"Once the attorney general learns about the terrible things that happen in the name of profit inside of IBP, we know she will take action."
With these words Melquiadez Spereyra and sixteen of his fellow employees at IBP's Wallula plant in Washington State recently turned over signed affidavits and a secretly taped video to Christine Gregoire, the state's attorney general. Along with the affidavits and video tape came a call for an immediate investigation and prosecution of IBP Inc. for what the workers allege are "ongoing, systematic violations of state anti-cruelty and humane-slaughter laws," and for alleged violations of "basic public-health and worker-safety requirements."
Specifically the workers and the Humane Farming Association charge that the processing line at the nation's largest meat packer plant in Wallula moves so fast that cows are being skinned alive, their eyes still blinking and their limbs flailing as plant employees -- pushed to work quickly -- struggle to dismember them.
State law, according to Gail Eisnitz, the Humane Farming Association's chief investigator, requires that cows must be knocked out before being slaughtered. But at the Wallula plant, said Eisnitz and the workers, upwards of 30 percent of the cattle make it onto the line still with their senses. "The line needs to continue whether or not the cow is hung alive," said Adeliado Ramirez, another worker at the IBP plant. "The workers know that if they stop the line they can be fired."
Washington State's Gov. Gary Locke immediately called for an impartial probe of the allegations after video footage of cattle being skinned alive was shown to reporters last week by an animal welfare group. "If this investigation reveals any violations of worker or food safety or animal cruelty laws, I expect federal, state and local authorities to act immediately to correct them and bring appropriate charges," Locke said.
Locke also directed the state Department of Agriculture to work with the state Attorney General's office to assemble a team of experts to investigate the allegations as the governor wants a team of federal and state experts to conduct the probe, because responsibility for safety and animal cruelty laws rests with several agencies.
While IBP said it would take immediate action to address the concerns raised by the Humane Farming Association, specifically those violations caught on camera of the animals being dragged through the line while they're skinned alive, it also suggested that the employees may have mishandled cattle for the camera's benefit. "There has been labor unrest since a strike at the plant last year," a company statement declared.
In processing cattle for meat products the first stop on the line is the "knocking box" where cows are supposed to be stunned into unconsciousness by a high-powered steel rod that strikes their skulls. But at the Wallula plant, the employees contend, cows are being herded through so fast there is no time to stun them completely, and they are often dragged -- still kicking, sometimes with chains around their necks -- on to the next station.
The cows are moved from the knocking box on to the "shackler," the "sticker," the "skinner." With an animal still fighting for its life, the jobs at these stations become more difficult and more dangerous for employees, the Humane Farming Association notes. "Workers who attempt to skin and cut off the legs of live animals are often injured in the process," Spereyra said.
Conveniently ignored in the media's countless reams of newsprint and miles of television film relevant to the recent Elian Gonzales story is the fact that the 6-year-old Cuban boy, who has been the center of the highly publicized custody battle between his Cuban father and Cuban-American relatives in Miami, may well have been nothing but a key player in an effort by Archer Daniels Midland ("Supermarkup to the World") to gain an immediate trade beachhead in Cuba.
When one examines some of the lesser-known facts of the controversy a curious pattern begins to emerge highly suggesting that, in the words of Orlando [Florida] Sentinel columnist Charley Reese, "little Elian Gonzalez has become a pawn in an international business scheme."
Based on research by the Archer Daniels Midland Shareholders Watch Committee, in the fall of 1995, ADM's then chairman and CEO, Dwayne O. Andreas, met with Fidel Castro for dinner in New York. In July 1996, Andreas announced that he was going to Cuba to see Castro and contemplated building a refinery in Cuba, but would do it through a Spanish subsidiary because of the US trade embargo.
Later, in 1997, a Spanish company invested $65 million in Cuba for a refinery for the production of alcohol from molasses and in October 1999, Martin Andreas, senior vice president, said ADM would consider constructing a vegetable-oil plant in Cuba if the market were open.
Last January as the Cuban government was announcing that it was moving toward consideration of a joint-venture type of relationship with ADM, the company was the chief sponsor of a Healthcare Exhibition in Havana, the largest American trade show in Cuba in decades and whose focus was on medical and nutritional supplies. The Decatur, Illinois-headquartered company is also a hopeful participant in planning a second US trade exhibition in Havana next December, which will feature food and agricultural products.
At the same time, several months ago in the midst of the highly charged debate whether Elian Gonzales should be returned to his father in Cuba or stay in Miami with relatives a meeting was arranged with the boy's grandmothers at the home of the president of Barry University. Coincidentally, Dwayne O. Andreas is also a large contributor to Barry University, and his wife is a graduate and is past chairman of the board of trustees.
In late April the Washington Post reported that the fund paying the legal expenses for Juan Gonzalez, Elian's father, which had been coming from the United Methodist Church's Board of Church and Society, was being turned over to the National Council of Churches. The Methodist announcement came after the denomination's financial office decided such fund raising did not follow rules prescribed in the Methodist policy manual.
The Methodists, through the fund, paid lawyer Gregory B. Craig and his Washington firm, Williams & Connolly, through contributions designated for representing Gonzales only, not for denominational programs. But many of the church's 8.4 million members, the Post noted, especially Cuban American Methodists in Miami, criticized the society's involvement.
It was the politically powerful law firm of Williams & Connolly who represented ADM unsuccessfully in a price fixing suit filed against it by the US Department of Justice. ADM was subsequently fined $100 million for its role in a world-wide scheme to fix prices in the $650 million-a-year international lysine market and also in the citric acid market and three of its top executives were sentenced to two years in jail and fined each $350,000 for their part in conspiring with Japanese and Korean companies in the fixing of said prices.
Williams & Connolly, including President Bill Clinton's personal attorney David Kendall, is also one among several attorneys representing FOX Television interests battling investigative reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson in their suit against their former employer Rupert Murdoch's FOX 13 TV station in Tampa Bay, Florida. The couple have charged that they were fired for refusing to broadcast statements which they considered to be untrue about bovine growth hormone (rBGH), manufactured by Monsanto, a major FOX advertiser. The firm's lawyers also represented Clinton in his 1999 impeachment trail before the US Senate.
The origin of the National Council of Churches role in now bankrolling Craig, who as columnist Reese notes is "high-priced lawyer who suddenly materialized to represent Juan Gonzalez, who couldn't afford two seconds of Craig's time" might well stem from the appointment last October of Andrew Young, a current ADM board member and member of its public-policy committee, as the new president of the National Council of Churches.
As Nicholas E. Hollis, president and chief executive officer of the Agribusiness Council (ABC) observes "under the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) code the tax exempt organization must report only individual donations over a certain percentage of the total revenues and only after a year -- by which time the heat of investigation and inquiring minds is gone. By shuffling the pea from under one shell to another, the question of who is actually financing Elian's father remains hidden -- and clouded to future investigation. This is once again the work of the Phantom Factor at his worst. The `Supermarkup to the World's' chairman emeritus [Dwayne O. Andreas] must be working overtime in Miami, Washington and Decatur on this."
Aside from the April 23 Reese column and the Decatur Herald & Review's Paul Brinkmann the media, however, has failed to report these curious relationships between ADM, Elian Gonzales and Cuba. Brinkmann, who has covered agribusiness on a regular basis for the Decatur paper, reportedly was about to publish a story on May 12 making such linkages, but the story never appeared and Brinkmann has been reassigned as a general news reporter.
"He's another casualty of the dictator Dwayne Andreas," charged ADM's Shareholders Watch Committee David Hoech. "Shame on the paper for bending over for ADM, and shame on the editor who made the decision to remove this breath of fresh air in a city where the Andreas family has been the blight of the prairie."
"It ought to be viewed as fairly scary," Bert Foer of the American Antitrust Institute in Washington, D.C., told the Omaha World-Herald's Bill Hord.
Foer's remarks came as Smithfield Foods, Cargill Inc., IBP Inc., Tyson Foods Inc., Gold Kist Inc., and Farmland Industries Inc. recently announced a plan designed to share marketing information and resources while purporting to enhance efficiencies. Each of the companies say they will invest $20 million toward a neutral Web-based exchange that would facilitate faster and more direct product comparison and price negotiation.
The six companies have combined meat and poultry sales of over $40 billion.The web site was to be opened to buyers and sellers of meat and poultry products and each of the investing companies was to have a seat on the board of directors of the independently operated company.
Steve Kay, editor of Cattle Buyers Weekly, a newsletter in Petaluma, California, said the six companies represent 65 percent of all boxed beef sales, 55 percent of all pork sales and 35 percent of all chicken sales. "By my reckoning, that doesn't leave a very big pie for everyone else to scramble over," Kay told Hord.
The partners in the new online meat exchange sought to stress the venture's independence, pointing out that it would be a separate company with transactions open to all buyers and sellers. "This exchange will be neutral, showing no favoritism among sellers or between buyers and sellers," said Joseph Luter III, Smithfield's chairman and CEO.
Other industry observers saw little to fear, Hord reported.
"They are looking at trying to reach out to the widest possible marketplace, like any other business," said Randy Jones, senior vice president with the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. Two of the partners in the joint venture are farmer-owned cooperatives -- Farmland Industries of Kansas City, Missouri, which has sales in all 50 states and nearly 90 countries, and Gold Kist, the second-largest poultry company behind Tyson.
Kay, the newsletter editor, interpreted the joint venture as a move by the companies to jump in and protect their interests. "Competition is coming in every way and in every sector," Kay said. "E-commerce is just one form of competition, and I suppose we all need to be concerned with being competitive." Kay, however, predicted that only a few meat exchanges would survive the competition. The processors' venture may have a leg up because, he said, they know better than anyone how the industry works.
Jon Lauck, author of American Agriculture and the Problem of Monopoly, warned that consumers and producers should be wary of the venture. "Anytime you create institutions to make it easier for competitors to share market information, the likelihood that price collusion will occur goes up," he said. "The big companies could make it more difficult for the small players to get their products on the shelf. Why do you think the Justice Department was fearful of Microsoft?"
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201; email firstname.lastname@example.org; web: www.ea1.com/CARP/