WASHINGTON, D.C.—When it comes to politics you just can't beat the cattlemen for bellyaching. They are forever running around Washington, wanting to pay lower fees for overgrazing the public range or demanding cutbacks in environmental laws that might actually slightly intrude on their operations, and like everyone else under the big Republican tent, babbling on about the wonders of the "free market."
In what will surely rank as cattle ranchers' biggest and stupidest p.r. campaign, some Amarillo ranchers sued Oprah because in 1996 she had Howard Lyman, a former rancher and food activist, as a guest on her show. The ranch owners think Lyman is a dangerous nut. He told Oprah how the beef men were feeding cattle ground up bits and pieces of other cattle, including stuff from sick cows, and warned it was only a matter of time before Mad Cow Disease hit the U.S.
The cattlemen flipped out. Paul Engler, owner of Cactus Feeders Inc. filed suit, claiming that Oprah and Lyman hurt the cattle futures market and charging that they violated a Texas law that forbids "knowingly making false statements" about agricultural business. Claiming a right to free speech, Oprah won, but the beef men nonetheless insisted you could rest assured that Mad Cow could never come to the U.S.
What the cattlemen detest most is the meat inspection system. The story of how Upton Sinclair muckraked the slaughterhouses some one hundred years ago and Teddy Roosevelt jumped in and fixed them all up is pretty much fiction. The simple fact is the meat inspection system isn't any good and anybody who even attempts to stand up to the Big Boy ranchers does so at his or her peril. Look what happened to Bill Lehman, who throughout the early 1990s worked as a meat inspector at Sweetgrass, Montana, a busy port of entry for Canadian beef. By his own count, Lehman himself rejected "up to 2.3 million pounds of contaminated or mislabeled imports annually." The reasons, according to Lehman, 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."
After some children died from an E. coli outbreak in the 90s, Lehman told about his work: "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 told one interviewer how he did his inspections: "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 Santa Fe Springs, California, the other for San Jose, California. I just stamped on their paperwork 'USDA Inspected and Passed' in 45 seconds."
The revelations by Lehman, who died in 1998, drove the ranchers and their USDA buddies nuts. They said he was a troublemaker and, because he thought free-trade laws made matters worse, a protectionist. He was ordered to retire, face being fired or transfer to another location. He retired, saying he was "just tired of the whole thing." But he fought the USDA until he died.
But Lehman was far from the only critic. "Adequate inspection on the border has been lacking for years, said Mike Callicrate, an outspoken Kansas rancher, especially on the topic of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
What many people don't understand is how minimal meat inspection is. Here's a typical instance, described by an Iowa farmer: He buys cows or heifers at auction, where they have been certified as having met health requirements—not because of first-hand inspection but because of the seller's history as a "good guy." The farmer proceeds to feed the cattle corn, sometimes with a vegetable-based additive, and in two years sells them to a feed lot or maybe a local butcher. There is no check on the health of the animals. Approval for sale is again based on the history of the farm. What about sick cows? Say a cow falls down—he's called a "downer." According to this farmer, a vendor often is called; he'll send a truck to pick up the animal, kill it (if it is still alive), and sell the parts into the meat system. If the farmer spots a sick cow in his herd, he gets rid of it quick as he can. He doesn't go through the rigmarole of testing it through a veterinarian, which takes time and costs money. He just gets rid of the animal and keeps mum about what happened.
Weak laws and weak enforcement are only part of the reason for the slipshod inspection system. It's a fact that farmers and ranchers are under terrific pressure to make a go of it. As Al Krebs, an activist who edits the Ag Biz Examiner, told the Voice, "If dairy farmers were getting a fair price for what they produce, they probably wouldn't feel it necessary to squeeze every last penny out of their herd, such as sending 'downers' off to the marketplace." Dairy farmers in the Seattle-Tacoma area are getting as little as $1 per gallon for their milk when it probably costs about $1.40 to produce that gallon, says Krebs, and the farmers may have to carry a debt of anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 per cow. But, he points out, consumers in the Seattle-Tacoma area were paying, as of last July, $3.52 per gallon for whole milk, the highest prices anywhere in the nation.
The beef industry is more centralized. The actual economics of beef production are determined not by any free market, but by a highly concentrated industry. Four meatpackers—IBP, ConAgra, Excel (a subsidiary of Cargill), and National Beef—control 85 percent of the market. Work in the slaughterhouses can be extremely dangerous, and it's hardly worth it. An investigation by Mother Jones a couple of years ago found that slaughterhouses pay among the lowest wages and have turnover rates so high that every year practically the entire work force has to be hired anew. Most of the workers are illegal immigrants who often don't speak English and can't read.
This screwed-up system does produce the desired results once in a while: Bad meat is found and then recalled. Or is it?
A study by the Center for Public Integrity, a D.C. watchdog group, found that only 43 percent of all meat products recalled by their manufacturers from 1990-1997 was recovered. The rest of the meat—some 17 million pounds—was eaten by unsuspecting consumers. Yet Congress fought off efforts by the Secretary of Agriculture during that time to get the authority to issue mandatory recalls of contaminated meat.
The investigation found that during the 1990s the highly exclusive meat business spent $41 million financing political campaigns of Congress members, more than one third of them from House or Senate agriculture committees. Among them: the majority and minority leaders of the Senate (Trent Lott and Tom Daschle), the speaker of the House and the House minority leader (Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt), and six past or present chairmen or ranking minority members of the Senate and House agriculture committees.
The cattle industry during that period employed 124 lobbyists to work the Hill, 28 of them previously either lawmakers or aides to lawmakers. And it worked. "During the escalating public health crisis of the past decade," the Center reported, "the food industry has managed to kill every bill that has promised meaningful reform." In lieu of any serious rulemaking, the Clinton administration struck a weak-ass deal with the industry to allow cattlemen to do their own inspections and label their records "trade secrets" so the public can't look at them.
And the problem goes even beyond the threat that contaminated meat poses to public health. Our so-called factory farm system is a major pollutant; massive feedlots foul our water sources around the country. An EPA report from March '98 noted: "Agricultural practices in the United States are estimated to contribute to the impairment of 60 percent of the nation's surveyed rivers and streams; 50 percent of the nation's surveyed lakes, ponds, and reservoirs; and 34 percent of the nation's estuaries."
The late Ed Abbey had it right when he declared, "The rancher—with a few honorable exceptions—is a man who strings barbed wire all over the range; drills wells and bulldozes stock ponds; drives off elk and antelope and bighorn sheep; poisons coyotes and prairie dogs; shoots eagles, bears, and cougars on sight; supplants the native grasses with tumbleweed, snakeweed, povertyweed, cow shit, anthills, mud, dust, and flies. And then leans back and grins at the TV cameras and talks about how he loves the American West."