July 29, 2002   #178
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
From a Public Interest Perspective

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Listening to ConAgra's spokesperson Jim Herlihy say his company 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 the nation's second largest food company 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 advocates cries of "foul" we are left asking ourselves the question: where are the public 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 U.S. Department of Agriculture more beholden to its corporate brethren than the farmers and public it was designed to serve and protect, a media which 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 both undermine not only the industry's wage structure, but to bust the worker's unions; and that the assembly line speed the companies require in their packinghouses makes it virtually impossible for government inspectors to satisfactorily inspect and approve the meat being processed, meat that may be waiting to sicken and kill.

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 ! . . . . Where !! . . .  WHERE !!! . . .  is the public outrage ???


DAVID MIGOYA, DENVER POST: ConAgra executives knowingly resold about 80 tons of meat in 2000 that South Korean customs agents had quarantined because they said it contained listeria, a potentially lethal bacteria.

Rather than destroy the frozen meat or cook it to kill pathogens, executives at one of the world's largest food conglomerates sold it to other countries with lower standards than South Korea's --- including the United States, according to corporate e-mails between Con-Agra and executives at its Monfort Inc. subsidiary.

The company e-mails, part of a trademark court case in Los Angeles, trace the worldwide journey of the beef, from its quarantine in May 2000 to its eventual sale four months later to buyers in Hong Kong, Guam, Hawaii and California. ConAgra never told the new buyers of the South Korean listeria finding, court records show.

The first e-mail informing a ConAgra official about the listeria issue, dated May 15, 2000, was titled: "bacteria - THIS COULD BE A PROBLEM." Industry officials --- including ConAgra's --- have publicly said they won't intentionally sell meat containing a pathogen.

A ConAgra spokesman said last week the company did nothing wrong or illegal. "What we did was perfectly appropriate," spokesman Jim Herlihy said, noting that South Korea later stopped testing for listeria on imported meat. In the e-mails reviewed by The Denver Post, ConAgra executives expressed no doubts about the listeria finding.

But in reality, Herlihy said, company officials didn't believe it. Therefore, he said, the company never tested the meat itself. Customs agents denied Con-Agra's request for the test results, he said. "This was often a political game, where testing of foreign meat was a matter of international politics rather than anything to do with a set testing policy," Herlihy said.
The South Koreans were only trying to lower the price of imported American beef, he said. "In the discussions with customers and negotiations with Korean customers, from time to time unrelated charges are used as negotiations tools," he said. "This was one of those times." ConAgra's decision to resell the meat shows how companies take advantage of U.S. regulations while rules in other countries are more stringent, according to several food-safety advocacy groups.

"Once the company knows the meat is contaminated, they should process it to make it safe before they sell it," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C. "Otherwise they're attempting to get one over on their customers, and it puts consumers at risk."

Herlihy noted that it's legal to sell raw meat with listeria. U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations don't prohibit the practice. The department doesn't even test for the pathogen on raw meat, only on cooked products such as deli meats. USDA rules say normal cooking will kill it.

Hong Kong is a free-trade market and Guam is an American territory, so U.S. rules for meat inspections and certifications are used there. "There are neither USDA nor international standards related to testing of uncooked meat products for listeria, only in cooked products," Herlihy said. ConAgra last week recalled 18.6 million pounds of beef produced at its slaughterhouse in Greeley, the second largest recall in history, because of possible E. coli contamination.

The listeria-related e-mails cover a period between May and July 2000. They are part of a California court case filed by Monfort and ConAgra against an exporter of their products they said violated the companies' trademarks in South Korea.

ConAgra officials were informed they could sell the meat in South Korea if labels disclosed the listeria and warned that the meat should not be eaten raw, a common practice in Asian countries with some beef cuts. South Korean meat-buyers warned ConAgra executives that business would suffer if the company used the listeria labels. The South Korean government is "hushing up this matter, not to let the mass of people and the press know," Daniel Jeong, one of the company's importers in South Korea, e-mailed in June 2000.

"If they distribute them to the market and the press know . . . our market will be frozen hard, at least about three months from now, just before high-demand season." That season is Chuseok, an important national holiday similar to Thanksgiving in the United States. Jeong could not be reached.

ConAgra senior vice president Mark Gustafson wrote in May 2000 that the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service "feels that in this case the Koreans acted responsibly in not announcing to the press  . . . or taking action against the ConAgra brand."

Earlier this year, Herlihy said ConAgra would "withhold any product from sale if it was discovered that it had any pathogen of any kind." That was in reaction to a Milwaukee court ruling that backed USDA regulations allowing companies to sell whole meat that contains E. coli. Herlihy said the company's actions in South Korea did not contradict that policy because "Con-Agra did not believe the meat contained the pathogen listeria."

The Milwaukee County Court ruling in May dismissed a liability lawsuit against ConAgra competitor [Cargill subsidiary] Excel Inc. in Fort Morgan. Excel's meat was blamed as the source of an E. coli outbreak in 2000 that killed a girl and sickened dozens of other people.

With the ConAgra beef, there were no reports of illnesses. The saga began in May 2000 when South Korea stopped five shipments of short ribs, a popular cut of meat there, saying the meat tested positive for listeria, according to the e-mails. The meat originated at Monfort's plant in Dumas, Texas.

ConAgra officials told South Korean officials the meat should be allowed in because listeria was "not an issue in raw meat in the US," the e-mails show. The listeria was "detected by the quarantine station in Korea's routine sampling program," Con-Agra's Gustafson wrote to executives on May 16, 2000.

"All U.S. beef is subjected to this sampling. The Koreans insist that since USDA has issued a sampling program for pathogens (E. coli), it is acceptable for them to test for listeria." Korean officials ordered the meat returned to the U.S. or burned, according to an e-mail from Allen Oh, a ConAgra buyer in South Korea. Oh suggested an alternative: "The load should be sent back to U.S. or should be sold to another country."

Company officials discussed what to do. "The options are, bring the products back to the U.S. . . . (or) resell the products to another market, Hong Kong or China, not Japan or Taiwan," Gustafson e-mailed Warren Mirtsching, ConAgra's vice president for quality assurance and food safety, and David Levine, executive vice president of the Monfort brand. "If the products were returned to the U.S., I would propose that we sell to ConAgra Beef, distribution for Korean restaurants in the L.A. area and in Hawaii," Gustafson wrote.

One of Gustafson's e-mails detailed the economics of each option, noting that the company would lose less money by selling the meat in Asia rather than bringing it back to the U.S. He calculated that the meat was worth about $2.30 a pound in Hong Kong, more than $350,000.

"Is there anyway (sic) you can take these loads and process them at your plant and just marinate them and sell them?" Mitch Harber, ConAgra's director of overseas meat sales, e-mailed Joeng on June 30. The buyer replied that ConAgra would have to tell consumers about the listeria if the meat stayed in Korea.

"If we take to marinate them and sell them, the matter will be more serious because we also have to sell them showing" a warning notice, Joeng wrote. When a buyer in Hong Kong wanted some of the meat, Harber was reluctant.

"If we ship them over from Korea, it could well be an issue of the listeria in Hong Kong since they were rejected in Korea," Harber wrote several ConAgra executives. "I would prefer to ship them back to the states and start over."

In a deposition from the Los Angeles case, Harber said ConAgra never disclosed the listeria finding to buyers in Guam, Hong Kong and the two American states. "There's no disclosure needed," Harber testified. "USDA doesn't test for listeria in the United States. It's a nonissue in America."

Consumer groups said ConAgra shouldn't hide behind the USDA. "There's the consideration that you owe your customers and other human beings something above the law," said Carol Tucker Foreman, a former USDA official and director of the Consumer Federation of America's Food Policy Institute. "Sometimes you just do what's right, and companies don't seem to want to do that anymore."


DAVID MIGOYA, DENVER POST: Hundreds of inmates at a Colorado prison were fed meatloaf that prison officials knew was made with ConAgra beef recalled because of E. coli contamination, The Denver Post has learned.

In all, about 2,500 pounds of recalled ground beef was dished up to inmates at Buena Vista Correctional Complex and two other state prisons since June 5. But only those at Buena Vista were knowingly served the meat, at lunch on Saturday, the Colorado Department of Corrections confirmed Thursday.

Inmates at the Buena Vista facility found recalled meat in a kitchen freezer Saturday and told prison officials. But instead of returning the meat for refund or replacement, as records show the Corrections Department has done in previous recalls, Buena Vista Warden Tony Reid ordered the ground beef cooked and served.

Corrections Executive Director Joe Ortiz and three officials who oversee prison operations didn't know of Reid's actions or that the prison system had any of 354,200 pounds of ground beef produced at ConAgra's slaughterhouse in Greeley, spokeswoman Alison Morgan said. The meat was recalled June 30 because of E. coli contamination.

Department officials learned of the problem from The Post. "The decision to cook it was because they could prepare the meat safely," Morgan said. "We've been using (the meat) since June 5 and had no incidents because we meet health department standards that say any beef product must be cooked in excess of 160 degrees, and we thoroughly check our meat."  Reid could not be reached for comment. No disciplinary review is anticipated, Morgan said.

An aide to Gov. Bill Owens said corrections officials had made a mistake. "It clearly was an erroneous decision to serve the recalled beef," spokesman Dan Hopkins said. "The executive director of corrections has assured the governor's office that such lapses will not occur in the future."

The ConAgra meat recall became the second largest in U.S. history when the company on July 19 expanded it to 18.6 million pounds.

"It sounds as if the Department of Corrections was deliberately and unnecessarily taking an unreasonable risk with the health of the inmates," said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.

The identifying production code on packages of uneaten meat found in freezers at the prisons --- Lot 42122 --- shows them to be part of ConAgra's original recall, federal records show. That recall occurred 13 days after federal inspectors found E. coli 0157:H7, a potentially deadly form of the bacteria, in ConAgra meat being processed at a Denver business.

At Buena Vista, the beef was fashioned into 30 loafs and served with pepper strips, rice, vegetables, bread and a dessert. It is unclear how many prisoners ate the meat, Morgan said, but about 850 of the 1,230 inmates there show up for lunch each day. Some of the 150 guards on duty may have eaten the meal too, she said.

The Buena Vista complex has three facilities: a main prison, a minimum-security camp and a boot camp for offenders between 18 and 28 years old.

The other prisons that fed recalled beef to inmates were Delta Correctional Center and Rifle Correctional Center, Morgan said. Since June 5, inmates consumed nearly half the 5,180 pounds of ground beef, Morgan said. It was unclear Thursday whether the Department of Corrections purchased the product directly from ConAgra or a wholesaler.

Prison food is cooked by inmates supervised by a prison official. Morgan said all beef is checked with meat thermometers to ensure that it is hot enough to kill E. coli. For meatloaf, she said, inmates take temperature readings at the ends and middle. Nobody had been sickened from eating the meat, Morgan said.

"I'm so thankful that no one was ill or died from eating that meat," said Dianne Tramutola-Lawson of the Colorado chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, a national group that advocates criminal justice reforms. "They committed crimes, but feeding them tainted meat isn't a good idea."

Since mid-June, 37 people in 11 states, 20 of them in Colorado, have become ill after eating ConAgra meat contaminated with E. coli. No new illnesses were reported Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Rep. Diana DeGette, Dem.-Colorado, said she was incensed that a public institution would intentionally serve meat it knew was part of a national recall.

"That no one died or is sick is just dumb luck,," DeGette said. "What if your children's principal had done the same thing with your child's lunch? The potential liability to the state if anyone got sick, or worse, is massive, not to mention the human rights aspect of knowingly feeding prisoners contaminated food."

The ConAgra alert is a Class I recall. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines that as a situation "where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death." Morgan said that as a result of The Post's inquiry, the Department of Corrections will issue a written policy mandating the return of all food products subject to recall.

But that's hardly new. Federal records obtained by The Post show that corrections officials quickly returned 4,000 pounds of ground beef and cube steaks in February 2000 that were stored at a prison in Sterling after the USDA issued a similar recall for E. coli-tainted ground beef. None of that meat was consumed, records show. Morgan said she didn't know why a written policy was not put into place then.


GREG WINTER, NEW YORK TIMES: A sluggish investigation by the Agriculture Department into evidence that tainted meat had entered the marketplace exposed thousands of consumers to potentially deadly bacteria, possibly contributing to some illnesses, members of Congress said [Friday].

Though federal law requires daily inspections, nearly 100 days elapsed from when ConAgra Beef began producing the questionable beef and last week, when the department announced the second-largest meat recall, Democrats in the House and Senate pointed out.

"The long delay between contamination and recall is striking," the Democrats, including Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman. They and others characterized the delay as a "red flag for our nation's food safety system."

The criticism was issued as the scope of the E. coli outbreak continued to expand. At least 28 people in seven states have fallen ill from the meat, nine more than initially reported when the department announced the 19-million-pound recall. Seven people have been hospitalized.

Even after government tests confirmed the presence of E. coli in meat that was making its way to stores, it took a month before a full recall began, and that led the lawmakers to say the Bush administration was backing away from regulation at the consumer's expense. "The public health is not being protected by the government," Mr. Waxman said. "I'm afraid that we're moving in the wrong direction."

The Agriculture Department called the criticism unfair, pointing out that the largest meat recall, of 25 million pounds of beef, took even longer to initiate in President Bill Clinton's second term. Science, not politics, dictates the speed at which smidgens of contaminated meat can be traced from their origins, department officials said, and a recall could not have been justified until investigators knew for certain that ConAgra was at fault.. "Unless you have the proof, you don't want to falsely accuse anyone," a spokesman for the department, Steven Cohen, said.  . . . .

The controversy over the recall has prompted legislation to tighten food inspection laws, but even with tougher rules, the Agriculture Department said, its reaction could not have been much swifter. Although it found traces of E. coli on May 14 at a meat wholesaler in Denver, it took more than two months, including 15 days of required tests, to track the contamination involving ConAgra.


BILL BERKOWITZ, WORKINGFOR CHANGE, ALTNET: In a news cycle dominated by the permanent "war on terrorism" and the crisis in the Middle East, this story is an exception. It comes to you from the Midwest --- Illinois to be exact. It's a story about factory farms and how corporate interests are getting more and more concerned that you may find out how they go about their business.

If corporate lobbyists continue to have their way with the Illinois state legislature, it may become as difficult to find out the skinny on factory farming as it has been to ferret out the truth of the Jenin refugee camp invasion or discover how many innocent civilians have been killed by the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan. The public's right to know is under attack both at home and abroad.

Factory farming is a business that often leaves a major mess in its wake. If you are an activist concerned with these issues, you can try lobbying for stricter regulations to protect the "farmed" animals and the environment from contamination. However, owners of these operations do not want the outside world to find out what's going on. A few weeks back, the Illinois House took one step toward that goal, by passing House Bill 5793. By a 118-0 vote, legislators passed a bill making it illegal to photograph or videotape the animals on factory farms without the consent of their owner.

Although the Chicago Tribune reports that the bill is "temporarily stalled" in the state Senate, where it failed to make it out of committee in time for consideration this spring, Don Rolla is still concerned. "The bad news," said Rolla, the executive director of Illinois Humane PAC, "is that the idea seems likely to come back either tacked onto other legislation in coming weeks or on its own next fall."

House Bill 5793 "makes it a crime to be on a farm (or other `animal facility') and photograph or videotape pigs or any other animals without the consent of the owner if one's intent is to `damage the enterprise,'" reports the Tribune. The term "animal facilities" is defined as anywhere an animal is "kept, housed, handled, exhibited, bred, raised, or offered for sale or purchase." The Peoria Journal Star claims that "the bill would prohibit state inspectors from taking pictures to document their investigations of these farms."

The Journal Star reports that "The stated need for the law, according to a legislative analysis, is to protect the food supply from terrorists. .. . . The more plausible reason is that opponents of factory farms have been fond of using pictures of pigs raised body to body, or lagoons filled with sewage, to bolster their case."

The Journal Star: "Beyond that, the law will discourage whistleblowers who may be employed on a livestock farm, or otherwise there legally, from photographing abuses. Such pictures have been used before to go after violators. Opponents say people likely will be deterred from filming farms from the public right-of-way, for fear that a broad reading could subject them to criminal penalties."

Over the past several years, animal rights and family farm activists have documented how animals are being treated on factory farms via photos and videotape. This does not please the pork industry, which has used "unusual tactics to intimidate its critics," writes Christopher D. Cook in the September 1999 issue of The Progressive magazine.

In North Carolina according to Cook, Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, headed a study that found "daily whiffs of hog factory waste appear to cause sinus problems, excessive coughing, headaches, nausea, and diarrhea." North Carolina's booming $1.8 billion pork industry began "pressuring Wing and his assistant Susanne Wolf to identify the community --- and, by association, the people --- that participated in the research." The North Carolina Pork Council hired the Hunton & Williams law firm "to secure the researchers records --- including documents that could be used to identify study participants who were guaranteed confidentiality."

"If you want to document waste spillage, animal abuse or inhumane conditions on a farm, there's no better way to do it than with photographs," Diane Hatz, until recently head of the factory-farm project for the New York-based Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE), told the Chicago Tribune. "By trying to take away visuals, this legislation is trying to take away a large portion of our ammunition."

Don Rolla: "As part of Humane PAC's efforts to pass legislation to bring an end to the millions of animals suffering in factory farms, I have gathered a number of shocking videos and photos that were taken in undercover efforts. The conditions and the cruelty they show are horrible, and the images in these photos and videos are important for us to have available to show the public. Such videos and photos are the only way to document what we all know takes place on a daily basis! This would impede undercover investigations of inhumane conditions."

A Missouri bill, HB 1794 --- Animal Research and Production Facilities --- has similar intentions and is currently under consideration in the state legislature. The bill "prohibits any person from photographing, videotaping, or otherwise obtaining images from within an animal facility without the written consent of the facility. A person violating this provision of the bill is guilty of a class D felony."

On the face of it, the Illinois bill introduced in February by state Rep. Mary K. O'Brien (Dem.-Coal City) "seems only to remind everyone that laws proscribing burglary, trespassing, sabotage and so on apply also to farms," reports the Tribune. "I have no problem with that," said Karen Hudson, a grain farmer in Peoria County who is heading up GRACE's anti-factory-farm project in Illinois. "I'm not a radical type who believes in vandalism."

However, Hudson worries about the small print that has likely gone unnoticed by Illinois House members. She claims that "the 1,100-word bill is a Trojan Horse because of a 16-word clause making unauthorized farm photography punishable by up to six months in jail." That reference, she says, "appears on page three in Section 10, Subsection C, paragraph 4 --- an aside buried so deep into the tedious legalese that it's a good bet most lawmakers didn't even see it."

Kevin Semlow, a lobbyist for the Illinois Farm Bureau, which supports the bill, told the Chicago Tribune that the legislation aims to prevent economic espionage. "A lot of these facilities do high-tech biological research," Semlow said "We've had problems with people making videos of copyrighted technologies, such as the way feed systems work for livestock."

What's really going on in Illinois and Missouri is an attempt by the agribusiness giants running America's factory farms to pull the blinds and prevent the dirty truths about their operations from getting to consumers. Most Americans are dead set against cruelty to animals on factory farms and the concomitant devastation of the environment, even if it were to save them a few cents at the market.

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.


CHARLES WOLFSON, CBS NEWS STATE DEPARTMENT REPORTER: The normal topics of diplomacy --- the Middle East, Kashmir, Iraq, terrorism, NATO --- have to be set aside in favor of an update on what has become a nagging diplomatic and international trade dispute: the export of American poultry to Russia.

Suppliers in more than 38 states now do more than a billion dollars a year in business sending chicken legs and other frozen chicken products to Russia, making poultry America's largest export to Russia, according to U.S. officials.

The U.S. share of the poultry import market in Russia has gone from 30% in 1997 to nearly 70% last year, an increase which has caused, according to some U.S. officials, Russian officials to seek tighter restrictions on American products.

Whatever their reasons, the Russians have been impeding U.S. poultry imports since this past spring, causing American officials from the Departments of State, Agriculture and Commerce, as well as the U.S. Trade Representative's office, to spend a lot of time working to solve the problem.

No less interested are senators and representatives on Capitol Hill who represent the poultry producers and processors in many mid-Atlantic, southern and Midwestern states. Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is keenly interested, and not only because the Russians are involved. Biden represents Delaware, where the poultry industry is huge in the state's economy.

What has now become a full-fledged foreign policy and trade problem started as a smaller spat which was supposed to have been settled in time for the summit meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin in Moscow this past May.

It wasn't, and since April there have been numerous trips and negotiating sessions by officials from both countries, including visits to U.S. poultry processing plants by Russian officials. While it's not exactly being talked about as a "chicken war," it is getting attention at the highest levels. During a NATO meeting in Iceland in May, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters "right now we are in a poultry dispute with Russia. So I am more worried about chickens going back and forth than missiles going back and forth. This is good."

Technical experts in Moscow and Washington are still "dotting the i's and crossing the t's," according to State Department officials familiar with the negotiations. The last stumbling block seems to be a new veterinary certificate which would give Russian's all the assurances they require that what America is sending them by the container load is healthy.

"It's come down to an issue of veterinary health and food inspections," says one U.S. official. In Washington, some officials suspect part of the problem is coming from Russia's own poultry industry, which sees American poultry products gaining too large a share of the Russian market.

Officials in Washington say an agreement is "very, very close." That's good news not only for U.S. chicken farmers and processors but also for any Russian who's got a hankering for a good, imported chicken leg.


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