Slaughterhouse Politics

Ranchers Fought Rules That Might Have Prevented Mad Cow

Weak laws and weak enforcement are only part of the reason for the slipshod inspection system. It's a fact that farmers and ranchers are under terrific pressure to make a go of it. As Al Krebs, an activist who edits the Ag Biz Examiner, told the Voice, "If dairy farmers were getting a fair price for what they produce, they probably wouldn't feel it necessary to squeeze every last penny out of their herd, such as sending 'downers' off to the marketplace." Dairy farmers in the Seattle-Tacoma area are getting as little as $1 per gallon for their milk when it probably costs about $1.40 to produce that gallon, says Krebs, and the farmers may have to carry a debt of anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 per cow. But, he points out, consumers in the Seattle-Tacoma area were paying, as of last July, $3.52 per gallon for whole milk, the highest prices anywhere in the nation.

The beef industry is more centralized. The actual economics of beef production are determined not by any free market, but by a highly concentrated industry. Four meatpackers—IBP, ConAgra, Excel (a subsidiary of Cargill), and National Beef—control 85 percent of the market. Work in the slaughterhouses can be extremely dangerous, and it's hardly worth it. An investigation by Mother Jones a couple of years ago found that slaughterhouses pay among the lowest wages and have turnover rates so high that every year practically the entire work force has to be hired anew. Most of the workers are illegal immigrants who often don't speak English and can't read.

This screwed-up system does produce the desired results once in a while: Bad meat is found and then recalled. Or is it?

A study by the Center for Public Integrity, a D.C. watchdog group, found that only 43 percent of all meat products recalled by their manufacturers from 1990-1997 was recovered. The rest of the meat—some 17 million pounds—was eaten by unsuspecting consumers. Yet Congress fought off efforts by the Secretary of Agriculture during that time to get the authority to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated meat.

The investigation found that during the 1990s the highly exclusive meat business spent $41 million financing political campaigns of Congress members, more than one third of them from House or Senate agriculture committees. Among them: the majority and minority leaders of the Senate (Trent Lott and Tom Daschle), the speaker of the House and the House minority leader (Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt), and six past or present chairmen or ranking minority members of the Senate and House agriculture committees.

The cattle industry during that period employed 124 lobbyists to work the Hill, 28 of them previously either lawmakers or aides to lawmakers. And it worked. "During the escalating public health crisis of the past decade," the Center reported, "the food industry has managed to kill every bill that has promised meaningful reform." In lieu of any serious rulemaking, the Clinton administration struck a weak-ass deal with the industry to allow cattlemen to do their own inspections and label their records "trade secrets" so the public can't look at them.

And the problem goes even beyond the threat that contaminated meat poses to public health. Our so-called factory farm system is a major pollutant; massive feedlots foul our water sources around the country. An EPA report from March '98 noted: "Agricultural practices in the United States are estimated to contribute to the impairment of 60 percent of the nation's surveyed rivers and streams; 50 percent of the nation's surveyed lakes, ponds, and reservoirs; and 34 percent of the nation's estuaries."

The late Ed Abbey had it right when he declared, "The rancher—with a few honorable exceptions—is a man who strings barbed wire all over the range; drills wells and bulldozes stock ponds; drives off elk and antelope and bighorn sheep; poisons coyotes and prairie dogs; shoots eagles, bears, and cougars on sight; supplants the native grasses with tumbleweed, snakeweed, povertyweed, cow shit, anthills, mud, dust, and flies. And then leans back and grins at the TV cameras and talks about how he loves the American West."

Additional Reporting: Ashley Glacel, Alicia Ng

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