Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Hallmark/Westland Meat recall: Blind Hysteria

To date, 37,000,000 lbs of meat, sold in 36 states, over the course of 2 years, has been recalled।
That's a lot of meat. Meat used in school lunch programs, meat sold in supermarkets. The largest recall in US food history. And I have just one question:


Of the millions of pounds in circulation (most of which has already been consumed), not one person reported getting sick.

Not one of the thousands of cows that entered the slaughterhouse was ever diagnosed with an illness that is transmissable to human beings through consumption.

So why the hysteria and recall?

Nasty videotapes. Videos that upset us, because cows were shown to be lame, or being dragged or pushed with forklifts. For anyone with a heart for animals, the tape was upsetting.

But that doesnt mean that the public is at danger.

Every serious economist knows that Perfection is not an option in any endeavor. In huge corn silos, an occasional mouse will turn up and ground up along with the corn. In fields of broccoli, an occasional worm might get ground up with the veggies before being thrown into the frozen food aisle. That is the reality of life; and while it might make us squeamish, it is not a legitimate reason for society to incur enormous costs in an effort to 'make the icky go away.'

Even if the video showed 100 lame cows, that is a drop in the bucket compared to the volume of meat processed at that plant over the years. Even if the cows were diseased (as opposed to lame), there is no evidence that they carried diseases that could be contracted by humans. And two years after the incident, no one has reported any outbreak of illness attributable to this plant or lot of meat.

Slaughterhouses are not pleasant places. They smell awful, and are pits of blood and hair and warm organ smells...and generally pretty sickening places to the uninitiated. But our revulsion at them should not be the basis of sound decision-making.

The costs of this recall are astronomical, and widespread: the meat company is not the only one incurring those costs. Retail outlets and wholesalers must scour their product and pull them from the shelves. Schools must do the same. And as the stock of meat decreases, you an expect all consumers to end up paying more for meat becasue of the constricted supply.

And the benefit of all this?

Well, you can't say that the benefit of the action is to prevent human sickness...since there wasn't any human sickness, or even a likelihood of it, to begin with.

The only benefit is that we get to assuage our consciences at brutal slaughterhouse practices. We get to 'make the icky go away..'

Politicians will beat their breasts and call for stronger government regulation and inspections, and we will once again hand over power to the federal government to Make Things Right.

And once again, we will value Style and Symbol over substance.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

On Kosovo Independence Day - Happy Birthday, Kosova!

My first 'contact' with Kosova (the Albanian spelling) came in the form of its people. As a teacher, I had a very diligent, hard-working, polite young man in my class who was a recent immigrant to the United States. He was struggling through the language barrier to work full-time and get a college degree while supporting his sister and parents. I learned that they had fled from Kosova into Macedonia as refugees. And I listened to his stories of the horrors of ethnic cleansing that forced his family to flee.

It is indeed an unexpected nexus of forces: the United States and Europe, both societies with Christian roots, have been protecting a small enclave of Muslim Kosovars against the political claims of Christian (Orthodox) Serbians, during a time when Muslims are often seen as the enemies of western civilization.

I have been interested in the region for several reasons. First, as a teacher, I was invited to teach summer courses at the University of Pristina in the capital city. Secondly, as an Orthodox Christian, my 'church circle' consisted of Balkan peoples: Serbs, Greeks, Romanians, and Russians, many of whom passionately criticized NATO, the EU, and the US for being involved in helping the ethnic Albanians (and Muslims) of Kosova. I spent a lot of time on the internet, on chat boards, and in actual conversations trying to sort through the hate and passion that would flare every time mention of an independent Kosova would be mentioned.

One of the 'constants' in these conversations was the reflexive attempt by Serbs and Serb-sympathizers (who want continued Serb domination over the region) to go back to medieval history, and wax eloquent about the Ottoman Empire, the birthplace of Serbian nationalism in the Kosovo region, the fall of the Byzantine empire...and any other historical facts that could be mustered from 700 years ago to cement a claim to the land.

Internationally, only Putin's authoritarian (and Orthodox) Russia supports this approach. It is laughable on its face: In what other international conflict would anyone seriously consider the events of the medieval era? Should Britain have a claim to Normandy? Should Switzerland be divided and given over to a Neo-Swabian empire? Should the Vikings re-assert claims for the Scottish Isles and coastal Ireland? Should the Teutonic Knights be given title to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania? The notion of asserting political claims by resorting to medieval land claims is preposterous anywhere in Europe...and yet, for many Serbophiles, memories last verrrrry long. The reality is that in present history, the Serbs dominated other ethnic groups in the now-defunct nation of Yugoslavia. With a penchant for fascist authoritarianism, Serbian leaders have carried out atrocity after atrocity against non-Serbs, especially Bosnian and Albanian Muslims. One million ethnic-Albanians have fled for their lives...and 11,000 were murdered and dumped into mass graves which dot the countryside. Over three dozen such graves have been located.
No wonder Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush have both sided with the NATO forces in support of the Kosovars. The Serbian fascists were no less brutal in their extermination of Kosovars than was Saddam Hussein in his attacks on the Kurds. And its scary to note that the extreme nationalistic Serbs *still* receive up to 40% of the vote in Serbian elections...and they continue to hide war criminals and defend the actions of Serb paramilitary death squads.
The Orthodox Churches, which have been vocal in the United States in opposing military action, are oddly silent on the militarism of their Serbian branch. The most extreme reaction came from the head of the Serb Orthodox Church in Kosovo, Bishop Artemije, who denounced the Serbian armed forces for doing nothing."Serbia should buy state of the art weapons from Russia and other countries and call on Russia to send volunteers and establish a military presence in Serbia," he said.
(It should be noted that Serbian Orthodox monks have stood out as lights of conscience as they have helped hids and protect Muslim Albanians during this time).
As I discussed these recent historical events online, I obviously upset some Serbs. They emailed me pictures of severed heads to show me who I was fooling around with.
But I am not intimidated that easily.
It is widely expected that Kosova will declare independence in less than 24 hours. Good for them....whenever freedom wins, it is a win for all of humanity. Happy Birthday, Kosova!