Will This Veil of Tears Never End?

Already fined $100 million for fixing the prices of food-ingredients lysine and citric acid, with three of its former executives having been found guilty of similar charges, and having paid another $100 million or so in related civil settlements, ADM--"Supermarkup to the World"--is now faced with another huge $1.6 million fine, this time by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for failing to protect its workers from on-the-job hazards.

Charged with 20 "willful" violations, meaning they were committed with "intentional disregard" or "plain indifference" to safety regulations, the Decatur, Ill.-based corporation assigned workers, according to OSHA, to paint the inside of rail tank cars without providing the lifeline equipment needed to evacuate them in an emergency. OSHA came to investigate the charges after an ADM employee complaint that safety rules were being disregarded.

"Because the paint was flammable and potentially explosive, the danger of an accident was high," said U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis M. Herman. No one was injured in the incidents she cited. ADM said the company planned to contest the OSHA findings, but offered no further comment.

ADM is no stranger to OSHA, however, as the government agency has cited ADM frequently for violating rules that protect workers in confined spaces. Four ADM employees have died and six have been hospitalized in confined-space incidents at the company's Decatur plant since 1993, OSHA said. In 1996, ADM agreed to a settlement with OSHA, paying $690,500 and promising to correct workplace hazards.

Whose Pigs Are Those At The Trough?

The speed by which the White House recently responded to the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) dire plea asking that the government buy more pork and that hog farmers be immediately made eligible for emergency disaster loans, was truly amazing when one reflects on how long it took family farmers in the Midwest to get disaster payments after the recent floods and droughts.

Within hours USDA announced that it intended to make a $50 million purchase of pork. One can only wonder if the fact that the NPPC has been spearheading corporate agribusiness' "Ag Coalition for Fast Track" lobby in Washington for the past couple of years just might have been the occasion for such fast action by the Clinton Administration to the NPPC's request for aid.

A look at the membership list of the "Agriculture Coalition for Fast Track," which is co-chaired by the National Pork Producers Council, includes Cargill, Continental Grain, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and a list that goes on and on, and that also includes such "family farmers" as ADM, Central Soya Company, ConAgra, Farmland Industries, General Mills, IMC Global, Independent Bankers Association of America, Louis Dreyfus Corporation, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, Nestle USA, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Union Pacific and other corporate business giants.

Listening to NPPC's President Donna Reifschneider wail to President Clinton about the possibly of a "massive restructuring of pork production in the United States if this dangerous situation is not reversed quickly," which would "result in the failure of tens of thousands of pork producers and a massive restructuring of pork production in the United States" must have brought a cynical smile to the faces of many of the nation's 122,000 hog farmers.

Supported by hog operators own checkoff dollars, the NPPC has been corporate agribusiness' primary cheer leader in urging hog farmers to expand their operations into factory-type operations which in fact has already led to a "massive restructuring of pork production in the U.S." and the current glut in the hog market and the collapse of prices being paid to hog farmers throughout the country.

Taking Polish Off the Apple

Adding to the woes of Washington State apple growers, who have seen their prices for juice plummet from between $90 and $100 a ton a year ago to $10 to $20 a ton today is the fact that Mexican apple pickers working in the state, in the most sweeping labor complaint against U.S. companies under the five-year-old NAFTA free-trade agreement, have accused their U.S. employers of discrimination, health and safety violations and anti-union threats.

Testifying in the first hearings held by Mexico against a U.S. company under labor-protection provisions of NAFTA, apple pickers and warehouse packers described alleged abuses including prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals, frequent verbal and physical abuse by supervisors, and threats and intimidation intended to prevent workers from organizing unions.

The charges by the apple pickers in a hearing before the Mexican Labor Ministry panel is only one among many complaints being heard recently in Mexico concerning many over other abuses and mistreatment of Mexican immigrants working in the U.S. on farms, in poultry and meat-packing plants and in other low-paying jobs often dismissed by U.S. citizens.

Washington state's apple industry, the state's largest agricultural industry, employs about 50,000 people annually in packing warehouses and in orchards. Mexico is also the largest export market for Washington apples. In recent years the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have sought to unionize several Washington apple companies, but failed earlier this year in elections which have since been contested by the union.

The allegations filed on behalf of Washington state apple workers--the majority of whom are of Mexican descent--represents the most comprehensive complaint filed yet against any of the three NAFTA countries and could set far-reaching precedents for laborers. "This is a tremendous forum for exposing the reality that workers face, which in the long run could be more important than the single case itself," said John August of the Teamsters, which is supporting the complaint filed by Mexican labor unions on behalf of the Washington apple workers.

The majority of apple pickers and workers in Washington make minimum wages of $7.50 an hour--the amount they would receive for two days' work in the Mexican states of Michoacan and Oaxaca, where most of the workers are from.

Land of Milk and Cotton

The Cotton Board and Cotton Inc. collect $60 million a year from cotton farmers and importers under an act of Congress to promote the sale and use of cotton by Americans and in foreign markets. But as the Washington Post's Sharon Walsh, in a revealing and in-depth November 25, 1998 article shows the two quasi-public bodies have been spending the money with little government oversight or accountability.

While USDA which oversees the cotton-promotion program and 11 similar programs for products such as milk, pork and beef, it has repeatedly failed to exercise its authority and determine how the money is spent, even in the face of critical reports from its own inspector general and the General Accounting Office.

Consequently, as Walsh reports, based on documents and interviews, the pot of money collected from farmers and importers--which has nearly doubled since 1991--has helped pay for such events as entertaining some 400 guests at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art at an annual black-tie event dubbed "A Celebration of American Style" with a private showing of the museum's Edgar Degas exhibit, as an elegant start to an evening of cocktails, dinner, fashion modeling and gifts that cost more than $450,000.

Or it has helped pay the "expenses" at the Thee Dollhouse, on the outskirts of Raleigh, N.C., part of a chain that claims it was voted the "No. 1 gentlemen's club in America" and features dancing by 100 topless women on tabletops, next to customers' tables or in showers. Over a time span of 18 months, at least $8,500 in adult entertainment was charged to the cotton industry at places like Thee Dollhouse--including $2,915 for what is listed on bills as "personal services."

Cotton Inc.'s money pot also dispenses whatever else Cotton Board and Cotton Inc. officials deem will result in higher sales of cotton, including golf outings at expensive resorts, cars and country club memberships, large quantities of alcohol for entertainment, a $19 million headquarters building and a $215,000 consulting contract for a former top Cotton Inc. official.

Many of these expenses have not been clearly disclosed in company books, making it difficult to determine how Cotton Inc. and the Cotton Board spend their money. "When there's so much money involved and no supervision, it's a scandal waiting to happen, if it hasn't happened already," said Laura E. Jones, executive director of the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel and an alternate member of the Cotton Board, told Walsh "It's like a spendathon."

In an accompanying article Walsh also examines how the operations of the milk board, formally known, in the 1990 legislation that created it, as the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program, are replete with mismanagement and lack of oversight, according to the USDA's inspector general.

Recently, he recommended that the board's operations--which include promotion, research and consumer education (including the milk-mustache advertising campaign where photos of celebrities--from Christie Brinkley to Kristi Yamaguchi and politicians from Bill Clinton to Bob Dole--upper lips are painted with a combination of milk and ice cream) be suspended until the problems can be addressed.

The inspector general's report, she adds, charges that from the time the program began in 1993 until the end of June 1997, $127 million in contracts have been signed without the appropriate authorizations from USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), an agency which is supposed to approve all contracts and agreements prior to the expenditure of program funds.

"Required reports weren't received. There were no official board minutes. Contracts were let without competition. . . . One contract was let before the board ever met and the board told the subcontractor how such to bid on it!" Roger C. Viadero, USDA inspector general and a former chief of the audit unit of the FBI, told Walsh. He recounted some of the problems in the program, which took in $107 million in the year ended in June. "It defies credibility and credulity." Defenders of the milk program say Viadero's criticisms are overblown.

FDA: A Rush to Judgment?

Accusing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of lowering it standards for safety and efficacy, the Public Citizen's Health Research Group of Washington, which is directed by Dr. Sidney Wolfe and was founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader in 1971, has charged the government regulatory agency with working too hastily and approving drugs that should never have been allowed on the market.

While the report has drawn what the New York Times' Denise Grady describes as "a scathing rebuttal from the drug industry, an oblique defense from the agency and criticism from representatives of chronically ill people who advocate swifter drug approval ... some scientists said the report raised significant concerns."

People surveyed for the study were medical officers, agency employees assigned to oversee individual drugs being evaluated for approval. The survey was anonymous, and completed by only 53 of the 172 people to whom it was mailed. A majority of the medical officers did not answer the survey, and a majority of those who did answer did not complain.

Despite its drawbacks Dr. Carol Braun Trapnell, a former food and drug agency medical officer who is now director of medical affairs for GloboMax, a Hanover, Md., company that consults with the pharmaceutical industry believes that the Public Citizen report identified important issues. Dr. Braun Trapnell told the Times that she had worked at the agency for 11 years, until about a year ago, and that the climate there seemed to change toward the end of her tenure. There was less concern about scientific issues, she said.

In one case, Dr. Braun Trapnell said, she told a supervisor that she had doubts about a drug because of a lack of data about dosage, but he told her to find a way to approve it anyway. "You start to wonder why you're breaking your back trying to do good science if that's the prevailing attitude," she said.

The Public Citizen's Health Research Group study also reflects the recent findings by Health Canada in its assessment of Monsanto Corp.'s recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) billed by the company as "the most extensively tested product in its history."

Approved in 1993 by the FDA, Monsanto was given clearance to market rBGH, a genetically engineered hormone that is injected into dairy cows to make them produce more milk. In recent months, however, in Canada, which has yet to approve the hormone, that country's government scientists are challenging the scientific validity of FDA's 1993 safety decision.

No other country other than the U.S. has approved rBGH for use, although Monsanto has sought approval in Australia, New Zealand, the European Union and Canada.

Meanwhile, a recently-released Canadian government report indicates that the findings of Monsanto's 90-day rat feeding study were misreported by the FDA, since 20% to 30% of the rats fed rBGH in high doses developed primary antibody responses to rBGH, indicating that rBGH was absorbed into their blood. In addition, cysts reportedly developed on the thyroids of the male rats and some increased infiltration of the prostate gland occurred. The Canadian government report concludes flatly that "the 3-month rat study did show a physiological response."

A. V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201; e-mail:

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