E. coli conservative for Obama running mate?
July 26, 2008 - 8:42pm ET
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When we learned Barack Obama was floating the name of former Bush agriculture secretary Ann Veneman as a possible running mate, we checked into her past in the files of the food safety advocates at Consumer Federation of America. [UPDATE: John Nichols piles on too.] July 10, 2002:
"GAO supports the validity of charges made by consumer organizations that USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service is not requiring plants to take action to control Salmonella contamination of raw meat and poultry. GAO found it is taking FSIS almost a year and a half to ensure plants are meeting the Salmonella standard and that the agency drags its feet in conducting in depth verification reviews. Last December after the US court of Appeals ruled against USDA in the Supreme Beef case, Secretary Veneman and Under Secretary Murano stated that public health would not suffer because, as soon as a plant failed a Salmonella test, the Department would send in an 'in-depth verification team' to find the problem and fix it. But GAO notes that FSIS waits three months after a second Salmonella failure before sending in a team. In one case, the Department waited 339 days.
"After an in-depth verification team does its work and makes recommendations, USDA imposes no time limit by which a plant must make changes in its production. A recalcitrant meat company can delay for years without penalty.
"The GAO report also shows that USDA has not followed through on the pledge made last December by Secretary Veneman to "shut down" plants that don't meet federal regulations under HACCP. GAO reports 'shutting down' frequently means that a plant is cited for a problem and then is immediately allowed to resume production. Penalties are held in abeyance, sometimes for months at a time. GAO examined administrative enforcement cases for 2001 and found that in 60 of 68 plants FSIS discovered a problem and informed a plant it was suspending inspection, which means shutting down production. However, in 95 percent of those cases the suspension was then 'placed in abeyance.' This simply means that USDA noted the problem, stopped inspection for a few hours and then allowed the plant to begin producing again. GAO stated, 'because normal operations have resumed the abeyance may also remove any incentive to take prompt corrective and preventive action.'"
January 27, 2003. The word "fraud" comes up:
"Last week started with good news for consumers. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced a $42 million increase in the food safety budget for fiscal year 2004. It ended disastrously, when we learned that, in fact, there is likely to be less money spent on meat inspection in the future.
"The Bush Administration has put tax cuts for millionaires ahead of safe food for consumers. It's helping to pay for the tax cut with a 'fee for service' system for inspection. Further, on Friday the Agriculture Department settled the Nebraska Beef case, allowing an Omaha slaughterhouse to remain open despite a string of citations for safety and sanitation violations. USDA's lawyers appear to agree with Nebraska Beef that the Department can't legally enforce its new inspection system.
"The much ballyhooed increases in food safety funding are a fraud. The Bush Administration's 2004 budget counts on user fees paid by industry to support a major portion of the meat inspection budget-far more than the announced increases. Consumer groups have always opposed 'fee for service' inspection. It's what it sounds like, a program to serve the needs of industry, not protect human health. Inspectors should protect public health the same way police officers protect public safety. USDA has no legal authority to impose fees for inspection services and Congress has rejected this approach at least six times over 20 years. In the end, the Administration's obsession with cutting millionaire's taxes will result in less money for meat inspection next year.
"The Agriculture Department has a long history of being sympathetic with the meat industry. If the Bush Administration essentially 'privatizes' meat inspection by putting it on a fee for service basis, the Department is even more likely to put the interests of meat companies ahead of human health. Consumers will not benefit from inspectors viewing the owners of meat plants as the source of their paychecks.
"USDA's actions in the Nebraska Beef case are equally ominous. It has agreed to allow the slaughterhouse to remain open after Nebraska Beef argued in court that the Agriculture Department has no authority to enforce either HACCP-its modernized inspection system-or standard sanitary operating procedures. The company had a stack of violations for fecal contamination, dirty plant conditions, and condensation dripping onto surfaces where meat is prepared. Twice last year, in September and December, the Department suspended inspection at the slaughterhouse only to hold the suspensions in abeyance based on promises from Nebraska Beef that the problems would be resolved. But the company was either unable or unwilling to meet its responsibility to produce clean safe meat. Why should consumers believe that it will do so now?
Secretary Veneman announced on Dec 30, 2003 that USDA would soon institute a "verifiable" animal identification system and told the House Agriculture Committee on January 21 that she supported a mandatory system. However, the Department has not been specific about the structure, enforcement or even the timing of such a program.
USDA officials say they have a plan in development and refer to the United States Animal Identification Plan. USAIP is a private effort by a consortium of animal production organizations who have received technical assistance from APHIS staff.
The USAIP is not designed or intended to protect public health. Its goal is "to achieve a traceback system that can identify all animals and premises exposed to an animal with a Foreign Animal Disease (FAD) within 48 hours after discovery." [emphasis added] The program doesn't cover domestic animal disease or human pathogens. It isn't mandatory or uniform. Requirements could vary by state. There are no enforcement provisions.
From the Federation's December 2004 report "Not 'Ready to Eat': How the Meat and Poultry Industry Weakened Efforts to Reduce Listeria Food-Poisoning (pdf):
We are writing to request that you convene and chair public hearings on the risk from Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. As part of this forum, we ask that you outline the steps the U.S. government has taken to control this disease, and to assure that Americans are not subjected to an increased risk of variant Crueztfeld-Jacob disease.
On January 15, 2004 we wrote to Secretary Veneman making this request. To date, we received no response, nor has the Bush Administration provided an opportunity for the general public and human health experts to present their concerns about BSE to the government officials responsible for making BSE policy. Beginning with the discovery of a BSE positive bovine in Canada in 2003, U.S. government actions have been notable for the lack of public participation and transparency. You, your predecessor and the employees of USDA have conducted numerous private meetings with cattlemen and representatives of the meat industry. In addition, U.S. government officials have met endlessly with officials of other governments in an effort to restore American beef markets. But there has been no opportunity for American consumers to meet with, offer suggestions and seek responses from our government about our food supply. We cannot think of any food safety issue of this importance where government action has been so subject to special pleading and so cloaked in secrecy....
From a July 12, 2005 letter from the Safe Food Coalition (pdf):
...The OIG reports found inadequate performance by federal inspection staff at the Lambersky plant and serious deficiencies at both plants regarding oversight of the recall process. The OIG noted that FSIS did adopt several of the revisions to the directive on recall verification procedures that it had recommended. The directive, however, did not address many other issues, in particular, how to better protect children and other participants in government feeding programs. Moreover, FSIS significantly diluted measures aimed at improving the testing procedures at ready-to-eat plants that had been promised by Secretary Veneman in the wake of the Lambersky/Pilgrim Pride recalls.
The continuing delays in finalizing the Listeria rule and the more accommodating attitude toward the meat industry have coincided with distressing signs that a steady decline in the rate of Listeriosis cases has ended. The rate of listeriosis increased by 22 percent in 2003. Equally disturbing but not surprising is the government’s apparent abandonment of its goal of reducing by 50 percent the incidence of Listeria food-poisoning cases by 2005....
In its first term, the Bush Administration has turned to its supporters in the meat and poultry industry to fill a wide range of political slots at USDA. Secretary Ann Veneman’s chief of staff, Dale Moore, came to USDA directly from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), where he was executive director for legislative affairs. He was joined by other former NCBA alumni: Alisa Harrison, appointed as the Secretary’s director of communications, served as executive director of public relations at NCBA; and Beth Johnson, special assistant to Veneman, had been associate director for food policy at NCBA. Chuck Lambert, Deputy Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs, had served in various positions at NCBA for 15 years, most recently as chief economist. Mary Waters, assistant secretary for congressional affairs, had been director of the Washington office of ConAgra.
Veterans of another trade association, the National Pork Producers’ Council, filled other top posts: Dr. Eric Hentges, who was appointed director of USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which is responsible for all of the Department’s important nutrition education initiatives; and 2) Steven Cohen, who was brought in to serve as FSIS spokesman. In addition, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture James Moseley was a former partner in Infinity Pork LLC....
NFPA wrote its members in early November, informing them of industry efforts to stop Veneman’s new Listeria program from going into effect. It claimed that “consumer advocacy group criticism” had “compelled” Veneman to propose changes in the Listeria program. It characterized the directive as “very onerous,” requiring “untrained” inspectors to undertake “extensive” product testing.
According to the NFPA, it was working “furiously” with other trade associations to persuade the Secretary to delay releasing the directive. “Through industry efforts made at the White House level, the USDA decision to take additional action on Listeria . . . has been averted,” boasted an NFPA newsletter article. The newsletter also stated that, “we believe that a number of key Agency personnel have bought into much of the industry proposal."...
More to follow. This is not, how shall we say, change we can believe in.
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