CALAMITY HOWLER/A.V. Krebs
Food Industry to Congress:
"Congress has put the industry's needs before the public's," the
Center for Public Integrity's Charles Lewis, recently declared in reporting
that the food industry has given $41 million in campaign contributions to
key members of Congress to prevent passage of tougher food safety laws,
'A Friend In Need Is A Friend Indeed'
Lewis, chairman of the Center, which has investigated issues from use of
the Lincoln Bedroom for fund raising to industry ties to Superfund cleanup
officials and advocates political reforms, charges that the food industry
succeeded in stopping or watering down legislation that would have tightened
regulation on processing of meat, poultry and other foods.
The Center examined campaign finance reports, voting records and other documents
and concluded that one-third of the $41 million went to members of the House
and Senate Agriculture committees and that no meaningful food safety bill
emerged although several were introduced.
Among examples of what the Center considers coziness among the food industry
and lawmakers are some 40 trips taken by House Agriculture Committee Chairman
Bob Smith, R-Ore., or his staff for which food companies paid.
Smith spokesman David Spooner told the Associated Press that some of those
trips were speeches by the congressman to industry groups, while many others
involved staff tours of meat and poultry plants.
"It's ludicrous to suggest that Agriculture Committee members and staff
shouldn't get out of the office to speak to farmers or to tour plants,"
Another more disturbing Center example, however, is the fate of the Clinton
administration's proposal to give Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman authority
to issue mandatory recalls of meat and poultry. There is not even a House
sponsor for that measure, first introduced last fall. Lawmakers have in
years past forced the Agriculture Department to give more weight to the
industry's positions in designing a new meat inspection system.
Sara Lilygren, spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, said contributions
are given to politicians "we think will best represent our industry's
point of view in Congress," but are not aimed at specific legislation.
Yet the industry does often get what it wants in Congress; for six years
in a row, lawmakers have refused a Clinton administration attempt to get
meat and poultry companies to pay user fees for government inspection services.
But, as Lewis points out agriculture's contributions are only one example
of special-interest influence in Congress. "We have a system that is
clearly out of control in terms of money," he said.
Heading Toward the Last 'Roundup'?
"Like any good citizen, we want to do our part," Kevin Holloway,
co-director of Monsanto's global cotton division, recently observed regarding
the news that his company has quietly begun paying settlements to Mississippi
Delta farmers who have charged that a cotton strain genetically engineered
to survive being sprayed with "Roundup," a company weed killer,
failed to perform as promised.
Delta farmers contend that the cotton seed, when grown and sprayed last
year with "Roundup" as directed, left them with sharply reduced
yields. They point to plants where green bolls withered and dropped instead
of maturing into fluffy white tufts. State and federal cotton experts in
Mississippi have also charged that Monsanto and Delta Pine and Land Co.,
the world's largest cotton seed company, whose seeds incorporate the gene,
rushed "Roundup Ready" cotton to market last year without allowing
them time to perform customary testing.
Both companies contend, however, that they performed all the necessary testing
and attribute farmers' losses to "freak cold weather and farmers' mistakes."
In Mississippi, Monsanto has offered settlements of several million dollars
in total to about 45 of the 60 complaining farmers, the company said, while
refusing to be more specific. At least 10 farmers have spurned offers that
fall far short of their losses, their lawyers say.
Monsanto's Holloway would not disclose the size of the individual settlements,
other than saying they "varied widely." Charles M. Merkel, a lawyer
representing a local farmer in Clarksdale, Miss., said that he had rejected
an offer of more than $100,000 and that several clients had had losses in
the hundreds of thousands. His partner, Steve Cox, called Monsanto's moves
"token offers" and said, "They are offering anywhere from
50 percent to two-thirds of what I think would be adequate compensation."
A $9 billion company, Monsanto is in the process of transforming itself
from a chemical conglomerate into an agricultural biotechnology and "life
sciences" conglomerate, spending billions on research and acquisitions.
It has also spliced its "Roundup Ready" gene into soybeans and
corn. These products and others by the St. Louis company promise to yield
it rich royalties above the prices of other seed and add to sales of "Roundup."
Monsanto and the Delta Pine and Land Co., have also withdrawn from sale
100,000 50-pound bags of genetically altered seed, although not the variety
being challenged, for reasons that the companies say are unrelated to the
They include three varieties used only in Arizona and two nationwide.
Scarlett Foster, speaking for Monsanto, said these strains had failed to
yield enough cotton to justify their continued sale. Monsanto said the seeds'
shortcomings had nothing to do with bioengineering. Critics of bioengineering
have called such "engineering" a risky and unpredictable art,
and question whether companies like Monsanto can reliably alter one or two
traits in a plant without affecting others.
Oil Wells in Berkeley?
Politically correct Berkeley, California is once again facing another dilemma
-- finding a proper gas station for its municipal vehicles. Because the
City Council has formally boycotted Arco, Unocal, Mobil, and Texaco due
to their ties to the repressive regime in Myanmar, and has recently nixed
any business dealings with Shell and Chevron over their connections with
the dictatorial Abacha government in Nigeria.
That leaves Exxon -- a company not likely to win any awards soon from environmentalists.
"In the end, we're going to have to look for mineral rights under the
city of Berkeley," said Councilmember Polly Armstrong.
'Competitive positioning' overseas
Labeling it "competitive positioning in the age of the global economy,"
Phillips-Van Heusen has announced that its subsidiary G.H. Bass & Co.
which has made shoes in Wilton, Maine population 4,000, for 122 years is
moving its operations to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in search
of cheap labor.
Bass's departure, Wilton's largest employer and biggest taxpayer could result
in losses of $13 million in personal incomes and sales, according to Maine
state officials. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes will
evaporate once the mill closes and the unemployment rate may jump from 7.1
percent to as high as 9.4 percent.
Bass workers, who have produced Weejun loafers, boots and dress shoes, will
be eligible for employment training and financial assistance under the North
American Free Trade Agreement and other trade laws because their $8-to $12-an-hour
jobs, like so many New England manufacturing positions, are headed for the
Caribbean. But few other job opportunities will be left behind in this community
30 miles northwest of Augusta, officials say.
Courts to Employees: "Mum's the Word"
U.S. Department of Justice lawyers, in a decision by a federal appeals-court
panel in St. Louis, can no longer directly contact employees of companies
under investigation. The decision could seriously hamper government probes
of corporate wrongdoing such as a pending government overbilling investigation
of McDonnell Douglas Corp., which was acquired last year by Boeing Co.
The ruling, according to the court, will make government investigations
"fairer" by forcing federal prosecutors and agents to get permission
from a company's lawyer before questioning employees.
Presently, legal disciplinary bodies in all 50 states and the District of
Columbia prohibit direct contacts between lawyers and parties on the other
side of a case. The rule was designed to prevent lawyers from taking advantage
of unsophisticated laymen. Federal courts have generally adopted the ethical
rules of the state in which they sit.
The Justice Department will likely appeal the ruling since it threatens
to undermine the government's most basic tactic in corporate investigations:
calling employees on the phone or visiting them at home.
'Union-Busting Memorial National Airport'
Congressional action to name Washington's National Airport after Ronald
Reagan not only has outraged the people and business community in our nation's
capital, but has also drawn the wrath of organized labor.
"I'd rather have a hot poker in my eye than have an airport named after
him [Reagan]," exclaimed Randy Schwitz, executive vice president of
the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the successor union to
the broken Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO).
Russell Mokhiber, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter and Robert Weissman, editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational
Monitor, in their new "Corporate Focus" newsletter, suggest
that maybe the airport should have been called "Union-Busting Memorial
National Airport," instead. "That would have more appropriately
highlighted one of Ronald Reagan's most notorious achievements, the decision
to fire 1,800 striking air traffic controllers early in his first term.
Congress's decision to name Washington's airport for Reagan dishonors working
people across the country," they point out.
As they indicate, Reagan's action sent a message to employers that they
could act against striking or organizing workers with virtual impunity.
It also sent a clear message to workers that if they struck or sought to
organize, they did so at their own peril. A series of bitter labor conflicts
over the next decade and a half would drive that message home: Hormel, Continental
Airlines, Eastern Airlines, Caterpillar, A.E. Staley and many others.
A comprehensive study done by Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education
research at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, showed that
plant-closing threats in union organizing drives found that employers threaten
to close the plant in more than half of all union-organizing drives. The
study also found that, during unionizing drives, employers regularly refer
to NAFTA and Mexican maquiladoras to prove how easy it would be for them
to move operations.
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate
Agribusiness Research Project, based in Everett, Wash. He recently received
the National Farmers Union's 1998 Milton Hakel Award for Agricultural Communications
for his work as author of The Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness,
"a thoroughly researched book that has become a well-known resource
on agriculture." The award is named after an outstanding journalist
who worked for Farmers Union for nearly half a century and who edited the
Washington Newsletter until his death in 1996. Krebs, a native
Californian, has been a journalist and public interest advocate for nearly
four decades, starting his career as a sports writer for the Los Angeles
Examiner. He first became interested in agriculture from covering issues
related to California's migrant farm workers in the 1960s.
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