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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org reading
"subscribe ouch ".