When Chickens Come Home to Roost

Much has been made recently in the media about President Bill Clinton's efforts to bolster the Federal Government's efforts to insure the safety of the nation's food supply. He has even asked Congress to provide $101 million to deploy more food safety inspectors and new technology, expand research into the causes of and solutions to food-related illness, and educate consumers and retail food outlets on the safest food handling practices.

Nice try Mr. President, but once again the facts of the matter suggest still more "inappropriate behavior" by the nation's chief executive and his Arkansas cohorts. For behind those recent headlines still lurks a scandal that has been conveniently obscured by Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Ken Starr, Janet Reno et al., a scandal concerning violating the public's trust in government relative to the health and safety of the food supply.

For while the Starr "investigation" has been the headline grabber for many months now it is the investigation by the "other" independent counsel, Donald Smaltz, that many believe has the White House more concerned than a 21-year old intern pleasuring the President of the United States in the Oval Office.

Pleading guilty to giving former USDA Secretary Mike Espy $12,000 in illegal gratuities, Tyson Foods, the nation's largest poultry producer, previously has pled guilt to paying Espy $12,000 in illegal gratuities and consented to pay the federal government $4 million in fines and $2 million in costs. Tyson chairman Don Tyson and his son John Tyson were also granted immunity from further prosecution.

While the media was reporting simply that Smaltz's investigation centered on "favors from large companies with important interests before the government," court papers stated that at the same time it was bestowing gifts on Espy, Tyson Foods was urging USDA to go slow on imposing new meat and poultry handling instructions.

Smaltz's office said prompt imposition of the new rule would have cost Tyson Foods $30 million, although ultimately a court order blocked enforcement of the rule. It was also believed that Espy's coziness with Tyson was the reason he hesitated to remove holdover appointees who were helping to block stricter regulation of meat and poultry.

Although the White House at the time had no comment on the Tyson plea many of the Arkansas company's officials have long-standing financial ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. When the Tyson family appeared in court they were accompanied by James Blair, Tyson's corporate counsel and a close friend of the Clintons who "advised" Hillary Clinton in 1978 on commodities trades that earned her $100,000.

The Department of Justice?

In a 1995 meeting with U.S. Attorney General Reno and her top aides Smaltz sought to expand his probe of Mike Espy to include an allegation that officials of Tyson Foods, the nation's leading poultry producer, had delivered cash to then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Smaltz, however, claims he was blocked from doing so by the Attorney General.

Smaltz implied in an interview broadcast on a PBS Frontline documentary dealing with the role of the Independent Counsel that Reno had succumbed to political pressure in the matter. "My sense was that Tyson was putting a lot of pressure on the Justice Department," he said. He claimed that the Arkansas poultry company got Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) to go to the department to block his probe.

Smaltz first testified about his dispute with the Justice Department at a congressional hearing last December. While attributing his problems not to politics, but to the department's desire to "rein in" the independence of the outside prosecutors, he declined to discuss the Tyson matter. A few weeks after the hearing, however, Tyson pleaded guilty to giving $12,000 in gifts to Espy and agreed to pay a $4 million fine and $2 million to cover investigative expenses.

Smaltz's investigation of Espy has generated controversy ever since his appointment in September 1994. Yet, he has won 15 convictions and millions of dollars in fines. Espy was indicted last August on charges of soliciting gifts worth more than $35,000 from companies he was supposed to be regulating, including Tyson.


A recent General Accounting Office (GAO) study stopped short of concluding that imported foods are more dangerous than those produced domestically, but noted that with the increase in food imports from around the world increasing by 50% in less than a decade, inspectors are failing to keep pace.

Investigators were particularly harsh on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which the study found was able to inspect only 1.7 percent of 2.7 million shipments of fruit, vegetables, seafood and processed foods under its jurisdiction. Of the shipments that were inspected by the FDA, only 16,000 samples underwent a laboratory analysis for disease-causing organisms or other problems. Meanwhile, thousands have been sickened in high-profile incidents involving imported foods, including Guatemalan raspberries, Mexican cantaloupes and alfalfa sprouts from the Netherlands.

The study by Congress's investigative and auditing agency showed that more than half of the fish and shellfish eaten by Americans is now imported. At least one-third of fresh fruit and 12% of vegetables also are from overseas.

The Patchwork Keeps Getting Messier

Meanwhile, a recent National Academy of Sciences report shows that while food safety inspection in the U.S. has always been a patchwork of programs and agencies, as our food supply now becomes more global, as new bacteria emerge and as American eating habits get more varied, the patchwork keeps getting messier.

The report on the food safety system counts 35 major statutes and 12 "primary" agencies involved in keeping food safe, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and parts of the Agriculture, Commerce and Health and Human Services departments.

As the Washington Post reports, partly in response to this confusion the president has just issued an executive order creating a President's Council on Food Safety--chaired by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and science adviser Neal Lane--that will try to pull all these threads together and maybe even reallocate their famously lopsided and overlapping budgets.

"But the president has another reason for pushing ahead on food safety issues," the Post rightfully points out, "they have repeatedly proved to be a political winner, one of those areas where virtually no public sentiment can be detected for weakening or dismantling government protections."

One long-standing complaint is the built-in conflict between promoting and regulating the meat and poultry issues at USDA, which has by far the most resources for inspection; the FDA, with a more varied industry to police, has fewer.

In its budget this year, the Post adds, the administration asked for a chunk of new money that the FDA and others could use for food safety research and modernization. House and Senate appropriations committees rebuffed the proposal, but the Senate, in another surprise showing of the issue's appeal, added $66 million of a requested $100 million in floor debate. Whether or not new money comes through, the presidential council could offer some guideposts for the more scientifically based system the science academy's report calls for.

What a Spectre We Face

The BSE "Mad Cow" problem in Europe, resulting in the destruction of 1.2 million cows and $800 million in losses, is a recent reminder of the importance of knowing where our food comes from.

When IBP meatpackers shipped E. coli tainted beef to Korea during the past year, thanks to Korea's labeling law, the problem, when identified, was quickly isolated and resolved. Otherwise Korean producers and producers from other sources could have been seriously affected. U.S farmers and ranchers are denied the same protection at home, thanks to our government's open border policy. Without labeling, how would U.S. producers fare if faced with a similar "Mad Cow" crisis?

Callicrate noted that IBP, the nation's largest meat packing company packer, has the fastest chain speed, the most inexperienced workforce with the highest worker injury and turnover rate in the business according to a recent U.S. News and World Report article. "Thus contaminants and bacteria don't just sneak in," he adds, "they're built in. ... Labeling and source verification is important domestically as well as globally!

"USDA is failing in its current responsibilities. Inspection practices are flawed. New programs like HACCP (self-inspection) are irresponsible. Practices like irradiation are the wrong solution, essentially covering up problems while being cost-prohibitive to most small processors, further reducing competition and empowering the already too powerful big packers. One Texas farmer commenting about irradiation explained,

'Whole hog (literally) sausage is now a real possibility.' What a spectre we face!"

Bon appetit!

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201; e-mail:; web site:

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