July 3, 2002   #172
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
From a Public Interest Perspective

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DOW JONES NEWSWIRES: ConAgra Beef Co. of Greeley, Colorado, is voluntarily recalling approximately 354,200 pounds of fresh and frozen ground beef products that may be contaminated with E. coli bacteria, the Agriculture Department announced Sunday.

The department's Food Safety and Inspection Service said the labels on all the products being recalled bear the establishment code "EST.969" inside the USDA seal of inspection. It was produced on May 31 and distributed to retail, food service and institutional establishments nationwide. The problem was discovered through microbiological traceback sampling, the inspection service said.

"Because of the potential hazard of foodborne illness from consumption of meat products contaminated with harmful bacteria such as E. coli  .. . . I urge consumers who have purchased the suspect product not to eat it and return it to the place of purchase," said Linda Swacina, acting FSIS administrators. "USDA is informing the public so consumers who may have purchased and stored the product in their refrigerators or freezers will know to check. Also, diners may wish to ask if their meals contain the recalled product."

She said the government has received no reports of illness associated with the meat being recalled. E. coli can cause serious illness and sometimes death. Symptoms include chills and bloody diarrhea.

Consumers with questions about the recall may contact the company at        970-506-8052.


DAVID MIGOYA, DENVER POST: Someone would have to die.

That's what a federal inspector warned it would take to force change at a Fort Morgan, [Colorado] slaughterhouse where meat tainted with feces was a recurrent problem. Someone did die. Dozens were sickened.

Health officials in Milwaukee, where an E. coli outbreak occurred in July 2000, blamed the Excel Corp. [Cargill Corp.] plant in Fort Morgan. Excel denied responsibility but reviewed sanitation procedures at the plant. Little changed. In the months after the outbreak, federal inspectors actually documented feces-contaminated meat more frequently than before, The Denver Post found.

Despite those violations --- coupled with the discovery of salmonella in the plant's ground beef for the first time in three years --- the U.S. Department of Agriculture in November 2000 lifted a year-long threat to sanction the plant because of dirty meat. These events raise questions about meat safety and the zeal with which federal officials and programs protect the public from contamination.

"It's surprising and disheartening that the USDA could approve a company's plan while violations increased," said Caroline Smith DeWaal with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food-safety advocacy group. "It's not much of a plan if they can't control visible contamination," Smith DeWaal said. "It's another example of a very flawed system."

Excel officials said their meat is safe and unconnected to the E. coli that killed three-year-old Brianna Kriefall and sickened more than 60 others who ate E. coli-laced fruit at a Sizzler restaurant salad bar. Subsequent lawsuits against the firm were dismissed on technical grounds. "Excel had proven . . . that safe and wholesome food was being shipped to consumers," said Ralph Weber, an attorney for Excel. A USDA spokesman said Excel's operation was acceptable.

"Whatever the plant did satisfied the inspectors on the premises and the scientists that Excel's plan was operating correctly," said Steven Cohen, a spokesman with the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. "Over time, they got it under control." In the five months before Brianna's death, records show, federal inspectors cited the Excel plant six times for letting feces contaminate meat. The USDA threatened sanctions and demanded that Excel improve its slaughter processes. After the girl's death, Excel officials said, they found nothing wrong with the plant's sanitation practices.

"One would presume that the number of violations would decrease while Excel was taking a look and the USDA was investigating Milwaukee," said Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the science center, which often spars with the USDA. Instead, the number of dirty-meat citations tripled at the plant in the five months after Brianna's death, records show.

"Spot checks (by USDA inspectors) for visible contamination are very different from whether the (company's sanitation) system is working," attorney Weber said. He said the company takes additional safety steps such as giving meat a steam bath that company tests show kills 99.9% of pathogens on carcasses.

Critics said the USDA should have ensured Excel was keeping meat clean before the Milwaukee outbreak. That the violations increased after Brianna died "is downright inexcusable," said Michael Schwochert, a former USDA veterinarian who supervised inspections at Excel until late 1999.

"The USDA is talking one game and playing another," Schwochert said. "We used to say that someone would have to die before anything changed at Fort Morgan and at the USDA. The plant is no worse than others, but the way USDA operates is not an effective enforcement tool."

The traditional method of inspecting the nation's beef underwent massive change after four people died from  eating undercooked, tainted Jack in the Box hamburgers in 1993. The culprit was a little-known bacteria called O157:H7, the deadliest variant of E. coli. It originates in the intestines and feces of cattle, and can contaminate meat during the slaughter process.

Soon after, the USDA halted its hands-on "poke-and-sniff" method, used since 1906, where meat was prodded and smelled to see if it was edible and clean. Instead, USDA required slaughterhouses to identify where problems could occur along their production lines, where bacteria could get onto meat, and what was being done to ensure that didn't happen. It was dubbed HACCP (pronounced HA-sip), short for Hazard Analysis-Critical Control Points, and Excel was one of the first places where it was applied, in 1998.

The USDA also unveiled a new phrase to the meatpacking industry: zero tolerance. It meant packers couldn't allow feces --- the favored breeding ground for E. coli --- onto their meat. Violators risked sanctions, which could include withholding the USDA inspection seal that a business such as Excel needs to sell its products. But zero tolerance was more tolerant than it sounded.

The USDA's rules don't define, and inspectors say they don't know, how often a violation has to occur before a sanction is put into effect. Some inspectors, who say HACCP gives meatpackers too much leeway, call it Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray. "The large plants battle the USDA for trying to do its job," said Gary Dahl, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 925, which represents USDA inspectors in Colorado. "It's horribly frustrating to our inspectors. There's no real consistency in getting compliance."

Part of the HACCP system includes lab tests of raw ground beef for E. coli. Those tests found tainted meat at an Indiana grocery store in September 1999. Its source: Fort Morgan. During subsequent testing at the plant, E. coli turned up in two more batches of ground beef. The plant was closed for three days. The USDA threatened another closure if dirty meat continued to be a problem, records show. Over the next eight months, inspectors found feces on beef carcasses six times.

The USDA issued another warning: "These repetitive fecal findings at your facility demonstrate that your HACCP plan is inadequate," USDA District Manager Ronald Jones wrote Excel plant manager Michael Chabot on May 23, 2000. "(Y)ou are not taking seriously your responsibility to control food safety hazards and ensure that your HACCP plan is effective," Jones wrote. Still, Jones said, "before taking further action I am providing you the opportunity to achieve compliance. . . ." Meat shipments continued. So did violations, records show.

Meanwhile, Excel officials argued the USDA was being unfair. In June 2000, Excel said the number of violations for fecal contamination made problems appear worse because "defects are found on different parts of the carcass" and are lumped together, records show. Excel even challenged the federal agency's definition of feces, specifically its color and texture. The USDA told Excel its point was "irrelevant when zero is the standard."

Also in June 2000, Bill Shaffer, the Excel plant's manager of quality assurance, complained the USDA flagged carcasses "for unidentified minute specks" and then checked them "with a fine-tooth comb," records show. "I've never seen a more contentious relationship between the USDA and a slaughterhouse than at that plant," said William Marler, a Seattle lawyer who was one of several who sued Excel over the Milwaukee outbreak. A judge dismissed the cases in May without ruling on where the E. coli came from. "The plant challenged just about everything the USDA did," Marler said.

Then, on June 14, 2000, after a series of meetings between officials at USDA and Excel, the agency said Excel's HACCP program was effective. The suspension threat was shelved, but the plant would have to "consistently demonstrate that your slaughter process is under control," Jones warned in a letter. Future violations could mean the sanctions would be reinstated. Eight days later, inspectors found feces on a carcass.

When an inspector returned to ensure the contamination had been sliced off --- the only method allowed by the USDA to remove feces from meat ---"an employee was wiping the fecal (matter) . . . off with his hand." Also that day, Excel shipped "tri-tips" sirloin meat that Milwaukee County health officials blamed for the outbreak there, records show.

Excel's Weber minimized the importance of violations at the plant, noting that of the 618,000 cattle slaughtered there between January and July 2000, just 10 had visible contamination. "The contamination was removed in every one of those instances," he said.

Brianna and other Sizzler customers who were sickened hadn't eaten any meat, only fruit. Milwaukee County health officials --- not the USDA --- said Sizzler restaurant workers contaminated the fruit when they didn't clean a  countertop used to prepare both foods. Excel said its meat wasn't the source of the E. coli. Still, company officials asked a group of plant employees to "take a look for any potential problems" with its slaughter operation, Weber said. They found none, he said.

In July, the month Brianna died, the government's meat inspectors found no violations for fecal contamination at the plant. By August 11, 2000, however, inspectors found a fecal smear a foot long and a half-foot wide, records show. By the end of September, inspectors found fecal contamination more than a dozen times in two months --- twice the
total for the five months before Brianna died.

"What I can't understand is how the USDA could have allowed this to continue," said Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, a consumer group that represents victims of food-borne illnesses. "Things were operating properly," USDA's Cohen said, because Excel corrected its problems.  With each new violation, inspectors included the same warning: "Failure to implement effective corrective actions could result in additional regulatory and/or administrative enforcement actions."

Records show there were more problems, but no consequences, for Excel. "The zero-tolerance rule is a crock," said Schwochert, the former USDA vet. "They told us that if we found repetitive violations, they'd close the plant. Here we had dozens of violations of zero tolerance. Yet no real action was taken after the three-day suspension, even though violations persisted."

On November 3, 2000, inspectors found one instance of salmonella in ground beef produced at the plant, the first time the virulent bug was found there in nearly three years, records show. While that wasn't enough to trigger a recall, watchdogs said USDA should have looked closer. "If a plant's HACCP plan is working ideally, there shouldn't be any salmonella," said Smith DeWaal of the Washington advocacy group.

Excel's lawyer noted that the USDA allows up to five salmonella-test failures in 53 samples. "Until then we were batting a thousand," Weber said. "We did not fail the standard, so why should USDA have reacted or intervened?" Six days after the salmonella finding, and despite the growing number of dirty-meat violations, the USDA's regional director told Excel it had "effectively implemented" better procedures to keep meat clean, records show.

Jones' letter did warn Excel: "Please be advised that we consider (zero tolerance) violations . . . as serious in nature. Failure to comply with these requirements in the future could lead to the withholding or suspension of inspection or other appropriate action."

"It's troubling that (Excel) had these problems and continued pumping out the meat, and the USDA didn't take any enforcement action of any kind," said Donley of Safe Tables. "Until there's stronger tools, there's no incentives for the plants to clean up their act." Two weeks after the warning from Jones, inspectors at the plant found feces on carcasses. Within the next year, records show, inspectors issued citations for contamination at the Fort Morgan plant another two dozen times. The USDA took no further action.


BILL HORD, OMAHA, WORLD-HERALD: Cattlemen from three states filed a lawsuit Monday against the four largest packing companies, alleging that the packers took advantage of a glitch in the government's beef price reporting system to gain an extra $40 million in profits at the expense of cattlemen.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Pierre, South Dakota., by South Dakota cattleman Herman Schumacher, Kansas cattle feeder Mike Callicrate and Omaha cattleman Roger Koch. The three are asking for class-action status for all cattle producers who sold livestock to the four packers during 29 days in which wholesale beef prices were reported incorrectly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The cattlemen allege that the four companies knew that the prices reported by the USDA were lower than the actual prices paid for boxed beef. Instead of reporting the problem, according to the lawsuit, the packing companies kept quiet so livestock sellers would be willing to take less money for their live cattle.

The four companies named as defendants in the lawsuit are IBP Inc., a division of Tyson Foods Inc.; Excel Corp., a division of Cargill Inc.; ConAgra Beef Co.; and Farmland National Beef Packing Co.

"We think their lawsuit has no merit," said Mark Klein, a spokesman for Excel at Cargill's headquarters in Minneapolis. Spokesmen for the other companies said they were not aware of the lawsuit. They did not immediately comment. "We're not in a position to respond until we've read it," said Jim Herlihy, a spokesman for ConAgra Beef.

The USDA glitch occurred when the government launched a new price-reporting system on April 2, 2001. The reporting system was designed to provide more information to the cattle industry on the prices being paid for live cattle and for wholesale beef. After six weeks, the USDA halted its reporting of wholesale prices for three days. It then announced that a computer problem had resulted in wholesale prices being underreported.

When price reporting resumed, average wholesale prices increased by about 15%. Live cattle prices also increased by more than $1 per hundred pounds. The cattlemen claim that the immediate increase in cattle prices showed that packers had used the reports of falling wholesale prices to gain price concessions from cattle sellers.

"In the 29 days that the false reports were published through the industry," said Schumacher, who owns a livestock market in Herreid, South Dakota, "it looks like the packers pocketed an extra $40 million."

Said Omaha attorney Tom White, who represents the cattlemen along with two Minneapolis attorneys: "Packers kept buying beef, knowing that the cattlemen were being dealt off of a short deck. We think we can prove it."

Callicrate, a St. Francis, Kansas, feedlot owner, said the packers' actions were similar to insider trading in stock investing, which is prohibited. "They had information that the livestock sellers didn't have," Callicrate said. This is the second lawsuit aimed at packing plants for Callicrate. He is one of ten lead plaintiffs in a Montgomery, Alabama, case in which IBP is accused of manipulating markets to drive down the price of cattle.


DOW JONES NEWSWIRES: Dow Chemical Co. and Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM) agreed to dissolve their ethanol joint venture, effective December 31.

Dow's Solvents and Intermediates business director, Pat Gottschalk said "the joint venture did not produce an adequate financial return nor create sufficient value for customers." In a press release Monday, Dow Chemical said the venture, which began in 1983 between Union Carbide and ADM, combined Union Carbide's "access to and knowledge of the industrial ethanol market with ADM's fermentation ethanol production capabilities."

Science and technology company Dow Chemical, which eventually acquired Union Carbide, doesn't expect the dissolution to have a material impact on its business results. Archer-Daniels-Midland makes food additives and ingredients for packaged-food companies.


JON KAMP, DOW JONES NEWSWIRES: Williams Cos. hopes to sell off its ethanol production business, one of the largest in the U.S., by the end of the year as part of an overall corporate plan to sell assets to help improve finances, a spokeswoman confirmed Friday.

Through marketing alliances with producers and its own production facilities, Williams is the second largest ethanol producer in the U.S., distantly behind leader Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM). But ethanol production still represents a small portion of Williams' overall energy business, and it isn't considered one the energy firm's core business        areas.

"We are hoping that we will find a buyer for this," spokeswoman Carol Ward said. "We certainly want to close by the end of the year." The Williams Bio-Energy subsidiary, which includes its ethanol business, had revenue of $428 million in 2001, about 3.9% of Williams' overall revenue.

Ethanol, made from corn, is used as a fuel additive to produce cleaner-burning gasoline blends. Williams owns a 100 million gallon-a-year production facility in Pekin, Illinois, and has a majority ownership stake in a 15 million gallon-a-year facility in Aurora, Nebraska.

Combined with agreements with other producers, Williams sold 265 million gallons of ethanol in 2001, Ward said. By comparison, ADM produces about 950 million gallons a year, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, a Washington-based trade association. Ward declined to state an expected selling price for the Williams Bio-Energy business, or the names of any potential buyers. "Certainly we have had interest, I can tell you that," she said.

Any sale could draw the attention of political officials, who have been concerned that consolidation in the business could take away competitive pressure and lead to higher gasoline prices.

A group of six U.S. senators led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Dem.-California, asked the U.S. Justice Department in late May to review ADM's potential purchase of Minnesota Corn Processors LLC. The ethanol producer said May 8 that it is in preliminary talks with ADM regarding a potential deal. A spokesman for Feinstein said Friday that the senator's office is still researching the potential Williams sale.

The sale of the Williams Bio-Energy assets are part of a larger corporate plan to sell about $3 billion in assets to help create a net $8 billion improvement in company finances in the next year. Williams said June 18 that it also plans to sell refineries in Memphis, Tenn., and Alaska and related petroleum assets by the end of the year to raise more than $1 billion.


AMEET SACHDEV, CHICAGO TRIBUNE:While the debate rages on about labeling genetically engineered foods, foodmakers are growing impatient with the biotechnology industry's efforts to develop crops that have some nutritional or health value for consumers.

A General Mills Inc. executive, speaking on a biotech panel in Chicago Thursday, said food manufacturers receive no marketing advantage from the current technology, which helps farmers fight insects and weeds but offers little appeal to consumers.

Instead, foodmakers have had to deal with one controversy after another surrounding genetically engineered corn and soybeans. Environmental and consumer groups question the long-term healthfulness of biotech ingredients in foods ranging from corn flakes to veggie burgers and have called for more descriptive labeling. Their protests reached a fever pitch in late 1990 after a brand of biotech corn not approved for human consumption was found in taco shells sold by Northfield-based Kraft Foods Inc.

"Candidly, we have told the biotech industry that we are in a perilous situation until consumer benefits arrive," said Austin Sullivan, senior vice president at General Mills, the Minneapolis-based cereal-maker. When asked why foodmakers do not stop using genetically engineered ingredients altogether, Sullivan responded: "That's a question we ask ourselves from time to time."

Other food manufacturers echo his views. Yet they continue to support gene-altered crops because they believe the technology holds promise. Indeed, biotech companies, such as Monsanto Co. of St. Louis, are cooking up plants designed to make food healthier.

The fat composition of oil-producing plants such as soybeans and canola is being genetically altered to help consumers lower "bad" cholesterol and increase intake of healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But these breakthroughs will not be ready for sale for a few more years, biotech industry officials acknowledge.

The Bush administration opposes labeling foods that contain biotech ingredients, siding with the food industry, which fears the information might discourage sales.


PHILIP BRASHER, DES MOINES REGISTER: The family of embattled U.S. Agriculture Department nominee Thomas Dorr is repaying the government another $17,000 following a new investigation into its farming operations. Dorr, who manages the Iowa farm, and his family gave back a similar amount after an earlier review found violations of government payment rules in 1994 and 1995.

The latest refund, which the Agriculture Department disclosed to the Senate on Thursday, covers the same time period but a different segment of the family's operations. A report to the Senate Agriculture Committee said it was impossible to tell whether the Dorrs owed any more money because records for earlier years are no longer available.

Dorr's nomination has been stalled for more than a year, first because of objections raised by organizations opposed to some of his views, and then because of questions about his finances.

In a letter accompanying the report, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman urged Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin "to finally move forward" on Dorr's nomination.

Dorr has acknowledged that he structured the Marcus farm's finances in a way to avoid the $50,000-per-producer cap that the USDA then had on government payments. On an audiotape, he was recorded telling a family member the department could "raise hell" if the farm were audited. The department earlier had cleared Dorr of criminal wrongdoing in connection with the overpayments.

Officials didn't say at the time that they would ask for a refund.

Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, issued a statement saying the report and accompanying documents "seem to raise some questions" and require review by the committee staff. Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, supports Dorr's nomination and has predicted the committee will approve it when Harkin permits a vote.

"It's time for the Senate to get a rural-development leader in place at USDA so that the rural-development provisions of the farm bill can be implemented," Grassley said.

The latest refund, which includes about $10,000 in subsidies and $7,000 in interest, stemmed from an investigation initiated last September following a hot-line complaint to the USDA's inspector general. The investigation covered the second of two family trusts that own some of the land Dorr operates. Dorr is not a trustee or beneficiary of that trust, as he is on the trust that was the subject of the original investigation in 1996. At the request of the Senate committee, the department also checked its records for the Dorr farm from 1988 through 1993 and found that the operation was structured essentially the same as in 1994 and 1995.


BARBARA EHRENREICH, NEW YORK TIMES: Only a person of unblemished virtue can get a job at Wal-Mart --- a low-level job, that is, sorting stock, unloading trucks or operating a cash register. A drug test eliminates the chemical miscreants; a detailed  "personality test" probes the job applicant's horror of theft and willingness to turn in an erring co-worker.

Extreme submissiveness to authority is another desirable trait. When I applied for a job at Wal-Mart in the spring of 2000, I was reprimanded for getting something "wrong" on this test: I had agreed only "strongly" to the  proposition, "All rules have to be followed to the letter at all times." The correct answer was "totally agree."

Apparently the one rule that need not be slavishly adhered to at Wal-Mart is the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that employees be paid time and a half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. Present and former Wal-Mart employees in 28 states are suing the company for failure to pay overtime.

A Wal-Mart spokesman says it is company policy "to pay its employees properly for the hours they work." Maybe so, but it wasn't a policy I remember being emphasized in the eight-hour orientation session all new "associates" are required to attend. The session included a video on "associate honesty" that showed a cashier being caught on videotape as he pocketed some bills from the cash register. Drums beat ominously as he was led away in handcuffs and sentenced to four years in prison.

The personnel director warned us, in addition, against "time theft," or the use of company time for anything other than work --- "anything at all," she said, which was interpreted in my store as including trips to the bathroom. We were to punch out even for our two breaks, to make sure we did not exceed the allotted 15 minutes.

It turns out, however, that Wal-Mart management doesn't hold itself to the same standard of rectitude it expects from its low-paid employees. My first inkling of this came in the form of a warning from a co-worker not to let myself be persuaded to work overtime because, she explained, Wal-Mart doesn't pay overtime. Naively, I told her this was impossible; such a large company would surely not be flouting federal law.

I should have known better. We had been apprised, during orientation, that even after punching out, associates were required to wait on any customers who might approach them. Thanks to the further requirement that associates wear their blue and yellow vests until the moment they went out the door, there was no avoiding pesky last-minute customers.

Now some present and former employees have filed lawsuits against Wal-Mart. They say they were ordered to punch out after an eight-hour shift and then continue working for no pay. In a practice, reported in The Times, that you might expect to find only in a third-world sweatshop, Wal-Mart  store managers in six states have locked the doors at closing time, some employees say, forcing all present to remain for an hour or more of unpaid labor.

This is "time theft" on a grand scale --- practically a mass mugging. Of course, in my brief experience while doing research for a book on low-wage work, I found such practices or milder versions of them by no means confined to Wal-Mart.

At a Midwestern chain store selling hardware and lumber, I was offered an 11-hour shift five days a week --- with no overtime pay for the extra 15 hours. A corporate-run housecleaning service paid a starting wage of only $6.65 an hour but required us to show up in the morning 40 minutes before the clock started running --- for meetings and to prepare for work by filling our buckets with cleaning supplies.

What has been revealed in corporate America over the past six months is a two-tier system of morality: Low-paid employees are required to be hard-working, law-abiding, rule-respecting straight arrows. More than that, they are often expected to exhibit a selfless generosity toward the company, readily "donating" chunks of their time free of charge. Meanwhile, as we have learned from the cases of Enron, Adelphia, ImClone, WorldCom and others, many top executives have apparently felt free to do whatever they want --- conceal debts, lie about profits, engage in insider trading --- to the dismay and sometimes ruin of their shareholders.

But investors are not the only victims of the corporate crime wave. Workers also suffer from management greed and dishonesty. In Wal-Mart's case, the moral gravity of its infractions is compounded by the poverty of its "associates," many of whom are paid less than $10 an hour. As workers discover that their problem is not just a rogue store manager or "bad apple" but management as a whole, we can expect at the very least widespread cynicism, and perhaps an epidemic of rule-breaking from below.

Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.


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