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
To some, this arrangement might suggest an overly cozy relationship between a government agency and an industry it is supposed to oversee. To the American Meat Institute’s Murphy, it’s perfectly sensible.
“Who would you want running the Defense Department — someone with an English-lit degree? You want someone who understands the industry and knows the issues,” he says. “Believe me, we wish we had the kind of influence with them that people say we do. We’d love to go over there and rewrite the regulations and tell them what would work for us. Everyone in the meat industry would agree they’re struggling under all the regulation. The USDA is the ones who tell us what to do, not the other way around.”
Nonetheless, in some ways the department has strikingly little power over the meat industry compared to that of other government agencies. If it discovers a batch of potentially dangerous meat, the agency cannot order it recalled from supermarket shelves the way, say, toys judged to be choking hazards can be ordered recalled. The USDA can only ask the companies involved to voluntarily recall their tainted product. Most such meat never comes back. According to an analysis of USDA data by the Detroit Free Press, from 1998 through 2000 nearly 109 million pounds of meat and meat products were recalled in the United States, but only 24 percent of that meat was ever recovered.
Nor can the USDA even tell consumers which stores might have meat subject to recall sitting on their shelves. Such information is considered the meatpacking companies’ proprietary business information. That secrecy can extend to an appalling degree. In 1999, IBP, a major meatpacking company, recalled 10,000 pounds of ground beef because it was shot through with bits of glass; but neither the company nor the USDA would tell the public which stores had received the extra-crunchy beef.
“The government can recall faulty electrical equipment but not contaminated meat,” complains Dan Glickman. During his tenure, the USDA asked Congress to grant it mandatory recall power but was refused, thanks to pressure from the meat industry, Glickman says.
Michele Peterson, a spokesperson for the NCBA, dismisses any suggestion that the industry might put profits above public safety. “We are market-driven,” she says. “If we don’t have a safe product to provide consumers, we don’t have a product at all. We are very committed to the end user.”
Still, the notion that a powerful meat lobby and the government agency charged with regulating it might deliberately downplay a potential health threat like BSE is not so far-fetched. It’s happened before. In Britain, the government has admitted to misleading the public for years about the danger of people contracting the human version of mad cow disease from eating BSE-infected meat; it is now compensating the families of those who contracted the fatal ailment. According to journalist Eric Schlosser, one of the British agriculture ministry’s first official memos on BSE warned that it might have “severe repercussions to the export trade and possibly also for humans”; news about it should therefore be kept “confidential.” Similarly, Schlosser noted in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, “An investigation by the French Senate in 2001 found that the Agriculture Ministry minimized the threat of mad cow and ‘constantly sought to prevent or delay the introduction of precautionary measures’ that ‘might have had an adverse effect on the competitiveness of the agri-foodstuffs industry.’ In Tokyo, a similar mad cow investigation in 2002 accused the Japanese Agriculture Ministry of ‘serious maladministration’ and concluded that it had ‘always considered the immediate interests of producers in its policy judgments.’”
In the wake of the discovery of our own mad cow, consumer advocates are calling for a number of new safety measures in addition to those the USDA has already announced. The most obvious one: Test many more, if not all, cattle intended for human consumption for BSE. At present, USDA veterinarians test only downer cows that appear to have symptoms of the disease — barely more than 20,000 out of some 35 million cattle slaughtered every year. In early January the agency announced it will seek to double that number, but that would still be far less than what other countries do. In Europe, one out of every four cows meant for human consumption is tested for BSE; in Japan, all cows are tested. Testing at European levels would of course cost money, but not a lot, relatively speaking. The Wall Street Journal recently calculated that such a move would boost the price of beef by only 6 to 10 cents a pound.
The response of many in the meat industry to the idea of widespread BSE testing, however, is a familiar one. “We’re opposed,” says the American Meat Institute’s Murphy. “The precautions we have are plenty. We don’t need to do more.”