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The Meating of America
Press release: June 1998

When Oprah Winfrey was put on trial for bad-mouthing beef, many spoke out in favor of free speech. But behind the headlines some saw the trial as yet another sign of the political clout and influence of the meat industry. From relaxed labeling standards, to the lack of food safety regulations for processors passed by Congress, to subsidized grazing lands for cattle ranchers in the West, the perks given to this industry are enormous. But despite the current environment of lobbying reform, the influence of this industry is silent and unknown to the average consumer.

Falling Through the Patchwork

Pick up most food at your grocery store and you’ll find the box containing the "Nutrition Facts" label that tells you calories, fat, cholesterol, etc. But you won’t find this on most packages of steak, chops, hamburger, or other fresh meat or poultry. That’s because packaged and processed foods are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but "fresh meat" is produced and packaged under the rules of the USDA. And the USDA doesn't require nutritional labeling.

EarthSave and other consumer and health groups have criticized this patch-work quilt of regulation and supervision. As Stacey Vicari, President of EarthSave International explains, "It's particularly troublesome that the U.S. government gives preferential labeling treatment to the meat industry since most of the fat, saturated fat and cholesterol that kills tens of thousands of Americans a year is hidden in that meat." She continues, "What's even more troubling is that animal feed falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA. Why? Because most animal feed is packed with hormones, steroids, antibiotics, and other drugs! But the animals who eat that feed are raised, killed, and then presented to the American public by the USDA as 'food that's good for you' without so much as a nutritional label."

EarthSave also voiced strong concern this past year when the FDA allowed feed for cows to contain the rendered remains of pigs, horses and chickens, as well as blood and gelatin from any animal. Similar practices were banned in Great Britain where scientists now believe that these methods may be linked to the outbreak of mad cow disease and the deaths of 20 humans. But in the crazy quilt world of U.S. food regulations, the slaughterhouses that kill the cows fall under USDA regulation. And there are numerous practices still in use in slaughterhouses that can allow cow brain and spinal cord tissue to find their way into U.S. consumers' ground beef. According to EarthSave International Board member, Howard Lyman, who stood trial with Oprah, "In meat today we are dealing with the Golden Rule- those with the gold are trying to write the rules."

How much for that vote?

Some are suggesting that one of the reasons the meat industry gets favorable perks and legislation is because of their powerful political influence over lawmakers. According to a recent report by the Center for Public Integrity, 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.

The report found House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Republican Sens. Phil Gramm and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas ranked among the top recipients. Gramm received $611,484 from meat industry groups between 1987 and 1996, followed by Hutchison with $409,178 and Gingrich with $232,239.

Current Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who joined the Clinton administration after representing Kansas in Congress, accepted $37,540 in campaign contributions from slaughterhouses while he was in elected office, the report said. While Glickman’s predecessor, Mike Espy, goes on trial this spring on charges of accepting gifts from meat and poultry companies he regulated. Espy has denied any wrongdoing. And although today’s headlines are filled with talk of lobbying and campaign finance reform, the enormous political influence of the meat industry has gone largely unnoticed.

Home on the Range

While most industries have been required to adapt their ways in response to concern for the environment, the cattle ranchers remain a holdout. For decades, cattle and sheep ranchers throughout the West have been permitted to graze their herds on some 270 million acres of our federal estate. They enjoy rates that are well below what the states charge and a fraction of what grazing land is worth on the open market. Some estimates of the subsidies for grazing on public lands range as high as $250 million annually.

Current rates for grazing livestock on public lands are well below what private landholders charge, and below what the states charge for their lands. The current federal fee is about $1.35 for a cow and its calf (or five sheep) to graze for a month. This fee does not even cover program administration costs. And lobbyists for the livestock industry are working hard to block any reform at all. They are pushing legislation that will guarantee the ability of large livestock corporations to continue their subsidized destruction of federal rangeland in perpetuity.

"Educating" Consumers

And while industry promotion from car makers or computer manufacturers would be seen as pure advertising, the beef and dairy industries enjoy the ability to aggressively advertise their products while being seen as doing public service for the health of our country. For example, in December 1997, The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) visited national food editors and writers of some of the country's largest food and lifestyle magazines, providing up-to-date information on beef. The results are paying off -generating more than 7,050 positive beef stories that reached into homes 1.24 billion times during one year according to NCBA statistics.

And while the giant publicity machines of the meat industry roll on, grassroots groups like EarthSave International are hard at work. According to Vicari, EarthSave reached just over 3.0 million people with its spring educational campaign urging the public to "Save the Earth – one bite at a time!"