By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
With the help of such allies, the industry has fought back numerous attempts to regulate their business. “They don’t much like government,” says Dan Glickman, secretary of agriculture from 1995 to 2001. “They don’t knowingly try to hurt public safety, but the industry is generally very suspicious of regulations.” It’s not something they’re ashamed of. The NCBA’s Web site proudly lists “limited government” as one of the organization’s “guiding principles.”
New York Democratic Representative Gary Ackerman, for instance, first introduced a bill banning the sale of meat from downer cows 10 years ago, only to see it defeated again and again amid intense industry lobbying. His most recent effort was quashed by just three votes in the House in July. “We were happy to hear the Agriculture Department finally saw the light” — with its December ban on downer meat — “though, of course, it’s only because they were struck by lightning,” says Jordan Globes, Ackerman’s’ press secretary.
Many meat interests also bitterly fought efforts in the mid-1990s to halt the feeding of rendered cattle parts to cows — a practice that caused the British outbreak of mad cow disease. The FDA finally implemented a less-than-complete ban in 1997.
Nor have meat producers’ anti-regulation efforts been limited to those targeting BSE. While mad cows grab the headlines, American beefeaters are actually in far greater danger from more familiar pathogens. A 1996 USDA study found 7.5 percent of ground-beef samples were contaminated with salmonella; more than half contained other infectious agents. One of the most worrisome is E. coli 0157:H7, which, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infects an estimated 73,000 people a year in the U.S. — dozens of them fatally. In 1993, an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7, spread by infected Jack in the Box hamburgers, sickened 700 people, most of them children, and killed four. Nonetheless, when the USDA announced later that year that it would begin microbial testing of ground beef to check for this particularly virulent pathogen, the American Meat Institute filed a federal lawsuit to prevent it from doing so.
Out of that mess, however, grew a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s meat-inspection system in 1996. Under the new plan, known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), inspections were no longer to be primarily done by the old “poke and sniff” method, but would involve scientific tests of meat samples. HACCP also shifted much of the responsibility for carrying out those tests from the USDA to the companies themselves. “The meat industry was opposed to HACCP at first, but they grew to like it,” says Denis Stearns, a partner with Marler Clark, a Seattle-based law firm that has won several lawsuits on behalf of sickened consumers against meat companies. “It gave them a lot more wiggle room.” The dangers of such wiggling came clear last year, when meatpacking giant ConAgra Foods was forced to recall millions of pounds of potentially E. coli–tainted beef originating from a Colorado slaughterhouse — and which had been allowed out the door even after the company’s own tests had found the pathogen in the plant dozens of times. Since then, ConAgra has settled numerous lawsuits brought by E. coli–tainted consumers.
A few years after introducing HACCP, the Clinton administration took another stab at making meat safer, introducing a program to test ground beef used in government school lunch programs for salmonella. Salmonella, which can be carried in several foods, causes about 1.4 million illnesses and some 600 deaths a year in the United States. Some 5 million pounds of ground beef were rejected as a result of the testing in its first year. Still, many in the meat industry wanted the program shut down, and shortly after taking office, President Bush announced plans to do just that. After a public outcry, the testing was reinstated.
Stearns thinks there’s a simple explanation for the industry’s antipathy to such scrutiny of its products. “When you test, you find,” he says. “And that prompts recalls and bad publicity.”
The industry’s standard argument against such safeguards is that they are overly expensive and unnecessary, given the relatively low level of risk and the protections already in place. The NCBA, says Bryan Dierlam, the association’s director of legislative affairs, is all for public health, “But we also want to make sure that government regulations are based on science,” he says. “Often the debate isn’t over science but politics.”
“We’ve spent millions on research on how to reduce the prevalence of pathogens like E. coli and salmonella,” he adds. “We didn’t do that because we were told to — we did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Determining whether beef is in fact safe is largely the responsibility of the Agriculture Department. It’s an agency with considerable expertise in the business — after all, many of its officials have worked in the meat industry. They include chief of staff Dale Moore, deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs Chuck Lambert, and the department’s two top press secretaries, all of whom formerly worked at the NCBA, as well as assistant secretary for congressional relations Mary Waters, a former official with meat giant ConAgra Foods.