"Paying for Dirty Food"
Over the past decade, the food industry has poured more than $41 million into the campaign treasuries of congressional lawmakers. The result: the industry has managed to kill off every bill that has promised meaningful improvement in the food safety system.
That's the primary finding of a February report, "Safety Last: The Politics of E. Coli and Other Food-Borne Killers," issued by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity.
Thousands of people in the United States die each year from the food they eat, and millions more become sick. Cases of poisoning from the E. coli 0157:H7 bacterium have increased dramatically over the past decade, from virtually zero to approximately 20,000 a year. Federal officials have described the current food safety situation as an epidemic.
Yet Congress has "consistently ignored the growing threat to the public health posed" by slaughterhouses and the meatpacking industry, the producers who raise the animals, and the distributors, wholesalers and retailers who sell the products to the public, says Charles Lewis, chair and executive director of the Center.
Lewis says that "Congress has put the industry's needs before the public's."
For example, Congress sought to grant state-inspected meat equal status with federally inspected meat. Congress blocked the Food and Drug Administration's recommendations to restrict the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics in animal feed.
Lewis points out that the new Department of Agriculture food inspection system, HACCP (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points) was implemented without a Congressional vote. And even this highly touted system is fundamentally flawed. Many U.S. food inspectors refer to HACCP as "Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray," according to Lewis, because it allows industry largely to inspect itself.
The report finds that the meat industry has created one of Washington's most effective influence machines, partly by recruiting federal lawmakers and congressional aides for its lobbying juggernaut.
Of the 124 lobbyists whom the Center identified as working for the meat industry in 1997, at least 28 previously worked on Capitol Hill.
The report also found that the federal program designed to protect consumers from contaminated meat products has been a "dismal failure." Only 43 percent of all meat products recalled by manufacturers from 1990 to 1997 was actually recovered, leaving the rest -- more than 17 million pounds of contaminated meat -- to be eaten, presumably, by unsuspecting consumers.
"Why, in this new age of increased microbial food contamination, does
the federal government only have voluntary recall authority?" Lewis asks.
"Because the meat business and Congress don't want it, that's why."