Something's Rotten...

Who's mad, the cows or the Bush cronies who say our meat inspection rules are sufficient?

Wed Dec. 31, 2003 4:00 AM EST

So, it seems Bush is still eating beef. A little Mad Cow disease, the White House assures us, isn't going to scare our red meat-loving leader. We suppose that's supposed to make us all feel better, encouraging us to accept the USDA's assertion that its inspection rules are sufficient.

Somehow, we aren't convinced.

Maybe that's because the meat from the diseased heifer slaughtered in Washington state wasn't distributed in Texas, where the prez is spending his holiday. Maybe it's because one of the key administration officials telling us everything's okay is a former agribusiness lobbyist. Or maybe it's just because we know that the meat industry and its allies in Congress have for years managed to kill every effort to reform the inspection and feed rules -- including one that would have kept meat from this particular dairy cow from ever reaching anybody's plate.

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We should remember, this is not a new fight. It dates back nearly a century, to Upton Sinclair and Teddy Roosevelt, uneasy allies who fought bitterly to get the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 through a similarly recalcitrant Congress. Ever since, cattle ranchers and meat packers have managed to water down or kill efforts to strenghten federal rules on meat inspection, slaughtering, and feed lot management. In that fight, the beef industry has been aided by scores of allies in Congress, lawmakers willing to oppose any measure that might make the meatpacking business less profitable. And with the arrival of Bush and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman -- an agribusiness lobbyist before joining Bush's team -- the industry has been given red-carpet treatment. Now, the Madison Capital Times argues, the cost of such laissez-faire political favoritism is becoming unavoidably clear.

"Veneman was put in charge of the Department of Agriculture by President Bush because he knew the longtime advocate for the genetic modification of food, factory farming and free trade policies that favor big agribusiness over family farmers and consumers could be counted on to choose the side of business interests over the public interest.

Veneman did just that when she announced that mad cow disease had been found in the United States. Instead of offering a realistic response to the news, she was still doing public relations for agribusiness. She declared the case was isolated, praised the USDA for a 'swift and effective' response, and discounted any risk to human health.

Unfortunately, because of the USDA's lax approach to inspections and regulation, Venemen has no idea whether she is right."

In fact, the USDA has been more than lax -- as John Munsell knows too well. As Mother Jones reported last month, the Montana meatpacker became a food inspection activist after meat ground at his family-run plant tested positive for E. coli. Munsell took his concerns to the USDA, and found out what the agency's real priorities are.

"Instead of tracking the contaminated meat back to its source, the USDA launched an investigation of Munsell's own operation in Miles City, Montana. Never mind that the local federal inspector had seen the beef go straight from the package into a clean grinder -- a USDA spokesman called that testimony "hearsay." By February 2002, three more tests of meat Munsell was grinding straight from the package came back positive in USDA tests for E. coli. This time, as he would later testify in a government hearing, he had paperwork documenting that the beef came from a single source: ConAgra's massive Greeley, Colorado, facility, which kills as many cows in three hours as Montana Quality Foods handles in a year.

Munsell fired off an angry email to the district USDA manager, warning of a potential public-health emergency, and adding that if no one tracked down the rest of the bad meat, "both of us should share a cell in Alcatraz." The agency moved immediately and aggressively -- not to recall meat from Greeley, but to shut down Munsell's grinding operation, a punishment that lasted four months.

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'I want the world to know what the real policies are,' says Munsell, driving through Miles City, a ranching town on Montana's eastern plain where the casinos compete with saddle shops on Main Street and the men don't take their hats off for much. 'The real policies imperil the consumer," he says. "The USDA doesn't want that out.'"

There is plenty of evidence to support Munsell's assertion. As James Ridgeway of The Village Voice writes, a study by the Center for Public Integrity found that "only 43 percent of all meat products recalled by their manufacturers from 1990-1997 was recovered."

"The rest of the meat—some 17 million pounds—was eaten by unsuspecting consumers. Yet Congress fought off efforts by the Secretary of Agriculture during that time to get the authority to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated meat.

The investigation found that during the 1990s the highly exclusive meat business spent $41 million financing political campaigns of Congress members, more than one third of them from House or Senate agriculture committees. Among them: the majority and minority leaders of the Senate (Trent Lott and Tom Daschle), the speaker of the House and the House minority leader (Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt), and six past or present chairmen or ranking minority members of the Senate and House agriculture committees.

The cattle industry during that period employed 124 lobbyists to work the Hill, 28 of them previously either lawmakers or aides to lawmakers. And it worked. 'During the escalating public health crisis of the past decade,' the Center reported, 'the food industry has managed to kill every bill that has promised meaningful reform.' In lieu of any serious rulemaking, the Clinton administration struck a weak-ass deal with the industry to allow cattlemen to do their own inspections and label their records "trade secrets" so the public can't look at them."

There is little chance the industry's friends in Congress will be able to keep their stonewalling record intact. Already, the USDA has announced it will ban the slaughtering of "downer" cattle -- animals that cannot move on their own because of disease or some other ailment. The Washington state dairy cow that tested positive for Mad Cow, it should be noted, was a "downer". Of course, Congress had repeatedly failed to adopt a similar ban -- even though it was already embraced by some of the meat industry's largest clients, Wayne Pacelle writes in the Seattle Times.

"The fast-food industry -- led by McDonald's, Wendy's, and Burger King -- considers downer meat too dangerous for its customers and no longer buys it. So do mink farmers who refuse to feed it to their animals.

Three years ago, the USDA banned it from the National School Lunch Program. Several states including California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin prohibit downers from being sold or killed at state-inspected abattoirs, but have no control over federally regulated slaughterhouses that process most of these disabled animals."

Still, there are other legislative initiatives in play, The Denver Post reports, including one measure making it easier to track infected beef from farms to markets. That bill was introduced a year ago, but has been blocked by the beef industry's alllies on the Agriculture committee. But are such changes enough? John Stauber, co-author of Mad Cow USA, insists it is not. Writing on Alternet, Stauber argues that far more sweeping reforms are required.

"The feed rules that the United States must adopt can be summarized this way: you might not be a vegetarian, but the animals you eat must be. The United States must also institute an immediate testing regime that will test millions of cattle, not the 20,000 tested out of 35 million slaughtered in the past year in the United States. Japan now tests all cattle before consumption, and disease experts like Dr. Prusiner recommend this goal for the United States. And of course, no sick "downer" cows, barely able to move, should be fed to any humans. These are the type of animals most likely to be infected with mad cow and other ailments – although mad cows can also seem completely healthy at the time of slaughter, which is why testing all animals must be the goal.

Ann Veneman and the Bush administration, unfortunately, currently have no plans to do the right thing. The United States meat industry still believes that the millions of dollars in campaign contributions doled out over the years will continue to forestall the necessary regulations, and that soothing PR assurances will convince the consuming public that this is just some vegetarian fear-mongering conspiracy concocted by the media to sell organic food. Will the American public buy this bull? It has in the past."

Finally, while the current uproar is over a single cow, the problems with our meat inspection and feed rules aren't limited to the beef industry, Geov Parrish reminds us in his latest column on Working for Change. The entire meat production business -- dominated by huge factory-farming conglomerates -- is plagued by dangerous and inhumane practices which need to be exposed, Parrish asserts.

For the worst corporate violators, the ones actually inspected and found to be egregiously violating food safety laws, the penalties are slaps on the wrist. Many large operations consider such fines a cost of doing business, a pittance compared to the money they save through mistreatment of the animals, fouling of the environment, and careless handling of the meat.

These issues are hardly confined to cattle -- industrial pig farming has become notorious for its noxiousness -- or to meat. The use of antibiotics on farm animals, pesticides on crops, and genetic engineering on anything agribusiness can figure out how to "improve" all carry risks right through the food chain into our bodies.

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The discovery of mad cow disease in one cow, out of nearly 100 million now living in the U.S., is hardly a major risk to the public. But the factors that made it possible -- big agribusiness, lax regulation, and consumer ignorance -- also fuel any number of far more common problems. For meat, such problems are usually avoidable by buying organic meat free of antibiotics and the ravages of factory farming. In fact, for nutrients and taste as well as food safety, organics in general are well worth the higher price."

In the meantime, while we wait for Congress and the Bush administration to take action, the carnivores among us can always follow the lead of the folks at Free Range Graphics -- the animation jocks behind The Meatrix. Or we could embrace the vegetarian option. Apparently, producers of vegetable-based meat alternatives expect many of us will -- Planet Ark reports several such companies expect their business is about to boom -- just not in Crawford, Texas.