outbreak traced to cured meat products.
1993, GERMANY: More than 1,000 people, mainly children, contract salmonellosis from contaminated paprika and paprika-powdered potato chips.
1994, SPAIN: 48 cases of salmonellosis in 14 regions traced to powdered infant formula.
1995, UNITED KINGDOM: The first of now more than 80 deaths among young people from the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. By 1996, the scare is global. The European Union bans British cattle products from the world market, Britain begins destroying more than 4 million cattle. In 1997, the Conservative government, in power for the duration of the BSE epidemic, falls.
1996, SCOTLAND: More than 300 are sickened and more than 10 senior citizens die from E. coli O157 infections contracted from food served at a church social.
1997, SWEDEN: Swedes charge that their salmonella-free status is threatened by contaminated foods, including turkey kebabs, which had been approved by the EU and imported from France, Denmark and Belgium.
1999, BELGIUM: Oil containing PCBs and dioxins is criminally dumped into cooking fats awaiting pickup for recycling into chicken and pig rations. Deformities noticed in chickens are determined to be due to dioxin poisoning. Belgian egg and meat products are swept from shops and banned from the world market. "Chickengate" costs the ruling prime minister his office. No human illness or death is noted, but a venerable and theoretically safe practice of recycling cooking fat in animal feed is banned and fat disposal quickly becomes an environmental issue.
1999, FRANCE: Classic soft cheeses Epoisses, Maroilles, Saint-Felicien and Camembert are recalled when France finally adopts a 1992 EU zero-tolerance directive for listeria detection in any 1-ounce sample of cheese.
2000, EUROPE--Beef consumption plummets by 40% across the continent when it is revealed that meat from a herd with a case of BSE has been sold in French supermarkets, and new cases are discovered in German and Spanish herds. A ban on the suspected carrier of BSE, meat and bone meal, is extended to rations for pigs and poultry. Europeans consider replacing the MBM protein constituent with dreaded imports of genetically modified soy beans from the U.S.