Bill Lehman: 'Concerned Citizen' RIP

One of agriculture's unsung heroes, Bill Lehman, 60, died of a severe heart condition March 2 at a Shelby, Montana. care center.

Lehman, was a retired USDA meat inspector and from 1987 to 1996 he worked as a border meat inspector in the Sweetgrass, Montana, 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 advanced disease symptoms."

Lehman was severely critical of inspection procedures resulting from the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement which was approved in 1989. "Suddenly, Canadian meat imports became almost exempt from inspections," he recalled.

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."

In his obituary, however, his family of a wife, Shirley, two sons, a daughter and three grand children, noted that Lehman "even when forced into retirement by the USDA for challenging their program deficiencies, he refused to give up and had a case pending at the time of his death."

Shootout Time at Ol' Glickman Corral

Responding to pressure from the nation's independent cattlemen and public interest demands that the USDA move to end manipulation of cattle prices by corporate giants like IBP Inc and curb poultry processing companies from shortchanging their contract growers, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman has announced that his department has begun reorganizing the agency that enforces agriculture's antitrust law -- the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act.

In recent years three companies have come to dominate the meat packing industry: IBP (38 percent); Excel, a subsidiary of the Cargill Corp. (22 percent); and ConAgra, the nation's second largest food manufacturer (21 percent). Together they control some 81 percent of the meat packing industry.

"We can't let three or four very large companies run roughshod over family farmers," Glickman recently told a meeting of several lawmakers from Midwestern states.

At the present time the USDA is considering new rule-making power based on proposals submitted to it by the Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) which would 1) disallow formula or basis pricing on forward contracted slaughter cattle; 2) require that forward contracts be offered in an open, public manner, and 3) require that packer-fed cattle be sold on an open, public market.

"Captive supplies," "formula pricing," and "forward contracting" are ways packers control inventories. Independent cattle feeders complain that those forms force cattle prices lower while they increase packer and distribution profits. Captive supplies and formula pricing is where packers who feed their own cattle also forward contract for cattle at a set or formula price rather than buying their supplies of fed cattle in a competitive, public bidding system.

Thus, beef packing companies can take such cattle without ever bidding in open markets, such as livestock sale barns. By keeping their packing plants full for days and weeks at a time with such "captive supplies" or foreign imports such as from Canada, they can easily force open market prices (or "cash" market prices) down by simply not buying for long periods.

Currently, with the huge numbers of cattle that are fed by the major meatpackers plus non-negotiated formula cattle, there is little interest left in their competing in the cash market. An independent analysis published recently by Les Messinger, market analyst for Barnes Brokerage in Chicago, shows conservatively, that the cattle producer has lost $220 per head since the growth in captive supplies (March, 1994) and the loss of competition among the big three packers, IBP, Cargill and ConAgra.

Contrary to previous positions Glickman said he now favors mandatory reporting once a week of all cattle prices, including spot-market transactions and contract purchases. Department officials no longer see packers' infrequent voluntary reporting as adequate. Mandatory reporting would require congressional authorization.

Meanwhile, the American Meat Institute, which representing the major meatpackers, has disputed allegations of unfair practices and price manipulation. "This issue has been looked at repeatedly," Sara Lilygren, the group's chief spokeswoman, told the Wall Street Journal. "They've never found anything wrong." Meatpackers, she added, will oppose any rule requiring them to make public the terms of their private contracts with cattle producers.

Regarding the poultry industry, Secretary Glickman has vowed to carefully examine address the long-standing contract disputes between poultry companies and their growers that continue to plague the Broiler Belt from Delaware to Arkansas.

The USDA will propose new requirements that companies accurately weigh the feed they supply to their thousands of producers. Feed costs figure significantly in the calculation of grower payments. For many years, contract growers have complained about being shorted on the feed due them or overcharged. The rule proposal would also cover contracts between hog producers and packers.

Things Go Better With Coke OR ELSE

"The school door has been thrown open to marketers," is the way Marianne Manilov of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education aptly described the recent controversy surrounding "Coke Day" at Greenbrier High School in Evans, Ga., and student Mike Cameron, a 19-year-old senior, who was suspended for a day for wearing a Pepsi shirt at a Coke Day rally at his school."From where we sit this is out of hand," she said.

Cameron, relates how he had worn his Pepsi shirt all day but didn't get in trouble until it was time for the picture. "I was standing in the middle of the 'C' with my arm around my girlfriend," he told Washington Post reporter Frank Swoboda. The photographer was above the group on a "cherry picker" for an aerial shot.

According to Cameron's principal, Gloria Hamilton, who suspended the student for a day, he was wearing another shirt until the picture-taking, then whipped it off to expose the Pepsi shirt underneath. The principal called Cameron's actions a disruptive prank and said she would hand down the same punishment if she had a chance to do it again. A second student also received a one-day suspension for wearing a Pepsi shirt, she said; however, she would not identify the student, who served the suspension in school, separated from classmates.

"Coke Day" was conceived by the Georgia high school's student government as part of an entry into a national "Team Up With Coca-Cola" contest that earns $10,000 for the winning school. Coca-Cola Co. invites high schools throughout the country, except those that have exclusive contracts with PepsiCo Inc., to come up with a plan for distributing Coke discount cards locally.

All four high schools in Columbia County competed, but "Greenbrier elected to go big time," said Tom Dorhmann, superintendent of the Columbia County Board of Education. That included the rally, in which the students, who were encouraged to dress in Coke's red and white, lined up to spell out the word "COKE" while more than a dozen of the company's executives from Coke's nearby corporate headquarters in Atlanta looked on.

Teenagers: Running Free in the Supermarket

A March 14 article by the New York Times' Molly O'Neill spells out how teenagers, market researchers say, are helping reshape the way America eats, playing a big role in the array of ready-made meals now offered in supermarkets, from pasta to pizza to sweet-and-sour chicken, as well as the rise of nutrition bars. They like to snack, too, the "louder" (read: spicier) the better.

While mothers, she reports, still make most grocery decisions, food ads in magazines aimed at teenagers have markedly increased in the last five years, and food companies have established "edutainment" sites on the youth-savvy Web.

The Rand Youth Poll, which surveys about 2,700 teenagers twice a year has estimated that teenagers spent $48.8 billion in grocery stores in 1997, more than 10 percent of total grocery-industry sales. Half the teenagers surveyed by Teen-Age Research Unlimited in Northbrook, Ill., said they went to a grocery store at least once a week, and 61 percent "prepare a meal" for themselves weekly. Most buy their own breakfast and lunch every day.

Based on a 1997 study by the Food Marketing Institute, 29 percent of the people who bought prepared meals at supermarkets were 18 to 24 years old, compared with 16 percent in 1996. The only other age group that was larger were shoppers 65 and older, at 32 percent last year, up from 25 percent.

O'Neill notes:

"To many teenagers, `homemade' has come to mean nothing more than 'home heated.'" Marian Salzman, director of brand futures at Young & Rubicam Advertising, predicts that the subtle linguistic shift might well carry right into adulthood. And major food makers are on notice.

Foods aimed at teenagers are also constantly being fine-tuned to appeal to younger tastes, according to Rory Delaney, chief food scientist at Frito-Lay. Delaney said that a generation raised on processed foods has more tolerance of spicy flavors.

"We steadily increase the amount of seasoning in our products," he said. "Teens want what they call 'loud' taste. They want saltier, spicier, cheesier. The level of spice we sell now wouldn't have worked 30 years ago, and from what I've seen, the flavors will keep getting louder and louder as this generation comes of age."

Hunger, U.S.A., Revisited

Four months after the last of $27 billion in food-stamp cuts took effect, there is mounting evidence that the number of people who can't get enough to eat without help is rapidly increasing. Many charity leaders and experts on hunger believe that the cuts are at least partly to blame.

"The economy is booming by most standards we use to measure it, and yet we're saying our demand is up," says Sister Christine Vladimiroff, a Benedictine nun who runs Chicago-based Second Harvest, the nation's largest charity to getting food to the poor. "People come to us because their cupboards are bare," Sister Vladimiroff said. "We don't want to have to say, 'Well, ours are, too'."

A recent U.S. Conference of Mayors survey reports that there were average 1997 increases of 16 percent in requests for emergency food -- the largest jump in the 29-city survey since 1992. In addition, the study found that 19 percent of those seeking help were turned away, and 46 percent of the cities reported that charities and other private programs provided inadequate amounts of food to those helped. Forty-four percent of city officials cited cuts in the food-stamp program as a chief cause of the problem.

But many hunger workers, according to the Associated Press, said the blame cannot be placed solely on the changes in the food-stamp program, which reduced the stamps' value, limited to three months the eligibility of able-bodied, childless adults and denied benefits to most legal immigrants. Other, perhaps larger, factors include unemployment and low-paying jobs.

Second Harvest supplies through a network of food banks more than a billion pounds of food a year to soup kitchens, battered women's shelters, meals-on-wheels programs for the elderly and other services for the poor and homeless. In an informal survey, Second Harvest found it took an average of 14 percent more food to feed the hungry in November, 1997 than it did the previous year.

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have received waivers for the cutoff of childless adults in areas of high unemployment.

A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201. See his website on the Internet at:

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1998 The Progressive Populist