'The Jungle' Revisited

A year-old government-approved food inspection program that has been operating in 300 of the nation's largest meat and poultry processing plants and was recently expanded to nearly 3,000 smaller plants has come under sharp attack from the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, a union representing the inspectors.

The union has charged that the government's new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point program (HACCP) too often lets the meat industry regulate itself and forces inspectors to sit on the sidelines resulting in meat that is sometimes spotted with chipped paint, shards of metal and even maggots.

As Donna Sewell, an inspector from Camilla, Georgia, rightfully observes "you're putting the consumer's safety at risk in processes like this."

The inspectors allege that some plants don't have enough checkpoints to ensure safe meat and that the government is not allowing them to enforce the law and pull problem meat from the assembly line. Such meat is returned to the plants where it is legal to reprocess, using procedures such as heating and cooking, until it no longer poses a danger, said Felicia Nester, food safety director for the Government Accountability Project. That meat can be reused in a ready-to-eat form, Nester adds.

The inspectors said they fear the government eventually will phase out the role of inspectors, opting for a system where monitors make infrequent visits to check on plants.

Previously the Des Moines Register reported that some veterinarians in charge of federal meat inspections were claiming that the USDA has pressured them to certify products that don't meet export requirements. In two letters sent to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman by the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, the group said a veterinarian "was disciplined and forced to retire" for refusing to certify cattle as being from disease-free areas, the Register reported.

Other veterinarians were risking discipline for refusing to sign "even the most outrageous and obvious false statements," said William Hughes, a lawyer for the group. Linda Swacina of the department's inspection service said while developing a reply to the association it was reviewing its "whole expert certification policy."

Many independent cattle producers feel the biggest threat to food safety are the major beef packing companies. They point out that the fast chain speed, high worker turnover rate and the highest worker injury rate in the beefpacking industry may have something to do with outbreaks of e. coli at packers such as IBP, especially when one considers the increase in unskilled non-English speaking, foreign workers.

Janet Riley, spokesperson for the American Meat Institute, defends the industry, saying even with the HACCP laws are still in place to allow inspectors to take action. "We still feel like there's lots of inspector presence and lots of involvement and enforcement going on in our plants," Riley said. "There is no incentive for us to do anything but make the safest meat possible."

Not surprisingly Beth Gaston, a spokesperson for USDA's food safety and inspection service, agreed. "Inspectors have the same authority under HACCP as under past inspection methods," she said, but added that the agency was taking the allegations seriously. "Our policy is very clear. Unsafe or unwholesome meat or poultry should not be passed and should not receive the marks of inspection."

Baptists: Tyson Chicken Represents Injustice, Oppression

Declaring that "Tyson Foods has tried to strip away the dignity and decency from these workers in Corydon, Indiana" and that "we have a moral obligation to stand up against greed-driven industry giants who trample on the rights of their workers," the Rev. Dr. Bennie R. Mitchell, chair of the Labor Relations Department of the National Baptist Convention-USA Inc. recently proclaimed that "millions of Baptists and their families will hear the message that Tyson chicken represents injustice and oppression."

Dr. Mitchell's proclamation came as delegates to the National Baptist Convention-USA Inc. Board Meeting brought the weight of its 8.5 million members in full support of the more than 250 striking workers at the Tyson's plant in Corydon, Indiana in unanimously endorsing a resolution in support of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) efforts to secure a just contract for the poultry plant workers.

The resolution, offered by the Labor Relations Department of the National Baptist Convention-USA Inc, also calls on their churches not to purchase or consume Tyson chicken products until the strike is resolved. The more than 33,000 Baptist congregations will not be buying any of the products of the nation's number one poultry processor for their church dinners and family events.

The more than 250 poultry workers were forced on strike over management demands to eliminate paid breaks for workers, reduce overtime pay rates, and gut contract protections.The workers, mostly local residents and long-term employees, in fighting to preserve dignity and a decent standard of living, put up picket lines at the plant on January. 3.

When fully staffed, the plant processes more than 600,000 chickens a week or over 2,000 birds per worker per week. With $7.5 billion in sales and $345.8 million in operating profit, the Arkansas-based and FOB (Friends of Bill) Tyson is three times larger than its closest competitors. Average wages at the Indiana plant, $7.68 an hour, are more than a dollar an hour less than industry average.

The Gulf's 'Dead Zone'

A 7,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the nation's most serious agricultural and environmental problems, recently came under renewed scrutiny by researchers attending the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Anaheim, California.

Every spring and summer, nitrogen from agricultural fertilizer washes down the Mississippi River from America's heartland and Corn Belt and into the northern Gulf of Mexico. The nutrient-rich waters trigger a bloom of algae that strips the water of oxygen, so by midsummer an area of the Gulf extending from Louisiana to Texas becomes so oxygen-deprived that most fish and shrimp escape to healthier waters, leaving behind a vast "dead zone."

Currently, the Mississippi River drains about 40% of the United States and carries more than a million tons of nitrogen, according to U.S. Geological Survey figures. Some of the nitrogen dumped into the gulf comes from natural sources and from cities and industry, but "agriculture uses 6.5 million metric tons of nitrogen a year and is clearly a major player."

According to scientists farmers could reduce nitrogen runoff by 20% by changing farm management practices, including stopping fertilizing in the fall, and if major wetlands were restored along the Mississippi River watershed. Wetlands retain the nitrogen and the chemical then tends to disappear into the atmosphere. Such wetlands also would increase wildlife habitat and improve water quality.

Using less fertilizer would reduce crop yield, and a 20% reduction is about the limit before there would be serious economic consequences for farmers and the nation, according to scientific assessments. Beyond 20%, these scientists note, there is a serious disruption in terms of high food prices, an increasing drop in exports and a loss of farmland.

Nancy N. Rabalais of Louisiana State University points out that the average size of the dead zone has doubled in size since 1992 and is now persisting from May until October in some areas. While shrimp, menhaden and other valuable species have not been affected because these animals simply flee the bad water, bottom-dwellers, such as worms, starfish and some single-celled animals, are killed, she adds. At the same time, some microbes that prefer low-oxygen waters explode, forming a white, cotton-like mass that floats on the surface.

"We don't know what the long-term effects of this will be on the ecology of the gulf," said Rabalais. "The hypoxia [lack of oxygen] has decimated a number of organisms living in the sediments" and such a change is bound to affect the ecology of the gulf, she said.

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

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