Copyrighted material

Meat Industry Blocks Food Safety Reforms

on USDA and failure to protect the public
Remember the old adage about not wanting to see how sausage -- or legislation -- is really made? What happens when the people who make sausage also make legislation?

Each year, an estimated 9,000 Americans die and another 33,000,000 get sick from disease- producing agents in the food they eat. Cases of the deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacterium alone have increased from nearly zero ten years ago to about 20,000 in 1997. Just a few weeks ago, children in Atlanta and more than 4,000 people in the Chicago area were sickened by E. coli germs, several of them critically.

Yet Congress continues to turn back efforts to address this grave threat to public health. Since the beginning of 1995, individuals and PACs connected with the meat and poultry industry have given nearly $2.75 million to congressional candidates and party committees, according to data supplied by the Center for Responsive Politics. Seventy-nine percent of their contributions have gone to Republicans.

Thus, despite dramatic changes in the technology of meat and poultry production, food safety practices have not changed appreciably since Teddy Roosevelt's day, when Congress mandated carcass- by- carcass inspections. Amazingly, Agriculture Department inspectors do not have the power to assess civil fines for unsanitary conditions in meatpacking plants. But the USDA is not completely toothless: it can use fines to stop the unlicensed sale of dogs and cats, it can punish circuses for mistreating elephants, and it can penalize watermelon salesmen for failing to keep appropriate records. But faced with safety violations by meat and poultry packers, its main options are either to totally shut down a plant, launch criminal proceedings, or today's more common step of negotiating voluntary recalls of tainted products.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) offered an amendment to the $56 billion agriculture appropriations bill that would have given the Agriculture Department this power to assess fines. The House Appropriations Committee rejected it by a vote of 25 to 19. On average, the twenty-five members who voted against Lowey's motion have received six times as much in campaign contributions from the meat and poultry industry (in the current election cycle) as have the nineteen who voted for it. The leading opponents of Lowey's proposal, Reps. Jack Kingston (R-GA) and Tom Latham (R-IA), are respectively the number one and number four recipients of meat and poultry dollars on the Appropriations Committee.

The agriculture appropriations bill also rejects a separate Clinton Administration request to impose more than $570 million in industry user fees to help pay for more meat and poultry inspections. No wonder that an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, Paul Mead, says, "We recommend that you treat all meat as though it were contaminated."

This article was produced by Public Campaign, a non profit, non-partisan organization devoted to comprehensive campaign finance reform

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor July 7, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.