August 9, 2002   #181
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
From a Public Interest Perspective

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It is time for Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Sen Tom Harkin (Dem.-Iowa) and his fellow Democrats on that committee to walk the talk !!!

When Harkin's committee sent Bush nominee Tom Dorr's name to be USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development out of committee to the full Senate with "no recommendation" Harkin and his Democrat Party colleagues warned administration officials against giving Dorr a temporary appointment to the USDA job, an action that presidents sometimes take during congressional recesses to bypass the Senate confirmation process.

Were that to happen during this month's recess, Harkin said, he would reopen his committee's investigation of Dorr's finances and issue subpoenas to the USDA for records that Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman refused earlier to turn over to the panel.

Now that the Bush administration, in disregarding the Senate's power to "advise and consent," has indeed appointed the unqualified Dorr to the USDA post it is time for Harkin to keep his word and in effect hang Dorr out to dry.

At the same time, however, it is also time for those who care about the future of family farm agriculture and rural America to hold Harkin and his Democrat committee members feet to the fire. The fight against Dorr's nomination is a defining moment in the struggle to maintain the culture in agriculture for it is not just opposing one man's job appointment, but it is a battle against agribusiness commodity group leaders' stubborn support for Dorr who has heaped nothing but contempt on the public's heartfelt and scientific concern for the future of family farm agriculture and rural America.

As Iowa farmer George Naylor rightfully points out: "It was clear to all, even the Republican members of the Committee, that the Tom Dorr the public came to know would have no chance to be confirmed by the Senate. His anti-family farm vision of rural America including his admiration of corporate hog production in North Carolina, his disparaging remarks about ethnic and religious diversity, and, last but not least, the official record of his cheating taxpayers by fraudulently avoiding farm program payment limitations surely would make no one proud of his appointment."

Clearly, if Harkin and the Democrat Party members of his committee do not follow up on their promise for a thorough and complete investigation and exposure of Tom Dorr they, like Dorr, will have become part of the problem rather than part of the solution, a fact that family farmers from their respective states should not let go unnoticed in the coming Senate elections.



"I said ten years ago something would finally be done when we had dead bodies. Well we've had the dead bodies and still, nothing has been done." These words came from Bill Lehman, a USDA meat inspector in Sweet Grass, Montana.  I interviewed him for a series of articles I was writing back in 1996.

Some may remember Lehman as a courageous whistle blower who risked his career to reveal, over the objections of his superiors at USDA, that deadly e-coli tainted meat used by the Jack In the Box hamburger chain had indeed been imported.  Several children died. Lehman testified twice at congressional hearings in 1991, again in 1993 and blew the whistle on the lack of inspection at the Canadian border in 1996. He thought the whistle-blower act would protect him.

It didn't.

Mark Manis, the then head of USDA Meat Import Inspection Division called Lehman "a loose cannon" and said he was a rogue who "needed to be under close supervision." By December of 1996 Lehman was ordered to report to a new assignment in Oklahoma inspecting chickens. He told me, "I don't know anything about chickens."  He quit USDA.  He didn't want anybody's illness or death on his hands because he didn't know what he was doing.

"God's watching," he explained.

Lehman died a few weeks later in 1997 of a massive heart attack.

I was inspecting tomatoes in my garden a couple weeks ago when columnist Diane Carman from the Denver Post called and asked, "what do you think of the 19 million pounds of e-coli tainted hamburger recalled by USDA from ConAgra?"

So I told her. Some of it was harsh. But mostly, I criticized an increasingly concentrated industry where the scale of slaughter is so large the contamination from one carcass can be mixed with 24,000 carcasses and spread from coast to coast in a matter of days. Even more problematic, it can occur in all of agriculture where numerous food-borne illness can be spread instantaneously through our high speed mass-processing, mass-distribution system.

What I didn't say, but should have is that I am furious with some of our key leaders in our agricultural industry who pretend every problem facing us can be solved by "turning up the heat." But not against the real problem. They just increase the heat against their critics.

From the National Cattlemens Beef Association, there are sizzling e-mails calling those of us who raise these issues an assortment of derogatory names like rogue, PETA lovers, and anti-beef demigods. There is response letter-to-the-editor drafted in their public relations office for the signature of "a grass-roots cattle producer" so to an unwary public, it looks like the meat packers are supported by the cattlemen themselves even in their massive damage to the beef economy. The drafters as they circulated the letter wrote, "Kathleen ought to duck. It's going to hurt. . . ." referring to the planned mud-slinging campaign against those of us who dared express our concerns about the unnecessary harm this does to everyone.

Bring it on !!!

As cattle producers who love this industry, care for our communities and our friends, it is imperative we not let another year pass with more tragic e-coli victims. We must not be hampered in our exercise of free speech by our detractors. It's their behavior that is unconscionable. Turning up the heat to mask the problem is no solution.

Our detractors, primarily the NCBA, instead of misleading consumers about conditions in the beef industry, should join us in efforts to see that existing mandates for clean carcass standards are effectively enforced.  Instead of blindly spewing conspiracy propaganda in an effort to discredit us, they should help us fight for truly competitive markets through strong enforcement of antitrust laws so consumers have choices. Finally, in a gesture to consumers that the truth matters, they should quit opposing strong country of origin labeling laws and regulations on meat, and support rules that label beef with substantive, accurate information instead of wasting time labeling their critics.

For all of us who enjoy beef and the lifestyle it celebrates, we must reinvent government meat inspection, shift it from USDA and put it in an agency where those it regulates, canít control it. In addition we must value and recreate competitive, diverse markets. In today's merged markets, consumers and producers are out of choices and packers can do what they please with impunity. They just proved it.

I just wish we had Bill Lehman watching.

Kathleen Kelley is a fourth generation Colorado rancher and was Vice Chair of the National Commission on Small Farms.  She was a Harvard Fellow in 1986 and taught a study group on the American Farm Crisis.


BRAD TURNER & DAVID MIGOYA, THE DENVER POST: An Ohio resident has died from an E. coli-related illness that federal investigators say might have been caused by contaminated meat recalled five weeks ago by a Greeley slaughterhouse.

It is the first death associated with meat ConAgra Beef Co. began recalling June 30 and expanded to nearly 19 million pounds July 19.

The death was reported August 2 only on the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the federal agency tracking the outbreak. It is unclear when the death occurred. In a related development Tuesday, Missouri health officials said four people in that state were sickened by E. coli connected to the recall. That brings to 47 the number of people in 14 states affected by the tainted meat, according to officials in those states. Twenty of the illnesses are in Colorado.

The recall began after the U.S. Department of Agriculture found ConAgra meat was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, the most virulent strain of the common bacteria.

CDC spokeswoman Katie Hoskins would only confirm that the death occurred. Information on the CDC website said the death "might be related to the Colorado cluster" of illnesses that state officials linked to the recalled meat. Ohio Department of Health spokesman Jay Carey said his agency is conducting additional tests. Carey said he did not know the victim's age or gender, where the victim lived, or when the death occurred.

State epidemiologist Dr. Forrest Smith said Tuesday he had no information about the case. ConAgra spokesman Jim Herlihy said the company was also seeking information about the death. "We've not heard any confirmation from CDC that our product caused this death," Herlihy said.

The CDC is cautious in its assessments. Along with the 20 Colorado cases, the center has counted 13 illnesses, other than the death, it says "might be related" to the people in Colorado who got sick.

But state health officials, in interviews with The Denver Post, confirmed that 12 of the 13 illnesses were linked to the Colorado cases. Colorado health officials have said the illnesses in the state were caused by ConAgra's recalled beef. The states' count of E. coli cases is higher than the CDC's because states often don't tell the center about illnesses for several weeks.

Missouri and Ohio were not among the states to get meat covered by the initial recall, federal records show. However, the two were among states that a grocery chain said probably received meat from the second recall.

How the Ohio and Missouri victims contracted the bacteria is also unclear. Many of the Colorado victims ate ground beef they purchased in Safeway stores, which sold ConAgra product.

In Missouri, scientists matched the four illnesses there --- all involving women --- to the national outbreak, said Nanci Gonder, spokeswoman for the state health department. Test results are being forwarded to the CDC, she said.

ConAgra on June 30 recalled 354,200 pounds of ground beef it produced on May 31. That happened after the USDA found E. coli in several samples it took during a random inspection of a Denver meat processor. On July 19, ConAgra expanded the recall to nearly 19 million pounds of beef --- the second-largest in history --- after the USDA found the Greeley slaughterhouse made ground beef from untested meat on the days the company removed other meat it found had E.coli. That recall covers beef produced between April 12 and July 11. About 12,000 pounds have been returned from the original recall, ConAgra officials said; it's unknown how much meat from the second recall has been returned.


ROBERT PEAR, NEW YORK TIMES: President Bush appointed an Iowa farmer to a top position at the Agriculture Department [Tuesday], despite objections from members of Congress who said the man had made racially insensitive comments and had circumvented federal limits on farm subsidies.

The appointee, Thomas Dorr, who will be under secretary of agriculture for rural development, has denied any wrongdoing.

By exercising his constitutional power to make such an appointment while the Senate is in recess, Mr. Bush avoided a confirmation fight with Congress. The Constitution says, "The president shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session." Mr. Dorr will probably be able to stay in office until late next year even if the Senate never confirms him.

Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said . . .  that Mr Bush was bypassing the Senate. "The Senate Agriculture Committee went out of its way to review this nomination fairly and evenhandedly," Mr. Harkin said. "That review showed that Mr. Dorr lacks the judgment, outlook and temperament for this very important position for rural America."

Mr. Harkin said Mr. Dorr, as chief executive of a corporation, had filed inaccurate information with the Agriculture Department and therefore "does not meet the standard set by President Bush when he signed a new law on corporate responsibility last week." Mr. Dorr, nominated to the post in April 2001, was president of Dorr's Pine Grove Farm Company, a 3,000-acre corn and soybean farm in Marcus, Iowa.

Iowa's other senator, Charles E. Grassley, a Republican, supported Mr. Dorr's nomination.

Mr. Dorr first ran afoul of Congress for comments suggesting that a lack of ethnic diversity was a factor in the economic success of three counties in rural Iowa. The counties --- Carroll, Lyon and Sioux --- are predominantly white. The White House said Mr. Dorr's comments had been taken out of context.

But Representative Eva Clayton, Democrat of North Carolina, told the Agriculture Committee that Mr. Dorr's remarks were "puzzling at best, deeply offensive at worst." The Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People opposed the nomination.

Mr. Dorr, who has been working as a consultant to the Agriculture Department, faced additional criticism because federal investigators found that he and his family had arranged their affairs to avoid limits on farm subsidy payments. He returned $17,000 to the government in 1995 and made another repayment this year. No criminal charges were filed.

In a recorded private telephone conversation disclosed by The Des Moines Register, Mr. Dorr said he had tried to avoid the payment limits. He also said he had "no idea if it's legal." At his confirmation hearing in March, Mr. Dorr did not deny making the comments, but said that nothing he or his family had done was "out of the ordinary. I have known many, many farmers who have done that over the years," Mr. Dorr said.

Several senators said they doubted whether Mr. Dorr believed in federal help for rural America. At the hearing, Mr. Harkin read a note he received from Mr. Dorr several years ago. The note asserted that taxes and "subsidy games" had turned Iowa into a "state of peasants totally dependent on your largess."


The National Family Farm Coalition strongly condemned President Bush's recess appointment of Thomas Dorr to the position of Undersecretary for Rural Development in the USDA, and urged Sen. Tom Harkin (Dem.-Iowa) to uphold his pledge to obtain USDA documents on Dorr's farming operations.

"We are outraged that President Bush appointed Thomas Dorr through this sneaky back door method, ignoring sixteen months of widespread grassroots opposition," said George Naylor, an Iowa farmer and leader of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. "The President obviously knew that Dorr's record, statements and character would not stand up to a vote of the full Senate, just as it failed to win Senate Agriculture Committee approval last week."

"We count on Senator Harkin to live up to his promise to obtain documents that the USDA withheld while this nomination was under consideration," said Bill Christison, Missouri farmer and President of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and the National Family Farm Coalition. "Now more than ever it is important to expose the unsuitability of this man for a high level job."

More than 165 grassroots groups have publicly opposed the Thomas Dorr nomination. The Senate Agriculture committee gave Dorr a vote of no confidence last week when it did not recommend the nomination.

"This appointment will infuriate people all over the countryside," said Leon Crump, a South Carolina family farmer with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. "President Bush and Secretary Venemen have proven with this appointment that they stand opposed to an economically and ecologically sustainable family farm system of agriculture, diverse rural communities, and fair access to rural development programs."

Opposition to Thomas Dorr is based on his support of corporate-controlled agriculture, opposition to sustainable agriculture and his view that ethnic diversity is an impediment to economic development. In a letter to Harkin read during his nomination hearing, Dorr revealed his disdain for rural residents who utilize government programs, the very people he will serve as Undersecretary for Rural Development.

In addition, Thomas Dorr admitted he structured his farming operations to "quite frankly avoid minimum payment limitations." Dorr and Dorr family trusts were forced to repay $34,000 for two separate violations. Harkin revealed last Thursday that two Dorr family trusts received $65,000 in farm program payments from 1988 through 1993 and could fall under the same circumstances. However, the USDA continues to withhold further Dorr farming operation records from the public and Senate.

"We will continue to pursue the lawsuit against the USDA to force the release of all Dorr operation farming documents," said Dena Hoff, Montana farmer and North Plains Resource Council member. "Then everyone will know that Dorr is not qualified to represent family farmers or serve in public office."


GEORGE B. PYLE, LOS ANGELES TIMES: Even when city folks notice the dwindling population of rural areas and express concern for the dying small communities scattered across the continent, they remain blind to the real causes and the best solutions.

They are blind because they have bought the lie that the industrialization of food production is both inevitable and good and that the only problem is finding new uses for the surplus rural population.

The health of rural communities cannot be considered apart from the health of the land that once supported them and still, for the moment, feeds the rest of us.

That land is being laid waste just as surely as are the small towns that used to thrive on the business of farming. Yet the fields cannot speak up, and so their victimization goes mostly unnoticed.

For one thing, the fields are much lighter than they used to be. The latest federal figures available, from 1997, indicate that each year wind and water erosion alone carries away two billion tons of soil, or 5.6 tons per cultivated acre. For every ton of grain and hay harvested in the United States, we lose 2.5 tons of soil.

And, as it is removed by water, the soil takes with it many tons of nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that poison the waters downstream, require more expensive treatment facilities in cities and create large areas of oxygen-starved, fish-destroying "dead zones" in coastal waters.

Not only are our fields losing quantity, the remaining soil is of ever-decreasing quality. The soil that is left is ripped up to produce a season of genetically identical, chemical-dependent crops, then left bare for much of the year, exposed to wind and rain. Like a drug addict who loses the ability to feel normal without chemical stimulus, modern agriculture has so fried the soil that it cannot produce without larger and larger infusions of chemicals.

Water poured onto arid fields quickly evaporates, leaving behind increased amounts of salt that only reduce the ability of the soil to produce. All that accelerates soil degradation and requires ever more fertilizer and other chemicals to make up for the natural nutritional value of soil that has been wiped away by modern, high-intensity agriculture.

Good soil is not just dirt. It is a hive of life, much of it either microscopic or even disgusting to urban eyes because urbanites don't understand the need for the growth and decay of slimy things to sustain life. Good farmers are not just people who dig in the dirt. They are the stewards of healthy soil, many of them unrecognized or even dismissed by those who can't comprehend why anyone would want to do such hard work so far away from a Starbucks.

Because it takes fewer people to beat the earth into submission than it does to lovingly care for it, fewer farmers are producing more food, and fewer rural communities survive to support and be supported by those farmers.

But it cannot last. And the final effects will be felt far from the fields, in the deepest urban canyons.

Many city dwellers seem to think we would be doing farmers a favor --- and ourselves no harm --- by turning them into computer pieceworkers. But the fact is that fewer people on farms is both cause and symptom of degraded land, land that is rapidly losing its ability to produce healthy food, now and into the future.

George B. Pyle is a director of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, a research organization in Salina, Kansas.


WINSTON CAVIN, RALEIGH NEWS AND OBSERVER: State environmental officials [in North Carolina] fined Smithfield Foods $10,373.96 after the company admitted buying swine from a prohibited farm on five occasions this year.

Smithfield operates the world's biggest hog slaughterhouse at its Smithfield Packing Co. Inc. Tar Heel Division in Bladen County.

The state Division of Water Quality levied the fine Thursday, which included $373.96 in enforcement costs. The company has 30 days to contest the fine. In documents explaining the fine, Department of Environment and Natural Resources officials said Smithfield Packing accepted swine from the Joshua "Jody" Coombs farm, even though Smithfield knew purchases from Coombs' farm were prohibited as of December 12.

Farms are placed on the prohibited list for varying lengths of time for violating state environmental rules. Such farms have been found guilty of discharging animal waste to surface waters or wetlands or applying excessive amounts of hog waste to land.

DENR said Smithfield purchased hogs from Coombs' farm on January 16, May 17, May 22, June 11 and June 19. Larry A. Johnson, vice president and plant manager of Smithfield's Tar Heel operation, notified the state of the violations in a letter June 25. Johnson said the swine was bought by mistake and that steps had been taken to prevent future purchases from banned suppliers. Johnson apologized for what he called an oversight.

Last month, state regulators said they are considering raising a production cap on the Tar Heel plant by one million animals a year. Environmentalists say such a move could boost pollution problems in Eastern North Carolina. Smithfield is currently limited to 7.5 million animals a year.


ROBERT SALLADAY, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Lawmakers approved the most significant reform to California's  farm labor laws in nearly three decades Monday -- forcing the Democratic  governor to choose between his generous supporters in agriculture and field  workers without contracts.

The Assembly passed a measure that would require dozens of California farms to negotiate with the United Farm Workers union for wage and benefit contracts, or face a binding contract imposed by a state arbitrator.

The $27 billion California agriculture industry says the bill delivers unprecedented power to the UFW to impose unwieldy contracts, but farmworkers say many owners have dragged their feet for years. Of the 428 union groups that have organized under the UFW since 1975, only 185 have signed contracts, according to the union.

"In 1999, the company said there was an impasse --- there was nothing to negotiate," said Efrain Lara, 47, a labor organizer who worked 19 years for  D'Arrigo Brothers broccoli and lettuce farms in Salinas. "A vice president said he'll be dead before there is a contract."

The bill approved Monday, written by state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, Dem.-San Francisco, now heads to the Senate for a procedural vote Thursday and then to Davis. The governor, who was chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown when the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act was signed in 1975, has not taken a position on Burton's bill.

Davis faces a political choice between agricultural interests that have donated $1.5 million to his campaign and the farmworkers union founded by Cesar Chavez. Several dozen UFW members marched to Davis' office Monday to urge him to support the measure.

Davis spokesman Russ Lopez said the governor has concerns with the Burton bill and is "just looking at the impact on business." Capitol sources said Davis is scheduled to meet with growers and the UFW this week.

The governor last year signed a measure granting racetrack stable workers the right to binding arbitration --- but only after the bill was amended to give racetrack owners the right to conduct telephone and Internet wagering.

"The governor has been supportive of farmworkers throughout the years," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, "and we expect he will see again the necessity of supporting binding arbitration over litigation."

The Burton measure, SB1736, requires that when a grower and farmworkers cannot reach agreement on wages and benefits, either side can appeal to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. A month of contract mediation would be required, and if those talks fail, the board would appoint an arbitrator to work out a contract.

Mike Webb, a lobbyist with the Western Growers Association, said the measure gives the UFW an unfair advantage under labor laws that already favor the union. He also questioned the number of unsigned contracts purported by the UFW, saying some of the UFW labor groups may in fact be defunct and some farms supposedly without contracts are actually out of business.

"We're talking about a handful out of 80,000 growers," Webb said. "We believe this is just a plain and simple power grab by the UFW."

Growers also point out that California agricultural labor law contains a "make whole" provision that forces growers to compensate farmworkers for delaying contracts. While the UFW says these forced payouts are rare, opponents of the Burton measure say the bill tilts the system even further in favor of farmworkers.

"This Legislature has taken action which undermines the essential equity of the process," said Assemblyman Mark Wyland, Rep.-Escondido. "The net effect is to give an unfair advantage to one side."

Only two Democrats declined to vote on the Burton measure Monday: Assemblyman Dennis Cardoza of Merced, who nevertheless wore a UFW lapel pin during the floor debate, and Assemblywoman Barbara Matthews of Tracy. Assemblyman Richard Dickerson of Redding was the only Republican to vote for the bill.

During the hourlong debate, Democrats blamed the growers for stalling through a variety of tactics, including reorganizing their corporate structure, hiring union-busting lawyers or simply shutting down. They also pointed out that it takes years of litigation for farmworkers to receive money under the make-whole remedy in the law. The agricultural board said it has handled about 60 make-whole cases since 1975, with forced payouts of about $34 million.

But only $4.4 million actually got into the hands of workers, in part because many of them are hard to find. "Everyone has a right to sit down in good faith and negotiate," said Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, Dem.-Santa Barbara. "This will level the playing field and let those big corporations know that justice delayed is not justice."

ASSOCIATED PRESS: Legislation making it easier for farmworkers to negotiate union contracts with growers was approved by the Senate, sending it to the  governor.The measure allowing farmworkers to use negotiators was approved with a 22-10 vote, with all Democrats present voting in favor.

A spokesman for Gov. Gray Davis said the governor has not taken a position on the bill. But farmworkers supporting the bill gathered Thursday outside the Capitol, where they said they will remain until Davis announces his position.

Farmworkers said the measure written by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, Dem.-San Francisco, will let them resolve negotiations that can drag on for decades. "I have been trying in good faith for over three years to negotiate," said Jose Zamora, who has been picking mushrooms in Ventura County for 22 years. Zamora is one of about 20 farmworkers standing vigil at the Capitol Thursday.

"We want Gov. Davis to see that this is important," Zamora said.

The measure would require binding arbitration between farm worker unions and growers when they can't reach a compromise. Growers, however, said the bill costs too much and is unfair because farmers do not set the prices for their fruits and vegetables. A farmer cannot tolerate a third party imposing an economic contract on him without the right to   negotiate, said Roy Gabriel of the California Farm Bureau.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon also called on Davis to veto the bill, saying that the measure "kills jobs. No other private industry is faced with this kind of burden and no other government regulation targets the individual sector of the business community like this one," he said in a release.

The United Farm Workers union has signed 185 contracts with growers out of 428 groups that have voted to unionize under a 1975 law to protect seasonal workers' rights to bargain with employers. "They (farmworkers) have been negotiating for years," said Rosalinda Guillen, United Farm Workers of America National Vice President. "We just want to brings growers and farmers together with mediators to have contracts be signed."

Farmworkers say the bill would help them get the same benefits as other employees in America  --- seniority preference in job openings, health and medical benefits, paid vacations and wage increases. But often growers have no intention of signing a contract, farmworkers say.


UN WIRE: An international coalition of academics and health officials called Wednesday for UNICEF to end its partnership with McDonald's, accusing the corporation of undermining U.N. efforts to promote healthy diets, DeutschePresse-Agentur reports.

"McDonald's is the global leader in the marketing of junk food that is creating soaring rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes and that is disrupting traditional ways of food preparation in families and cultures," said the coalition in a letter to UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy.

Bellamy and McDonald's Chief Executive Officer Jack Greenberg last month announced a partnership to raise money for children's charities, culminatingwith McDonald's World Children's Day on November 20, the anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The coalition called on UNICEF to cancel the event and to stop "lending its good name" to the fast-food giant.


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