Food Industry to Congress:
'A Friend In Need Is A Friend Indeed'

"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,

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," Spooner said.

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 Mississippi complaints.

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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