Poultry Regulations Postponed: What Happened? by Rick Young and Jim Mokhiber

Rick Young was a producer of and Jim Mokhiber provided reporting and research for "Secrets of an Independent Counsel."

On March 11, 1993, Tyson Foods lobbyist, Jack Williams, visited with the Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy. The very next day, according to former Agriculture Department officials, Espy's chief of staff, Ron Blackley, shut down efforts to tighten poultry inspection standards. Did Tyson Foods influence decisions to derail tougher food-safety standards? This question became an early focus of Don Smaltz's investigation of Mike Espy, and explains, in part, Smaltz's interest in pursuing a criminal investigation of Blackley. Here's what is known about those meetings:

Shortly after arriving at the Deptartment of Agriculture, in Janaury 1993 the new Secretary, Mike Espy, faced a crisis. Tainted hamburgers from Jack-in-the-Box fast-food restaurants in Washington killed at least two children and sent many others to the hospital, victims of the sometimes deadly E. coli bacteria. Immediately, questions about the adequacy of beef handling operations became national headline news.

At the Department of Agriculture, officials with the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) had been for some time preparing proposals that would tighten existing inspection rules for both beef and poultry. The new regulations would become known as a "zero-tolerance" policy - a policy that increased meat-processing requirements to ensure the full and proper removal of fecal contamination.

Responding to the E. coli crisis, the Department of Agriculture intensified, and ultimately completed, its efforts to establish "zero-tolerance" regulations for the red-meat industry. Meanwhile, the poultry industry continued to negotiate over application of a "zero-tolerance" policy to chicken suppliers. Representatives from the poultry industry sought and received meetings with Department officials, arguing that the policy was costly and unnecessarily burdensome. For Tyson Foods alone, the nation's largest chicken supplier, the costs of complying with the tougher regulations would be nearly $40 million a year.

On March 8, 1993, industry representatives carried their complaints to FSIS officials during a briefing about the "zero-tolerance" proposal. On March 11, a second meeting took place, again to specifically discuss the new poultry proposal. Later that day, Jack Williams, Tyson Foods lobbyist, met directly with Sec. Mike Espy. The specifics of the Williams-Espy meeting remain unknown.

But the next day, on March 12, Espy's chief of staff, Ron Blackley met with FSIS officials to discuss proposed instructions from the Department to its field operations in response to the E. coli crisis. According to Wilson Horne, FSIS Deputy Administrator for Inspection Operations, near the end of the meeting, Ron Blackley inquired about the status of the zero-tolerance proposal for poultry. When informed that the new poultry regulations were near completion, Blackley, according to Horne, ordered the staff to remove the proposal from the computer files. According to some participants at the meeting, the message from Blackley was clear: stop work on the poultry regulations.

For his part, Blackley flatly denies ever pulling the plug on the poultry regulations. Blackley says that he was in many meetings and has no recollection of either this particular meeting or his chief accuser, FSIS Deputy Administrator, Wilson Horne.

Nonetheless, progress on the "zero-tolerance" poultry proposal lay in limbo for more than a year at the Department. In July, 1994, the new poultry regulations were finally proposed. But it would not be until January, 1995 - a month after Secretary Espy stepped down - that an official proposal of "zero-tolerance" for poultry was finally issued.


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