What do a half-billion eggs have to do with democracy? The massive recall of salmonella-infected eggs, the largest egg recall in U.S. history, opens a window on the power of large corporations over not only our health, but over our government.
While scores of brands have been recalled, they all can be traced back to just two egg farms. Our food supply is increasingly in the hands of larger and larger companies, which wield enormous power in our political process. As with the food industry, so, too, is it with oil and with banks: Giant corporations, some with budgets larger than most nations, are controlling our health, our environment, our economy and increasingly, our elections.
The salmonella outbreak is just the most recent episode of many that point to a food industry run amok. Patty Lovera is the assistant director of the food-safety group Food & Water Watch. She told me: “Historically, there’s always been industry resistance to any food-safety regulation, whether it’s in Congress or through the agencies. There are large trade associations for every sector of our food supply, starting from the large agribusiness-type producers all the way through to the grocery stores.”
The salmonella-tainted eggs came from just two factory farms, Hillandale Farms and Wright County Egg, both in Iowa. Behind this outbreak is the egg empire of Austin “Jack” DeCoster. DeCoster owns Wright County Egg and also owns Quality Egg, which provides chicks and feed to both of the Iowa farms. Lovera describes DeCoster as “a poster child for what happens when we see this type of consolidation and this scale of production.”
The Associated Press offered a summary of DeCoster’s multistate egg and hog operation’s health, safety and employment violations. In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay a $2 million fine after then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich described his farm “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.” In 2002, DeCoster’s company paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by supervisors. Earlier this summer, another company linked to DeCoster paid out $125,000 to the state of Maine over animal-cruelty allegations.
Despite all this, DeCoster has thrived in the egg and hog business, which puts him in league with other large corporations, like BP and the major banks. The BP oil spill, the largest in the history of this country, was preceded by a criminally long list of serious violations going back years, most notably the massive Texas City refinery explosion in 2005 that killed 15 people. If BP were a person, he would have been imprisoned long ago.
The banking industry is another chronic offender. In the wake of the largest global financial disaster since the Great Depression, banks like Goldman Sachs, flush with cash after a massive public bailout, subverted the legislative process aimed at reining them in.
The result: a largely toothless new consumer-protection agency, and relentless opposition to the appointment of consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren to head it. She would give the banks as much oversight as the new agency would allow, which is why the bankers, including President Barack Obama’s appointees like Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and economic adviser Larry Summers, are believed to be opposing her.
The fox, you could say, is watching the henhouse (and the rotten eggs within). Multinational corporations are allowed to operate with virtually no oversight or regulation. Corporate cash is allowed to influence elections, and thus, the behavior of our elected representatives. After the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which will allow unlimited corporate donations to campaigns, the problem is only going to get worse. To get elected, and to stay in power, politicians will have to cater more and more to their corporate donors.
There is hope. There is a growing movement to amend the U.S. Constitution, to strip corporations of the legal status of “personhood,” the concept that corporations have the same rights as regular people.
This would subject corporations to the same oversight that existed for the first 100 years of U.S. history. To restrict political participation just to people will take a genuine, grass-roots movement, though, since Congress and the Obama administration can’t seem to get even the most basic changes implemented. As the saying goes, if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.