Where's the Beef About Beef?

Listening to the spokesperson of the nation's second largest food company, ConAgra's Jim Herlihy, say that his firm did nothing wrong or illegal, that "what we did was perfectly appropriate," in reselling the same meat to other countries that had been quarantined by South Korea because they said it contained listeria, one can only wonder if Herlihy is familiar with the definition of "outrageous"?

Outrageous has been defined as "flagrantly contrary to law, order, OR DECENCY" (emphasis added) and certainly as we learn more and more details of how ConAgra disregards the public's health, safety and decency standards with the marketing of their meat products we have every reason to brand its conduct as outrageous.

Yet, aside from little or no national media coverage, some voices in Congress calling for reform of the nation's meat inspection system, and the usual number of public interest advocacy spokespersons' cries of "foul" we are left asking ourselves the question: Where are the cries of public outrage?

Were it not for the outstanding investigative reporting of the Denver Post, led by staff reporter David Migoya, the ConAgra meat scandal would probably be passing us by with but a nod of public concern. As Credit Suisse First Boston food analyst David Nelson remarked recently "I continue to be amazed at the capacity of the American consumer to brush off most recalls. I've yet to see Americans get overly concerned about this type of thing."

Unfortunately, it will be only when people start dying in our own neighborhoods or communities from such contaminated meat, most likely first the children (why is it always the children who must pay the initial price for such outrageous corporate behavior?), will we see any manifestations of citizen anger.

Denver Post columnist Diane Carmen accurately articulated this short-sighted ability by a largely somnolent public to understand that the major threat to their health and safety today comes more from within their own food system than from without. "If 19 million pounds of meat distributed to half of this country," she wrote, "had been contaminated with a deadly strain of E. coli bacteria by terrorists, we'd go nuts. But when it's done by a Fortune 100 corporation, we continue to buy it and feed it to our kids."

Fueling this public indifference is a US Department of Agriculture more beholden to its corporate brethren than the farmers and public it was designed to serve and protect. Not only has the USDA bureaucracy been negligent but has actually persecuted those members of its own staff for being dedicated to protecting the public health.

Such an unsung hero was Bill Lehman, 60, who died of a severe heart condition in March 1998 at a Shelby, Mont., care center. Lehman was a retired USDA meat inspector and from 1987 to 1996 he worked as a border meat inspector in the Sweetgrass, Mont., station, the busiest port of entry for beef from Canada.

Tireless in his efforts for more strict meat inspection regulation, Lehman, who believed it was his duty to do whatever he could to ensure the safety of food being imported for American consumers, was outspoken in criticizing this country's inspection standards. Branded as a troublemaker, a loose cannon and a protectionist by many of his own USDA colleagues, others saw him as a hero, patriot and whistle blower; he much preferred to be thought of as a "concerned citizen."

By his own estimate he had himself rejected "up to 2.3 million pounds of contaminated or mislabeled imports annually. The reasons for rejection included pus-filled abscesses, sticky layers of bacteria leaving a stench, obvious fecal contamination, stains, metal shavings, blood, bruises, hair, hide, chemical residues, salmonella, added substances and advance disease symptoms."

Shortly after the children's deaths and sickness from e-coli-tainted hamburger in the Pacific Northwest Lehman testified before a congressional committee and detailed a typical inspection under the infamous "rear-door rule."

"I merely walk to the back of the truck. That's all I'm allowed to do. Whether there's boxed meat or carcasses in the truck, I can't touch the boxes. I can't open the boxes. I can't use a flashlight. I can't walk into the truck. I can only look at what is visible in the back of the trailer."

He also recounted during an interview while he was on the job that two trucks had just passed through the Sweetgrass facility and that he had inspected them both within 45 seconds.

"I've just inspected over 80,000 pounds of meat (boxed beef rounds and boxed boneless beef briskets) on two trucks. I wasn't running or hurrying either. One was bound for Sante Fe Springs, California, the other for San Jose, California. I just stamped on their paperwork 'USDA Inspected and Passed' in 45 seconds."

Because of his outspokenness Lehman was ordered to transfer to another location, retire or be terminated from his job as a meat inspector. He subsequently retired after 30 years of service in the USDA, in early 1997, stating he was "just tired of the whole thing."

Yet, today we still see a national media that barely understands the reality of how our present food delivery system works and who pays and who profits from its workings, and a Bush administration that believes we should increasingly trust the unregulated corporatist state to determine what is best for our own good.

For example, when discussing the current operations of the meat industry little mention is made of not only how the monopoly that is the meat packing industry operates and how it cheats both cattle producers and the consuming public; the fact that we import more cheap meat than we export; that the industry, more concerned with its bottom line than the common good, is constantly attempting to recruit cheap, unskilled foreign labor to undermine not only the industry's wage structure, but also to bust the workers' unions; and that the assembly line speed the companies require in their packinghouses makes it virtually impossible for government inspectors to satisfactorily approve the meat being processed, meat that may be waiting to sicken and kill.

As Kathleen Kelley Sullivan, a knowledgeable, articulate and passionate fourth generation Colorado rancher who has been vice chair of the National Commission on Small Farms, a Harvard Fellow in 1986 and taught a study group on the American Farm Crisis, points out:

"As cattle producers who love this industry, care for our communities and our friends, it is imperative we not let another year pass with more tragic e-coli victims. We must not be hampered in our exercise of free speech by our detractors. It's their behavior that is unconscionable. Turning up the heat to mask the problem is no solution.

"Our detractors, primarily the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, instead of misleading consumers about conditions in the beef industry, should join us in efforts to see that existing mandates for clean-carcass standards are effectively enforced. Instead of blindly spewing conspiracy propaganda in an effort to discredit us, they should help us fight for truly competitive markets through strong enforcement of antitrust laws so consumers have choices. Finally, in a gesture to consumers that the truth matters, they should quit opposing strong country of origin labeling laws and regulations on meat, and support rules that label beef with substantive, accurate information instead of wasting time labeling their critics," she adds.

It is ironic today when one sees and hears the media running around like chickens with their heads cut off over Enron, WorldCom, etc. and the effect these scandals are having on the pocketbooks on a few million stockholders and investors while remaining comparatively silent about scandals that could well have disastrous affects on the stomachs and health of tens of millions of ordinary men, women and children.

In a word, the meat packing industry's behavior today has become outrageous, yet at the same time the question has to be asked again and again: Where ... OH WHERE ... is the public outrage?

A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. 2201, Everett, WA 98203; email;

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