“There are two kinds of Europeans: the smart ones, and those who stayed behind,” observed famously crabby Baltimore writer H.L. Mencken.
But I’m not so cynical. In fact, my wife and I were quite impressed during a July meander in the U.K. and France. In many ways, the Brits and French are sharper than we are when it comes to ensuring food quality and safety.
Consider these strawberries, purchased at a Paris convenience store. Notice anything odd about the one I’m holding?
If you responded, “It seems awfully small,” you just might be an American.
Similarly, check out this standard supermarket chicken, photographed in a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Manchester, England:
“Hmm — a pigeon, perhaps?” we Americans would tend to say.
In short, all manner of meats, fruits and vegetables in Europe seem about a third smaller than their American counterparts. Why?
The answer is that they are not bred solely for size, as is American commercial produce, which is doused with massive doses of pesticides to protect the water-swollen, fragile fruits.
Nor are they fed and injected with an unholy stew of hormones and antibiotics, as is American livestock. (Contrary to common belief, a major reason livestock get antibiotics is to help the critters gain weight, not to stave off sickness.)1
Drop the Syringe, Mon Ami
Europeans may have nutty ideas about which side of the road to drive on, but bless them: They’ve got Big Food’s number and — with certain exceptions — have made it illegal to marinate their livestock or drench their produce in toxic growth-promoting cocktails.
To quote the European Commission on Food:
In 1981, with Directive 81/602/EEC, the EU prohibited the use of substances having a hormonal action for growth promotion in farm animals.
Similarly, the European Union banned the use of antibiotics in animals for weight gain in 2006.
And the European Food Safety Authority has far more stringent rules on pesticides and other chemicals that can be used on produce.
What’s the Beef?
So are the copious hormones and antibiotics used in American food production always bad? It’s a complex issue — and the “pro” forces enjoy making it more so, the better to confuse the distractible Yankee masses.
So let’s simplify it. No one has ever made a convincing case that growth hormones and growth-promoting antibiotics in any way promote human health — even their boosters concede that a major purpose is to boost “market weight “and agribiz profits.
And the chemicals’ potential critics? Well, the scientific consensus is that the issue simply hasn’t been studied well enough to draw definitive conclusions regarding potential harm.
Gosh, I wonder why we aren’t examining this issue more closely. Here’s a clue from a 2015 study on antibiotic use in American agriculture:
Any serious attempt to address this problem will require the agricultural industry to be more forthcoming.2
Yes, let’s all settle in and wait on that one.
Don’t get me wrong. I love America. I love our drive, our creativity and our freedom to reinvent ourselves as our lives and passions dictate.
So I’m not necessarily advocating the European model — that is, simply outlawing most hormones and antibiotics in livestock and sharply restricting the legal chemicals that can be used on produce.
Instead, market forces, combined with governmental organic standards, are the best vehicle to ride to a cleaner, safer, more humane American food supply.
That’s why, here in the USA, it’s vital to always take the time and make the effort to purchase organic food, which is, by both federal and local organic standards, free from synthetic hormones, antibiotics and pesticides.
There’s nothing like travel to illuminate the weird cultural quirks of one’s homeland. The gargantuan, tasteless, toxic plants and animals that pass for food in much of America need a market-driven do-over, and every dollar we all spend for organic food is a step in that direction.
- Allen HK, Stanton TB. Altered egos: antibiotic effects on food animal microbiomes. Annu Rev Microbiol. 2014
- Chang Q, Wang W, Regev-yochay G, Lipsitch M, Hanage WP. Antibiotics in agriculture and the risk to human health: how worried should we be?. Evol Appl. 2015