CALAMITY HOWLER/A.V. Krebs
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
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
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,
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
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,
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
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project,
P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org;
web site: http://home.earthlink.net/~avkrebs/CARP/
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