Food inspection a big, germy joke

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When a former National Football League player known for his dirty play was asked if he ever “threw” a game — purposely helped the opposing team win — the player replied by stating the obvious.


“It’s impossible for a player to throw a game,” he explained. “There’s only one person who can do that and he wears stripes and carries a whistle.”


That insight seems to be confirmed every day on the rough-and-tumble playing fields of business: If you want a winning edge, get the referees — lawmakers and those who enforce the law — on your side.

Food inspection

That’s clearly been the case with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s daisy chain of food inspection. The latest instance of oversight failure, complete with stomach-churning video courtesy of an unstriped whistleblower, the Humane Society of the United States, resulted in the “voluntary” recall of 143 million pounds of ground beef.


How does America’s red meat inspector not see a 143-million-pound train — enough hamburger for 2.2 million Americans to meet USDA’s per person beef consumption for a year — coming down the tracks?


They do it the old-fashioned way — they either don’t look or they look the other way, reported the Wall Street Journal March 3.


Indeed, according the Journal, “In reports dating back to 2003, the USDA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office cited the USDA’s lunch-program administrators and inspectors for weak food-safety standards, poor safeguards against bacterial contamination, and choosing lunch-program vendors with known food-safety violations.”

Bad records

Meat samples from one of those vendors, unnamed in the report, “tested during the 2003-04 school year contained both E. coli and salmonella.”
That vendor “was cited 40 times for USDA violations that year.”


Despite that pathetic pathogen record, “USDA awarded school-lunch contracts” to the grinder.


With that record as a backdrop, our hired hands at USDA must have had their fingers crossed when they described the California downer-cow recall as an “isolated incident.”


Six similarly large recalls — involving both USDA and the Food and Drug Administration over pot pies, spinach, peanut butter, lettuce, tomatoes and ground beef — in the last 19 months might be described many ways, but isolated isn’t one of ’em.

Buyouts

The only government entity with a softer regulatory bite than USDA is the U.S. Department of Justice, which has rubber-stamped virtually every food maker and meatpacking merger and buyout since the Reagan Administration.


This unhindered and unquestioned concentration of power has emboldened industry to essentially dictate food safety policy and, equally important, shepherd former industry and trade group officials through USDA’s revolving door into food safety oversight roles.


The latest rerun of this soap opera appeared March 4 when Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS SA announced it intends to buy America’s fourth-largest beef killer, National Beef of Kansas City, as well as Smithfield’s beef slaughter operations, the fifth-largest in the U.S., to add to its 2007 purchase of Swift & Co., No. 3 in beef biz.


If the Department of Justice approves the doubleheader deal, JBS would leapfrog both Tyson and Cargill to become America’s largest beef packer. Think about the market implications of the deal, urged Randy Stevenson, a Wyoming rancher and writer, in a widely disseminated March 10 e-mail.

Antitrust laws

“The day before (the Justice Department approves the merger),” wrote Stevenson, the “cattle buyers from Swift, National and Smithfield” could not share cattle-buying plans without “violating the antitrust laws … (because) colluding would be devastating to the cattle market.”


The day after the department kisses JBS’s plan, however, “The same three buyers could meet without breaking the law (even though) the consequences to the cattle market would be equally devastating.”


Nuts? No, legal. Just ask the folks in striped shirts carrying whistles.

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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