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USDA Whistleblowers Tell All–and You May Never Eat Bacon Again

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 7:00 AM EST

In 2004, Elsa Murano stepped down from her post as chief of the US Department of Agriculture division that oversees food safety at the nation's slaughterhouses. Two years later, she joined the board of directors of pork giant Hormel, a company that runs some of the nation's largest slaughterhouses. Murano received $238,000 in compensation for her service on Hormel's board in 2014 alone. 

Read "The Spam Factory's Dirty Secret" and "Gagged by Big Ag." Illustration by Tim O'Brien

This is a classic example of the "revolving door" that separates US government regulators from the corporations they regulate. It's hardly the most shocking thing I gleaned from the whistleblower-protection group Government Accountability Project's recent exposé of conditions at three hog slaughter facilities associated with Hormel. But it's interesting to think about in light of GAP's allegations, found in sworn affidavits filed by four USDA inspectors stationed in Hormel-owned plants. Three of the inspectors chose to remain anonymous; the fourth, Joe Ferguson, gave his name.

Their comments focus on three Hormel-associated plants, which are among just five hog facilities enrolled in a pilot inspection program run by the USDA. In the regular oversight system, USDA-employed inspectors are stationed along the kill line, charged with ensuring that conditions are as sanitary as possible and that no tainted meat ends up being packed for consumption. In the pilot program, known as HIMP (short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project), company employees take over inspection duties, relegating USDA inspectors to an oversight role on the sidelines.

"USDA inspectors are encouraged not to stop the line for fecal contamination."

What's more, the HIMP plants get to speed up the kill line—from the current rate of 1,100 hogs per hour to 1,300 hogs per hour, a jump of nearly 20 percent. The five plants rolled out the new inspection system around 2002, USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee said. That's when Murano, now on the Hormel board of directors, ran the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. If the privatization-plus-speedup formula sounds familiar, it's because the USDA ran a similar experimental program for chicken slaughter for years. After much pushback by workplace and food safety advocates and media attention (including from me), the USDA decided not to let poultry companies speed up the kill line when it opened the new system to all chicken slaughterhouses last year (though it did green-light turkey facilities to speed up the line from 51 to 55 birds per minute).

All four affidavits offer blistering critiques of the hog version of the pilot program. Three themes run through them: (1) company inspectors are poorly trained and prepared for the task of overseeing a fast-moving kill line involving large carcasses; (2) company-employed and USDA inspectors alike face pressure from the company not to perform their jobs rigorously; and (3) lots of unappetizing stuff is getting through as the result of (1) and (2).

The testimony of Inspector 3, affidavit here, is full of choice nuggets, though not of the sort you want to sample before lunch. Here are a few:

  • "Not only are plant supervisors not trained, the employees taking over USDA's inspection duties have no idea what they are doing. Most of them come into the plant with no knowledge of pathology or the industry in general."
  • "Food safety has gone down the drain under HIMP. Even though fecal contamination has increased under the program (though the company does a good job of hiding it), USDA inspectors are encouraged not to stop the line for fecal contamination."
  • "HIMP was initially designed for the kill of young, healthy animals. This hasn't always been the case. A lot of the animals the plant has killed were too old. Some also had different diseases. They didn't even slow down the line for the diseased carcasses."
  • "The company threatens plant employees with terminations if they see them condemning too many carcasses or carcass parts."

For its part, Hormel insists that "food safety is our top priority and we have been a leader in the production of safe, quality food for more than 100 years," as Rick Williamson, Hormel's manager of external communications, wrote in an email. "In addition to the USDA inspectors at the facility, there are Hormel Foods employees trained to the standards of the USDA conducting the additional inspections," he continued. "We've found this allows the USDA inspectors better perspective and more flexibility to monitor activity and identify any issues." As for food safety concerns, he added that "our facilities consistently meet or perform better than published USDA microbiological performance standards." But he didn't respond to my request for data to back that claim up, or for commentary on charges of poor training and intimidation of inspectors. But he did add a plug for the privatized inspection and faster kill lines enjoyed by three Hormel-associated plants: "The HIMP program places more accountability on the company, and we welcome that responsibility."

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency that runs the inspection program, is standing behind HIMP too. USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee pointed to a November 2014 FSIS report that, he said, "shows that the food safety outcomes at the pilot facilities are on par with those operating under other inspection systems." The report concluded that there's "no reason to discontinue HIMP in market hog establishments." 

Meanwhile, the pilot inspection program will continue running as is, confined to five slaughterhouse and not expanding to include others, Lavallee said. Before expanding, he added, "the agency would first need to conduct a risk assessment to determine whether doing so would have a significant positive public health impact, and then engage in the rulemaking process, which can be lengthy."

However, the USDA's and Hormel's rosy assessment of HIMP presents a stark contrast to a scathing 2013 report from yet another USDA agency, the Office of the Inspector General, which found HIMP plants—which it did not name—made up three of the top 10 US hog plants earning the most food safety and animal welfare citations in the period of fiscal years 2008 to 2011. Moreover, by far the most-cited slaughterhouse in the United States over that period was in the program—it drew "nearly 50 percent more [citations] than the plant with the next highest number." The OIG also concluded that that the Food Safety and Inspection Service "did not provide adequate oversight" of HIMP over its first 15 years, and as a result,  "HIMP plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks."

Not all company-employed inspectors "understand and have the ability to execute the proper procedures needed to make sure pathogens don't spread to other carcasses" when "fecal matter or ingesta spills out of one of the animal's organs."

Ted Genoways, who in 2012 wrote a harrowing account in Mother Jones of what accelerated line speeds have meant for workers slaughterhouse workers, rejects Hormel's sunny assessment. Genoways' reporting, later expanded into the superb 2014 book The Chain, focused on the Quality Pork Processors plant in Austin, Minnesota, which supplies its meat solely to Hormel and is one of the three Hormel-associated plants among the five in HIMP. He recently told Food Safety News, "Yes, I think the line speeds [at the HIMP plants] are too fast. When you see the workers on the line say the speeds are too fast, the inspectors say the lines are too fast, the suppliers at the farm level say the lines are too fast, there's such a unanimity of opinion that I don't think you can come to any other conclusion."

Well, not quite unanimous. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, of course, continues to defend the pilot program. But then there's its cozy ties to industry—in addition to Murano's leap to Hormel, FSIS's then-chief of staff flew the coop to the National Turkey Federation in 2011, and another high official bolted to work for meat processor OSI Group just this month. Given the tasty meat industry opportunities that evidently await the USDA's food safety administrators, I take FSIS's defense of the HIMP program in the face of these sworn statements with about as much salt as you might find in a slice of Hormel's signature product, Spam.

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Killing Obamacare Halfway Is Worse For Republicans Than They Think

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 1:39 AM EST

Stuart Butler is probably the country's single most influential right-wing health care wonk. He opposed Obamacare and has long pushed a different, more conservative vision of national health care policy. But Joshua Green writes today that even Butler is worried about what will happen if the Supreme Court abolishes Obamacare subsidies in the 34 states that don't run their own exchanges:

Butler’s worry is grounded in an understanding that voters with skyrocketing premiums may not blame Obama, as Republicans assume. They’ll expect the party hellbent on destroying the law to have a solution—and react badly if none is forthcoming. Because 16 states operate their own exchanges and therefore won’t be affected by the court’s ruling, Butler believes the ACA will stagger on and eventually recover, since voters won’t abide a system wherein some states have affordable, federally subsidized health-care coverage and others do not....“People who believe the ACA instantly goes away are deluding themselves,” he says. “By not doing anything to develop a Republican vision of how to move forward, they could end up with the very nightmare they’re trying to avoid.”

....On the business front, the effects would be no less significant....Entire segments of the health system redesigned their business models to take advantage of the ACA’s incentives. Hospitals, for instance, were given a trade-off: They stopped receiving government payments to offset the cost of treating the uninsured, cuts that amount to $269 billion over a decade. In return, they were promised millions of new patients insured through federal subsidies. “All the major hospital systems and big insurers like Kaiser and Geisinger spent a ton of money adapting to the ACA,” says Butler. If subsidies vanish, “suddenly the market is misaligned. If you’ve hired all these new doctors and health-care workers to cover all these new people walking in the door, and they don’t come, what do you do? You lay them off.”

I agree that a system in which residents of some states get subsidies and others don't is untenable. I don't know quite how the politics would play out, but the states with subsidies won't give them up, and the states without subsidies are likely to face a revolt from residents who suddenly see a benefit taken away. Something will have to give.

The effect on the medical industry is less clear. Yes, hospitals and insurers spent a lot of money adapting to Obamacare. If it goes away, they'll have to lay off some of their staff. But how much? Obamacare has reduced the ranks of the uninsured by about 4 percentage points, and roughly half of that is in states that don't run their own exchanges. So the number of insured would probably fall (very roughly) from about 87 percent to 85 percent. That might be bad news for some small regional outfits, who will see a bigger drop locally than that, but nationally it's not a death sentence.

Still, Butler has a good point. The fallout from the Supreme Court halfway killing Obamacare would likely be more serious than conservatives believe. They don't want to think about this because they've been committed for so long to the mantra of simply repealing Obamacare, full stop. But even their own base, which has been told relentlessly that Obamacare represents the end of the America they love, might start to demand a fix once it becomes clear just what they're missing—and what all those blue states with their own exchanges are getting.

One Perfect Tweet Explains the Ultimate Lesson of #TheDress

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 12:14 AM EST

Twitter erupted into craziness Thursday night after a dress went viral. What color was the dress? Some thought it was gold and white; some thought it was blue and black. People had fun. Fun was had! Had was fun! It was a good time and times were good. But this being the world we live in some Serious Cops had to flash their lights and start ticketing people for having fun.

There are a lot of cops on the internet. Everyone's got a set of cuffs and a gun—and whatever crime they think you've committed, well, they're ready to slap those cuffs on you and sentence you to 20 years hard internet. A lot of commenters on this site are cops. Journalism Cops. I'm sure a bunch of people will comment on this post saying, "why is this news?"

Anyway, no one likes Internet Cops. Internet Cops is probably the only police procedural CBS has ever passed on.

The lesson of #TheDress? Put your gun down, Barney Fife. Your services aren't needed.

P.S. The dress is blue. 

Disclaimer: Nick Baumann is a Senior Editor at Mother Jones. I gave him fair warning I was about to blog his tweet.

Why Are People Seeing the Dress in Different Colors? This Person Googled It for You

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 10:17 PM EST

"What color is this dress?"

It's the defining question of our generation.

I felt very strongly that it was gold and white:

I was apparently wrong.

I don't 100% know if it is accurate but this nice lady's answer sort of jibes with what I'm seeing.

Adobe agrees:

Tay also signed off:

WIRED is also on board.

Black and blue wins. :((

God bless us, every one.

Scott Walker Blows It Again: Asked About ISIS, All He Has Is Bluster

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 8:09 PM EST

Over at National Review, conservative blogger Jim Geraghty joins the crowd of pundits who are unimpressed with Scott Walker's recent answers to fairly easy questions:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker received a lot of completely undeserved grief from the national news media in the past weeks. But he may have made a genuine unforced error in one of his remarks today. Asked about ISIS, Walker responded, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the globe.”

That is a terrible response. First, taking on a bunch of protesters is not comparably difficult to taking on a Caliphate with sympathizers and terrorists around the globe, and saying so suggests Walker doesn’t quite understand the complexity of the challenge from ISIS and its allied groups.

Let's put aside the question of whether Walker deserves any grief for his weasely comments about evolution and President Obama's love of country. Fair or not, those actually seem like the kinds of questions presidential candidates get asked all the time. If Walker wants to be taken seriously, he should have better responses than he did.

But hey—maybe those really were gotcha questions and Walker should get a pass for answering them badly. ISIS, by contrast, certainly isn't. It's one of the preeminent policy challenges we face, and if you're aiming for the Oval Office you'd better have something substantive to say about it. As Geraghty suggests, generic tough-guy posturing does nothing except show that you're out of your depth.

At a broader level, the problem is that although Walker's anti-union victories are a legitimate part of his appeal and a legitimate part of his campaign story, he's become something of a one-note Johnny about it. His supposed bravery in standing up to union leaders and peaceful middle-class protestors has become his answer to everything. This is going to get old pretty quickly for everyone but a small band of die-hard fans.

Needless to say, it's early days, and Walker's stumbles over the past couple of weeks are unlikely to hurt him much. In fact, it's better to get this stuff out of the way now. It will give Walker an improved sense of what to expect when the campaign really heats up and his answers matter a lot more than they do now.

That said, every candidate for president—Democrat and Republican—should be expected to have a pretty good answer to the ISIS question. No empty posturing. No generic bashing of Obama's policies. No cute evasions. That stuff is all fine as red meat for the campaign trail or as part of a stemwinder at CPAC, but it's not a substitute for explaining what you'd actually do if you were president. Ground troops? More drones? Getting our allies to contribute more? Whatever it is, let's hear it.

Elizabeth Warren Launches New Battle Against the Fed

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 7:02 PM EST

While speaking before the Senate's Banking Committee on Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) hit Fed Chair Janet Yellen with a string of harsh questions over the performance of Scott Alvarez, the Fed's general counsel, who is at the helm of an investigation of a Fed leak from September 2012.

Warren has expressed frustrations over the investigation's lack of public information. 

"Wall Street banks could profit handsomely if they knew about the Fed’s plans before the rest of the market found out, and that’s why any leak of confidential information from the Fed results in serious penalties for the people who are responsible," Warren said on Tuesday. "But apparently there have been no consequences for the most recent leak."

The Massachusetts senator specifically pointed to Alvarez's Wall Street-friendly reputation, mainly referring to his past criticisms of Dodd-Frank, when she asked Yellen whether the Fed's views aligned with those of its top lawyer.

Pressed for a strict yes or no response, Yellen eventually said she is "not seeking to alter Dodd-Frank in any way at this time."

"Do you think that it is appropriate that Mr. Alvarez took public positions that do not evidently reflect the public position of the Fed’s board, especially before an audience that has a direct financial interest in how the Fed enforces its rules?" Warren responded.

Yellen appeared slightly irritated:

 

 

 

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The FCC Did a Lot More Than Just Approve Net Neutrality Today

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 6:04 PM EST

The FCC voted today in favor of strong net neutrality rules, but this is something that's been expected for weeks—and something I've written about before at length. So instead of commenting on that yet again, I want to highlight something else that might be nearly as important:

The Federal Communications Commission will allow some cities and towns to set up and expand municipal Internet services, overruling state laws that had been put in place to block such efforts.

The commission granted petitions by Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to overturn laws that restricted the ability of communities in those states to offer broadband service. In all about 20 states have passed such laws. The vote was 3-2 and along party lines. The decisions don’t affect the other states, but they do set a precedent for consideration of similar petitions in the future.

This is a step in the direction of creating more competition for broadband internet, which I think is at least as important as net neutrality regulations. So hooray for this ruling, which is a step in the right direction. And while we're on the subject, it's also worth noting that the FCC's net neutrality decision could end up stimulating more broadband competition too. Why? Because net neutrality depends on regulating broadband providers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, and this means that companies like Google, which are trying to set up their own high-speed networks, will be able to do it more cheaply. This is from a couple of months ago:

In a letter Tuesday to the FCC, Google’s director of communications law Austin Schlick highlighted a potential positive for the company if Title II kicks in. As a regulated telecom service, Google Fiber would get access to utility poles and other essential infrastructure owned by utilities. The FCC should make sure this happens because it would promote competition and spur more investment and deployment of broadband internet service, Schlick argued.

Cable and telecom companies, like Comcast and AT&T have long had the right to access utility poles and other important infrastructure, such as ducts, conduits and rights of way, he noted. Google Fiber, which competes against these companies, has not had this right and the service has had trouble getting access to some poles as it builds out its fiber-optic network to homes.

....Hooking up homes using poles is about a tenth of the price of digging trenches across streets and sidewalks, according to Reed Hundt, who was FCC chairman in the 1990s. “Pole access is fundamental and Google will never be able to make the case for Google Fiber without pole access,” he said. “If Title II gives Google pole access, then it might really rock the world with broadband access.”

If Google gains pole access, and cities and towns are free to set up their own high-speed networks, then local cable companies will finally start getting real competition in the high-speed internet market. Net neutrality is a big win for consumers, but real competition might be an even bigger win. This is far from a done deal, but things are starting to head in the right direction.

Some Llamas Escaped and Went on a High-Speed Chase and It Was Amazing

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 5:29 PM EST

Llamas! Arizona! Internet!

This is a recipe for delight!

Anyway, I don't know any details about this story other than llamas escaped (presumably from some sort of pen?) in Arizona and then they ran free and a chase began and the world was caught up in it, man, and it was like the '60s in Europe and people were riding Vespas and falling in love and hair was blowing in the wind and hot people were wearing leather jackets and berets and some were smoking to signify their rebellious nature and everyone was singing rock and roll and saying "Viva la llama!"

Okay, a lot of that didn't happen but the llamas did escape and there was a chase and it was amazing. Then they were caught.

Watch the entire wonderful epic below:


Bye bye Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to the levee

but the levee was dry

and good ol' boys were drinking

whiskey and rye, singing

"they caught the llamas."

The FCC Just Approved Net Neutrality

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 2:40 PM EST

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to categorize the internet as a public utility and thereby uphold strong net neutrality regulations.

Advocates applauded the passage as a victory for internet consumers, blocking what had been described as the creation of internet "fast lanes" for companies willing to pay more for high-speed service.

The vote came down to a 3-2 margin, with dissents from Republicans Michael O'Reilly and Ajut Pai. 

"The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one, whether government or corporate, should control free open access to the internet," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said prior to the vote.

"The internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules," he added.

In recent months, net neutrality has emerged as a divisive political issue, with fierce opposition against regulations coming from Republicans and broadband providers alike. President Obama's announcement back in November fully supporting net neutrality's preservation prompted members of the GOP to denounce the potential move.

 

Loretta Lynch Now Likely to Win Confirmation as Attorney General

| Thu Feb. 26, 2015 1:19 PM EST

It looks like Loretta Lynch is likely to be approved as our next Attorney General:

Eight Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee, including chairman Chuck Grassley, opposed Lynch’s confirmation after what Democrats criticised as a record-long delay in appointing the first African American woman to the top law enforcement job in the US.

But Lynch was backed by three moderate Republicans to pass through a committee vote on Thursday, 12-8. She is now likely, over the coming days, to scrape through a vote in the full Senate to succeed current attorney general Eric Holder, who announced his resignation last September.

The three "moderate" Republicans who voted to confirm Lynch were Orrin Hatch, Lindsey Graham, and Jeff Flake. Flake is probably a legitimate moderate, but it's an odd world where Hatch and Graham are on that list too. In today's GOP, though, they really are moderates. That tells you most of what you need to know about the state of national politics these days.