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The Politics of Meat by Steve Johnson
A look at the meat industry's influence on Capitol Hill

The meat industry in the United States is a powerful political force, both in the legislative and the regulatory arena, even though the way they wield that power is different from many industries on Capitol Hill. Instead of spreading lots of money around to many different lawmakers in an attempt to gain access and influence -- the traditional method used by many large corporations -- the meat industry targets their approach to a small number of key lawmakers and regulators that have a direct impact on their business interests. Yet despite the relatively low level of financial contributions, the industry has succeeded in weakening or preventing many new meat-safety initiatives in recent years.

Johnson is co-producer of "Modern Meat."

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 Association."

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 rulemaking process.

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 Jungle.

"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 -- went forward.

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 legislation.

"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 before."

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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