Food Money

by Micah L. Sifry

The Nation magazine, December 27, 1999


Remember the old adage about not wanting to see how sausage-or legislation-is really made? What happens when the people who make sausage also make legislation?

Each year, an estimated 5,000 Americans die and another 77 million get sick from disease-producing agents in the food they eat. The E. coli 0157:H7 bacterium alone sickens about 70,000 people a year. Yet Congress continues to turn back efforts to address this grave threat to public health. Since the beginning of 1995, individuals and PACs connected with the meat and poultry industry have given nearly $6.9 million to Congressional candidates and party committees, according to data supplied by the Center for Responsive Politics. A whopping 78 percent of their contributions have gone to Republicans.

Thus, despite dramatic changes in the technology of meat and poultry production, food-safety practices have not changed appreciably since Teddy Roosevelt's day, when Congress mandated carcass-by-carcass inspections. Amazingly, Agriculture Department inspectors do not have the power to assess civil fines for unsanitary conditions in meat-packing plants, though the USDA can punish circuses for mistreating elephants and penalize watermelon salesmen for failing to keep appropriate records. But faced with safety violations by meat and poultry packers, its main options are either to shut down a plant totally, launch criminal proceedings or, more typically, negotiate voluntary recalls of tainted products.

In June 1998 Congresswoman Nita Lowey offered an amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill that would have given the Agriculture Department the power to assess fines. The House Appropriations Committee rejected it by a vote of 25 to 19. On average, the twenty-five members who voted against Lowey's motion received six times as many campaign contributions from the meat and poultry industry in the 1997-98 election cycle as did the nineteen who voted for it.

That's just one example of money's power in food politics. Often, the weight of campaign contributions is so heavy that an issue never even comes to a vote. Such is the case with genetically modified food. The four leaders of the biotech industry, Dow, Du Pont, Monsanto and Novartis, have given just over $3.5 million in PAC, soft-money and large individual contributions since 1995, three-quarters to Republicans. And these contributions have helped substantially in getting a hands-off approach from Congress and regulators. For example, the FDA approved the use of bovine growth hormone for cows, going so far as to issue regulations wanted by Monsanto, rBGH's producer, that made it appear to be illegal to label milk as rBGHproduced or rBGH-free. There have been notably few efforts in Congress to take up the question of alerting consumers or limiting the use of genetically modified products. A bill introduced this fall by Representative Dennis Kucinich has just twenty co-sponsors.

When the issue does get joined, big money from agriculture interests weighs down the balance scale. That's what happened with the critical issues of price supports and the rising concentration of farm ownership. Three years ago Congress adopted the Freedom to Farm act, phasing out the system of commodity price supports and acreage set-asides that has protected the nation's farmers from the vagaries of the marketplace since the Depression. It cleared the Senate by a vote of 64 to 32. Passage of the law was a high priority for agriculture interests, which poured, through PACs and large individual contributions, nearly $30 million into Congressional campaign coffers in 1995-96. The senators who voted for the bill received 66 percent more, on average, in campaign contributions from agribusiness than those who opposed it.

Three years later, the results of the Freedom to Farm bill are becoming clear: Consumers haven't benefited, family farms are being decimated and taxpayers are footing the bill. Crop prices have fallen dramatically-corn by nearly a third, soybeans and hogs by more than a third and wheat by almost a half. Much of this is a result of overproduction by US farmers.

These price drops have not been passed on to consumers. The cost of most foodstuffs at the supermarket has stayed flat. Flush with cash, the big corporate farmers and food processors have embarked on a wave of mergers and buyouts. Four firms control nearly 90 percent of the US cereal market. Three control more than 81 percent of the beef-slaughtering industry. This year, more than half the nation's food will be grown on the largest 4 percent of farms. At the same time, thousands of family farms are going out of business, driven to desperation by falling crop prices and unbearable debt burdens.

Hearing the cries from the farm belt, Congress voted $6 billion in emergency aid last year and a similar amount this past fall. But Congress has taken no action to insure that lower prices are passed on to consumers, or to explore the economic and environmental implications of the concentration of ownership in the agricultural sector. Indeed, an amendment by Senator Paul Well stone seeking to impose an eighteen-month moratorium on agribusiness mergers and acquisitions was recently defeated in the Senate, 71 to 27. Senators voting against Wellstone's amendment have received almost twice as much, on average, in contributions from agriculture interests over the past six years as those voting for the moratorium.


Micah L. Sifry writes the biweekly e-mail bulletin "OUCH! How Money in Politics Hurts You, " for Public Campaign. To subscribe, send a one-line e-mail to reading "subscribe ouch ".

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