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.”
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.
Big beef has a special friend in President George W. Bush. After all, Bush is the former governor of Texas, the nation’s top cattle-producing state, and owns a ranch himself there. He was the keynote speaker at the NCBA’s annual meeting in 2002. He was also the number-one recipient of the industry’s campaign contributions in this and the last election cycle, pulling in nearly $1 million from livestock and meatpacking interests. Perhaps that helps explain why Bush solemnly told a mad cow–spooked public on New Year’s Day: “I ate beef today, and will continue to eat beef.”
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.
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.”