Consumer groups have long fretted that the political influence of big corporations has made the U.S. Department of Agriculture a toothless watchdog, more concerned about promoting agribusiness than making sure the food Americans eat is safe. Now, the recall of massive amounts of tainted beef from a Greeley meat-processing plant could be the watershed event that triggers reform of the USDA's food-safety enforcement role.
Since June 30, ConAgra Beef Co. has recalled 19 million pounds of ground beef produced at its Greeley plant, because the meat may be tainted with potentially deadly E. coli bacteria. Amid the second-largest meat recall in U.S. history, more than 30 people around the country -- 20 of them in Colorado -- have gotten sick from eating the meat, some of which was sold in Safeway grocery stores.
E-mails obtained by media and consumer groups have shown that the USDA knew about contamination at the Greeley plant months before the company initiated its recall. Two years ago, a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office concluded that companies often refuse the USDA's requests for food recalls or seek to delay such recalls.
Consumer groups say one of the problems is the close ties between the USDA and industry.
President Bush's agriculture secretary, Ann Veneman, has past ties to Monsanto Corp., which produces the controversial synthetic Bovine Growth Hormone injected into dairy cows. In addition, Veneman has close ties with the Cargill Corp., which owns numerous meatpacking plants. Monsanto gave $12,000 to Bush's 2000 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Executives and employees of ConAgra, the company involved in the current recall, gave more than $11,000 to Bush's campaign. The company's political action committee gave a total of $287,000 to candidates in the 2000 congressional election, and the company has given $65,000 in "soft" money to the Republican Party since 1999.
Now, a political momentum to strengthen USDA's enforcement powers over the industry may be building despite such largesse. Last week, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., introduced bills in Congress that would give the agency authority to issue mandatory food recalls when problems are found. The legislation would also require companies to notify the government if they know that a food product is tainted, and it would give the USDA the power to levy civil fines against companies that violate food-safety laws.
The issue could figure into this fall's elections. In Colorado, Democrat Tom Strickland, who is running for U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Wayne Allard, has accused Allard of voting against food-safety measures.
Allard has received $3,250 since 1999 from executives and employees of ConAgra, and another $7,000 since last year from the Monfort family of Greeley, who founded the town's meatpacking operation and maintained interests in it after it merged with ConAgra in 1988.
Moreover, ConAgra's political action committee has shelled out $6,000 to Allard for his current campaign, making him the third-largest recipient of ConAgra money in Congress this year.
Allard and his staff could not be reached for comment as of press time.
-- Terje Langeland