News reports flit in and out of people’s consciousness. Ebola erupts again in Africa. A patient with Ebola-like symptoms is admitted to a hospital in the United States. Two people in Denver die of an illness related to “mad cow” disease. A herd of sheep is taken from its owners in Vermont after officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture come to suspect that the sheep might be infected with a variant of mad cow disease. Officials in the United Kingdom admit that they have lost control of the spread of hoof and mouth disease, just two years after those same officials lose control of mad cow disease. It is revealed that 13 percent of feed and grain processors in this country do not take proper measures to prevent infestations of the virus that causes mad cow disease. Two people die of Legionnaire’s Disease in Florida. And from time to time people are sickened by new outbreaks of E-coli and botulism. On and on and on. It’s hard to deny that we are witnessing the advent of the plagues of the twenty-first century.
The modern plagues associated with the food chain have their origin in one simple source: human sloth. Many people involved with the raising of livestock or the processing of feed do not want to do all that is humanly possible to prevent the outbreak of various diseases. Takes too much time. Costs too much money. Involves too much effort. Thus, a godless society helps to bring upon itself public-health disasters that could be avoided or at least attenuated by the sort of care and attention that are but the natural result of a consciousness of living in the Divine presence at all times, of understanding that we are to pursue excellence in the line of work we have chosen for ourselves, as befits redeemed creatures.
Capitalism plays its own ugly role in the triumph of sloth in the world. That is, unbridled individualism, which is the essence of capitalism, seeks to maximize profit and minimize cost. That is what accounts, in large measure, for the long-standing health and sanitation problems associated with the meat and poultry industry. In the early twentieth century, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle documented the problems of the American meat industry. Sinclair’s book led directly to the Wholesome Meat Inspection Act of 1907, which gave the USDA authority to inspect meat and poultry plants involved in interstate commerce. A 1967 act expanded that authority to cover plants involved in intrastate commerce, requiring states either to submit to federal investigation of the meat and poultry plants found within their borders or to establish their own inspection systems meeting or exceeding federal standards. The act included a provision allowing the USDA to preempt a state’s inspection system if it failed to enforce federal standards across the board. Those regulations — legitimate efforts on the part of government to assure public health and safety — represent two of the functions government is expected to fulfill according to the natural law; the other is the proper administration of justice according to the norms of objective justice founded in truth.
Many USDA inspectors are veterinarians trained to look for symptoms of disease. Others work under the supervision of public health veterinarians. All are fallible human beings. And the USDA itself has admitted that its inspection service is understaffed and overworked. Fatigue and inattention to detail can lead to sloppy or careless inspections. Familiarity with the owners and managers of the plants can result in mild warnings when stronger actions are warranted to assure the public health. Even when inspections are done carefully and stern warnings are given, however, bureaucrats not on the scene of a particular plant may very well be inclined to treat a serious situation with less gravity than it actually deserves. That is true in all countries. Bureaucrats generally do not like to be burdened with excessive work, which is one of the reasons the British public health authorities lost control of mad cow disease a few years ago — and why they are now losing control of the spread of hoof and mouth disease. The same is happening in our own country. It is only by the grace of God that pandemics of food-borne diseases have not yet broken out.
Following the sale of his small-animal veterinary practice in Queens Village, New York, in 1972, my father, Dr. Albert H. Droleskey, embarked on a second career. After trying semi-retirement for six months in 1973, he took a position with the Texas Department of Public Health, becoming the regional administrator in charge of meat inspection in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (a move that was quite a change for my parents). My father was disliked rather intensely by his superiors in Austin because he was a hated “Yankee” and a Catholic. However, no one else wanted to go to Harlingen, where my father was treated with hostility by many of the inspectors he had to supervise because he was an “Anglo.” That did not bode well for him when dealing with the owners of the meat-packing plants, either.
Indeed, my father underwent about a year of real persecution as he attempted to enforce the law strictly and equitably, understanding that nothing less than the public health of the people in the Lower Rio Grande Valley was at stake. He was accused of being anti-Hispanic because he forced his inspectors (some of whom were accepting bribes of various sorts, including food, from the meat packers) to shape up and because he actually ordered several plants shut down for serious violations of the law. The fact that my father was trying to protect the largely Mexican-American community of the Valley from impure meat did not in the least dissuade inspectors and plant owners from accusing him of anti-Hispanic bigotry. They did everything they could to drive him from the Valley.
But in time my father won the grudging admiration of his superiors in Austin for his tenacity in the face of the fire directed his way. The situation he faced was a very serious one. I accompanied him to meat-packing plants during a couple of summer breaks from my doctoral studies at the State University of New York at Albany. The conditions I saw were deplorable — so much so that describing them in detail might ruin a reader’s appetite for days on end. Suffice it to say, however, that the scenes were unbelievably horrific, including very unsanitary and unhygienic behavior on the part of the workers on the kill floor. I could see then what Upton Sinclair meant when he called the meat-packing industry a veritable jungle. It is.
As is the case with all the issues facing our society, the attenuation or prevention of food-borne diseases and plagues is directly related to how human beings view themselves and the world in which they live. That is, a secular, earthbound view of human existence leads people to do the minimum amount of work necessary. It leads people to accept sloth and actual malfeasance as regrettable realities about which little can done. It leads managers to cover up the errors of their employees. And it leads inspectors and the bureaucrats who supervise them to engage in their own coverups in order to make their own jobs easier. The fact that the coverups will come to light eventually does not in the least deter them from trying their very best to prevent bad news from becoming public, which almost always happens.
By contrast, in a world where people loved God through His true Church, the lion’s share of people would understand that they would have to answer to the Blessed Trinity at the moment of their own Particular Judgment for how well they had discharged their duties in their chosen state-in-life. And those involved in meat packing and the inspection of meat-packing plants would take seriously their obligations under the Fifth Commandment to see to it that all threats to the public health were noted assiduously and measures were taken immediately to redress violations and outbreaks of diseases. Certainly, human nature is what it is — fallen, weak, imperfect. In a Catholicized world there would still be people who would act wrongly when confronted with problems they would prefer to ignore. However, the general tenor of the world would be different. People would be more disposed to do what is right for love of God — and for love of neighbor as a manifestation of a love for God through His true Church.
I don’t know whether the scattered reports we are now hearing about outbreaks of various diseases in livestock — and the food-borne illnesses for humans generated thereby — will actually develop into a specific epidemic or the equivalent of a modern plague. But if our descent into sloth continues, those problems will worsen. More and more people will sicken and die from human carelessness. That is something that nobody in his right mind desires. And God does not cause any of it to occur. All bad things happen in the world as a result of sin and its multifaceted ramifications. However, God permits those things to occur so that good may be drawn out of them. Perhaps a serious threat to the food supply might force some people to understand how a world that rejects our Lord and His true Church ultimately negates itself by the very sloth engendered by a forgetfulness of God and a rejection of His Divine Revelation.
Our Lady, Mother of Perpetual Help, Pray for us.
Thomas A. Droleskey, Ph.D.
Editor's Note: His series "The Germ of GIRM" will be on hiatus for a short while as Dr. Droleskey continues to write we will bring installments on this to you as they become available. His regular column will continue each Friday.
For past columns in The DAILY CATHOLIC by Dr. Droleskey, see Archives