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Big Beef’s Dirty War 

Meat industry has resisted cleaning up its act for decades

Thursday, Jan 15 2004
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When the news broke on December 23 that a cow infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a.k.a. mad cow disease, had been discovered in Washington state, meat producers and merchants moved into crisis-control mode. The disease, which literally eats holes in its victims’ brains, has infected some 180,000 cattle in Britain and is blamed for the deaths of nearly 150 people there. The American meat industry needed to convince the public that its beef was still safe to eat — especially since dozens of countries had immediately banned imports of the stuff.

Washington lobbyists with the cattle industry’s main political advocacy group, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), fanned out to contact members of Congress and Agriculture Department officials — many of them at home for the holidays — to strategize a response. Association spokespeople were deployed in all 50 states to make the case to the media that the public was in no danger. A special Web site focusing on BSE — created years ago for just such a crisis — went up on the NCBA’s official site, beef.org, according to spokeswoman Michele Peterson. Perturbed by all the images on TV of obviously sick cows taken during BSE outbreaks in Britain, the association hired its own crews to film sleek American cattle grazing contentedly in lush pastures, then sent the footage to the national networks, cable news shows and local stations.

“This is all really a nonissue,” insists Dan Murphy, a spokesman for the American Meat Institute, the meatpacking industry’s trade group, which has also been busy downplaying public fears. “There is no threat to public health. Beef is safe. The flames have been fanned by misguided media coverage, and by activists with agendas — the kind of people who want to turn us all into vegetarians or denounce corporate globalization and the WTO or whatever.”

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Beef is a $70 billion business in this country, and the people who run it are no slouches. Their skill at working both public opinion and politicians would make the NRA proud. But the industry’s many critics say it often uses its clout to stifle detractors and thwart regulations aimed at making its products safer — all in the interest of keeping the fat in its profits.

Beef producers can be notoriously intolerant of “activists with agendas” — as Howard Lyman learned. Lyman, a 65-year-old former rancher turned vegan activist, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1996 and predicted that mad cow disease would eventually break out in the U.S., thanks to the cattle industry’s practice of feeding potentially infected rendered cow parts back to other cows. An appalled Oprah promised she would never eat another hamburger. That prompted a group of Texas cattlemen to sue her and Lyman under a state law making it illegal to criticize food products without a basis in “reliable scientific inquiry.” Texas is one of 13 states that has passed similar “food libel” laws since the early 1990s — constitutionally questionable statutes that meat interests helped push.

“These laws are meant to stifle dissent,” says Lyman, who won his case after years of litigation. “These people have a lot of money invested in controlling the media.”

The meat industry isn’t focused only on influencing public perception; it also uses its substantial political power, working the halls of Congress and the White House to beat back unwelcome rules and regulations.

It’s a game they’ve been playing for decades. In 1906, Upton Sinclair’s groundbreaking book The Jungle exposed dangerously unsanitary conditions in meat-processing plants, sparking calls for increased federal inspections. The meatpackers took up arms against such proposals, complaining, in the words of one industry executive, “There is no limit to the expense that might be put upon us.”

In his best-selling Fast Food Nation, contemporary journalist Eric Schlosser noted that the meatpacking industry’s response to The Jungle established a pattern that would become all too familiar throughout the century. “The industry has repeatedly denied that problems exist, impugned the motives of its critics, [and] fought vehemently against federal oversight,” writes Schlosser.

The meat business spends lavishly to support its political agenda. Since 1990, livestock and meat-processing interests have doled out almost $28 million to federal candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions. The industry spends about another $2 million every year on lobbyists. “They understand we have the best laws money can buy,” says Lyman. “It’s much easier to buy a politician than to comply with regulations.”

Most of the industry’s largess goes to Republicans, but not all. Last July, a nearly successful bill to ban the sale of meat from “downer” cows — cattle too sick or injured to walk, and which are most likely to have BSE — was shot down not only by Robert Goodlatte, the Republican House Agriculture Committee chairman, but also by the committee’s ranking Democrat, Representative Charles Stenholm. Both men have received tens of thousands of dollars from cattle interests in recent years.

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