The sky is black with cows coming home to roost. In Germany, it's probably the biggest crisis since 1945. Millions of Germans daren't sausage. In France, ranchers and slaughterhouse workers are blocking all roads to Paris, and traffic is backed up 100 kilometers. The reason is mad cow. Last week, the Health Minister for Germany's largest state, Baerbel Hoehn in North-Rhine-Westphalia, told the Cologne Express: ''Whoever wants to be totally certain shouldn't eat beef at the moment.'' Bavaria, where the second mad cow case was confirmed in mid-December, pledges to spend $9.1 million to research how to combat the disease.

In France, there were 18 cases of mad cow disease in the first three months of last year compared with 30 in all of 1999. Cow intestines, traditionally used to make sausages and other charcuterie, have been banned, owing to bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) fears. In October, BSE-infected meat reached three major hypermarket chains, sparking a 40 percent fall in consumption. In November, beef ribs were outlawed, unless cut differently.

Alain Passard, who runs the three-star Arpege restaurant in Paris, has vowed to take beef off his menu altogether, and offer only vegetables and some poultry. Passard admits that he personally hasn't eaten meat for years, and is concerned by "the turn our food is taking." He told the London Guardian, "I want to become the first three-star chef to use only vegetables, a driving force in the field of vegetable and flower cuisine."

The 44-year Passard explains, "I can no longer stand the idea that we humans have turned herbivore ruminants into carnivores. But also, I can't get excited about a lump of barbecue meat. Vegetables are so much more colorful, more perfumed. You can play with the harmony of colors, everything is luminous." So, soon we'll be getting Gallic gastronomes rushing over here to find out what good, unhealthy hormone-injected beef tastes like.

Part of France's problem takes the unlovely form of inspectors from the European Union. These Brussels bureaucrats have issued reports denouncing French abattoirs, complaining about unhygienic conditions and about the fact that "The animals were stabbed on a conveyor belt, and blood was collected in an open system with high risk of contamination from unclean skin." (Of course, one shouldn't be overawed by these denunciations from the food police. Their beau ideal is a stainless steel slaughtering and sausage-making facility of the kind imposed here by the USDA, which has bankrupted small meat processors and engendered some of the worst charcuterie in the world, including "healthy" hot dogs able to survive 20 years in a garbage dump without visible impairment.)

There are many ironies here. France was the country that pioneered the organization of the mass production line and modern methods of food preservation, a requirement imposed by the need to provision Napoleon's armies. In 1807, Napoleon approved designs for abattoirs, and 60 years later, these formed the basis for La Villette, whose construction on the edge of Paris was supervised by Haussmann and opened in 1867.

Siegried Giedion described La Villette in his brilliant 1948 book, Mechanization Takes Command: "The whole installation bears witness to the care with which the individual animal was treated. The great paddocks with their lofts under the high roofs and their careful design, might have stood in a farmyard; each ox had a stall to itself ... In this curious symbiosis of handicraft with centralization lies the peculiarity of this establishment ... each ox had a separate booth in which it was felled. This is a survival of handicraft practices, to which the routine of mass slaughtering is unknown.

Giedion contrasted this French retrospect to peasant husbandry, to the birth of industrial slaughtering in Cincinnati ("Porkopolis") and the Chicago stockyards: "The Great Plains beyond the Mississippi, where free tracts of grassland can be dominated from horseback, and where the herds grow up almost without care, are implicitly related to the assembly line."

Now we have industrial methods of beef production and slaughter both sides of the Atlantic, a mode terrifying every meat eater in Europe. It won't be long before the panic spreads here, whether provoked by mad cow or by other dangers such as nuclear irradiation, finally sanctioned by the Clinton gang after decades of lobbying by the nuclear industry.

Back in the 1860s, just as Haussmann was opening La Villette, Marx jotted down in his notes for "Capital" the thought that: "The nature that preceded human history no longer exists anywhere." Much in gastronomy and the sort of food writing in magazines like Saveur is sedate nostalgia for that lost nature. Food writers luxuriate in elegies for lost tastes and dwindling flavors. But that note jotted down by Marx probably has more revolutionary implications now than many of his more famous observations on the contradictions of industrial capitalism. Cross the frenzy to maximize with capitalist modes of food production, and you end up with BSE-beef and lamb, nuked meat, BGH-injected cows, and all the other gastro-disasters now panicking Europe. A whole culture and economy of consumption faces judgment.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2001 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.