The E. Coli Wars
By KATHLEEN S. KELLEY
August 3, 2002
“I said ten years ago something would finally be done when we had dead bodies. Well we’ve had the dead bodies and still, nothing has been done.” These words came from Bill Lehman, a USDA meat inspector in Sweet Grass, Montana. I interviewed him for a series of articles I was writing back in 1996.
Some may remember Lehman as a courageous whistle blower who risked his career to reveal, over the objections of his superiors at USDA, that deadly e-coli tainted meat used by the Jack In the Box hamburger chain had indeed been imported. Several children died. Lehman testified twice at congressional hearings in 1991, again in 1993 and blew the whistle on the lack of inspection at the Canadian border in 1996. He thought the whistle-blower act would protect him.
Mark Manis, the then head of USDA Meat Import Inspection Division called Lehman “a loose cannon” and said he was a rogue who “needed to be under close supervision.” By December of 1996 Lehman was ordered to report to a new assignment in Oklahoma inspecting chickens. He told me, “I don’t know anything about chickens.” He quit USDA. He didn’t want anybody’s illness or death on his hands because he didn’t know what he was doing.
“God’s watching,” he explained.
Lehman died a few weeks later in 1997 of a massive heart attack.
I was inspecting tomatoes in my garden a couple weeks ago when columnist Diane Carman from the Denver Post called and asked, “what do you think of the 19 million pounds of e-coli tainted hamburger recalled by USDA from ConAgra?”
So I told her. Some of it was harsh. But mostly, I criticized an increasingly concentrated industry where the scale of slaughter is so large the contamination from one carcass can be mixed with 24,000 carcasses and spread from coast to coast in a matter of days. Even more problematic, it can occur in all of agriculture where numerous food-borne illness can be spread instantaneously through our high speed mass-processing, mass-distribution system.
What I didn’t say, but should have is that I am furious with some of our key leaders in our agricultural industry who pretend every problem facing us can be solved by “turning up the heat.” But not against the real problem. They just increase the heat against their critics.
From the National Cattlemens Beef Association, there are sizzling e-mails calling those of us who raise these issues an assortment of derogatory names like rogue, PETA lovers, and anti-beef demigods. There is a response letter-to-the-editor drafted in their public relations office for the signature of “a grass-roots cattle producer” so to an unwary public, it looks like the meat packers are supported by the cattlemen themselves even in their massive damage to the beef economy. The drafters as they circulated the letter wrote, “Kathleen ought to duck. It’s going to hurt…” referring to the planned mud-slinging campaign against those of us who dared express our concerns about the unnecessary harm this does to everyone.
Bring it on.
As cattle producers who love this industry, care for our communities and our friends, it is imperative we not let another year pass with more tragic e-coli victims. We must not be hampered in our exercise of free speech by our detractors. It’s their behavior that is unconscionable. Turing up the heat to mask the problem is no solution.
Our detractors, primarily the NCBA, instead of misleading consumers about conditions in the beef industry, should join us in efforts to see that existing mandates for clean carcass standards are effectively enforced. Instead of blindly spewing conspiracy propaganda in an effort to discredit us, they should help us fight for truly competitive markets through strong enforcement of antitrust laws so consumers have choices. Finally, in a gesture to consumers that the truth matters, they should quit opposing strong country of origin labeling laws and regulations on meat, and support rules that label beef with substantive, accurate information instead of wasting time labeling their critics.
For all of us who enjoy beef and the lifestyle it celebrates, we must reinvent government meat inspection, shift it from USDA and put it in an agency where those it regulates, can’t control it. In addition we must value and recreate competitive, diverse markets. In today’s merged markets, consumers and producers are out of choices and packers can do what they please with impunity. They just proved it.
I just wish we had Bill Lehman watching.
Kathleen Kelley is a Colorado rancher and was Vice Chair of the National Commission on Small Farms. She was a Harvard Fellow in 1986 and taught a study group on the American Farm Crisis.
Kathleen S. Kelley