Most of the companies involved in the meat business, including the big
meatpackers, are represented by one or more of the powerful meat trade and
lobbying organizations: the American Meat Institute, the National Meat
Association, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. They're a powerful
group and they know they have a strong voice in decision-making in Washington.
"I think the ultimate objective of a lobbying organization such as the American
Meat Institute is to be sure that when the legislators enact bills, or when a
regulator finalizes a regulation, our expertise, our experience, our insight,
is part of their decision-making process," says Patrick Boyle, CEO of
the American Meat Institute.
Over the last 50 years, the meat industry grew accustomed to having powerful
friends in the upper levels of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Some of that changed
in the Clinton administration in the 1990s. When Michael Taylor, a lawyer by
training who didn't have a meat-industry background, became the new head of the Food
Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the USDA's meat-inspection arm, he was surprised at what he saw on the telephone in his new office. "On the telephone there were two speed dials with names by them. And one was to the American Meat Institute and the other was to the National Cattlemen's
Taylor says this is emblematic of the cozy relationship the meat industry had
with the government agency in charge of regulating it. "It is just a political
context, a culture that has developed over the years at the political level,
the food safety program at the USDA thinking of the industry as the customer
rather than the consumer, and thinking in terms of efficient inspection rather
than protecting public health."
The meat industry demonstrated its muscle in 1995. When the USDA proposed implementing new food-safety regulations in response to the devastating Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak
that made 700 people sick, the meat industry attempted to delay the
implementation of the new regulations by convincing a member of the key appropriations committee to introduce an amendment to stop the
Rep. James Walsh, an upstate New York Republican who received over
$65,000 from agriculture industry interests in the 1996 election cycle,
introduced the amendment to force the USDA to conduct more extensive hearings,
thus delaying implementation of the new food-safety system, which included
testing for salmonella in ground beef. The industry strongly objected to the new salmonella testing, saying it was not the proper scientific measure to use, and convinced Walsh to offer the amendment on their behalf.
It was an effective tactic to insist on more study on the new regulation, and
some estimated it could delay the implementation of the new rules for up to two
years. In a regulatory battle like this one, a two-year delay would effectively
kill the new measure, leaving the meat industry with the same inspection system
it had since the early 1900s -- the days of Upton Sinclair's book The
"It was very clear really that the industry was pushing this effort to stop the
rulemaking," Taylor said. "Congressman Walsh from New York who spearheaded the
effort said publicly and to us in meetings that the reason this amendment was
needed was because the industry felt that its concerns were not being heard
clearly enough, by me and the Department of Agriculture." In fact, The Washington Post reported at the time that an attorney for the National
Meat Association was one of the authors of the Walsh amendment.
In the end, after a public outcry from consumer advocates and newspaper
editorials criticizing the amendment and the meat industry, a compromise was
negotiated and the new meat inspection rules -- with the salmonella testing --
After the battle for the new meat safety regulations was won in 1995-96, the
salmonella testing provision - the main enforcement tool of the new regulation
- was challenged in court in Supreme Beef vs. United States
Department of Agriculture. Fearing an unfavorable outcome, food safety
advocates pushed for legislation explicitly empowering the Department of
Agriculture to set limits on the acceptable amount of salmonella in meat.
In 2000, the legislation failed in the Senate by one vote. Last October, it
failed again, by five votes. In between the two votes, a major merger
took place that made the meat industry even more powerful on Capitol Hill.
Tyson Foods, the giant poultry company, bought IBP, the No. 1 meat
processor, forming a Goliath in market share and political power. "There was a
reason that we lost by five votes. And I believe the reason was that Tyson Food
purchased IBP," says Carol Tucker Foreman, from the Consumer Federation of America. "Last year, you had a few senators who represented IBP states who
led a fight. This year, you had Tyson approaching senators from poultry
producing states and urging them to vote to limit USDA's power. The poultry
people had never been involved in this issue before."
In other words, when Tyson, the largest poultry producer, bought IBP, the
largest beef producer, the poultry industry suddenly had a reason to oppose
legislation that impacts the level of salmonella in ground beef. Capitol Hill
staffers confirmed Foreman's assertion, saying lobbyists for the National
Chicken Council, whose members account for nearly 95 percent of the chicken
sold in the country, were out in force last fall, lobbying against the
"We had several senators who changed their votes. Senators who'd voted with us
in 2000 voted against us in 2001," Tucker Foreman said. "And guess what? Almost
without exception, they were senators with very large poultry operations." Her
contention is that some senators with poultry interests in their states now had
an incentive to vote against legislation they supported in the past.
In December, supporters of the legislation saw their fears realized, when an
appeals court ruled in favor of Supreme Beef, saying the USDA could not shut
down a plant solely based on salmonella levels in ground beef. Now there is
neither a regulation nor a law in place to give the USDA enforcement power
based on testing for salmonella -- the key issue involved in the fight over the
Walsh amendment in 1995. It took awhile, but the meat industry ultimately
prevailed, both in the courts and on Capitol Hill.
The Department of Agriculture's undersecretary for food safety, Elsa
Murano, says that the USDA will not appeal the Supreme Beef case and that the
court's decision does not take away its ability to enforce the regulations.
"The authority's the same in the sense that we still can shut down plants, but
we shut them down based on their failure to meet food-safety standards, and not
only on the tests," says Murano.
But the political fight goes on. In March 2002, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a long-time
food safety advocate and chairman of
the Senate Agriculture Committee, introduced the Meat and Poultry Pathogen
Reduction Act of 2002. "We have an industry that appears dead set on striking
down USDA's authority to enforce meat and poultry pathogen standards. And
sadly, we are now at the point where the food-safety reforms USDA enacted in
1996 are on life support," Harkin said when he introduced the legislation.
The American Meat Institute will again oppose the latest legislation. "The U.S.
meat and poultry industry believes it's time to stop the political gamesmanship
that is dominating food safety policy and commit ourselves to good public
policy," said the AMI's J. Patrick Boyle in a statement. "Senator Harkin's bill is a political effort to legislate what science and the judicial system do not support and what Congress has rejected twice
Observers on Capitol Hill think the possibility for passage of the Harkin
legislation is slim, particularly now that the poultry industry maintains an
intense interest in the outcome.
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