In March, three governors, two lieutenant governors, and a top USDA official rearranged their schedules to show up for a press event at the South Sioux City, Nebraska factory of Beef Products Inc. The purpose: To reassure Americans that the company’s “lean finely textured beef” – a ground beef filler that had become notorious as “pink slime” – was safe to eat. The VIPs toured the plant, showed off t-shirts with the slogan Dude It’s Beef! and blasted the media for vilifying what they said is a healthy product.
“It’s lean. It’s good. It’s nutritious,” said Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who helped organize the event with Rick Perry of Texas and Kansas’s governor, Sam Brownback. Later the group chowed on burgers laced with the ammonia-treated filler.
Descriptions of how “lean finely textured beef” is made, and revelations that until 2001 it was used only in dog food, had led to consumer outrage and a ban on the product by some supermarket chains. Falling sales had forced Beef Products Inc. to suspend operations at three of its four facilities.
That the company could summon state leaders and senior federal officials to its headquarters for a dog-and-pony show speaks volumes about Big Ag’s political clout. It is also a reminder of how corporate money influences the kind of food that reaches our tables.
Eldon and Regina Roth, the owners of Beef Products Inc., have contributed more than $800,000 to state and federal candidates, political parties, and political action committees (PACs) during the past decade. The couple donated $190,000 in a single day in October 2010 to five state-level PACs that were set up by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Iowa Governor Branstad, who appeared especially impassioned at the press event, received $152,000 from the Roths during his 2010 election campaign, making the beef barons his third biggest campaign contributor.
The controversy over “pink slime” also highlights the difficulty industrial agriculture faces in hiding its worst practices from the public – practices that Big Ag is seeking to shield by pushing for state laws that punish whistleblowers and undercover investigators.
On March 2, just weeks before the South Sioux City show-and-tell, Governor Branstad signed into law a bill that criminalizes lying on an application for a farm job in Iowa. Misrepresenting oneself to gain access to a farming facility in the state is now punishable by up to one year in prison and a $1,500 fine. The same month, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill that bans photographing or filming farm animals and facilities under “false pretenses,” or lying on a farmworker job application. The first violation of the law is a misdemeanor. A second violation is a felony.
Similar bill were proposed – and eventually defeated – in seven other states between 2011 and 2012. Industry insiders acknowledge that the bills are an attempt to stem the flow of undercover videos and photos by animal rights activists. Exposés of illegal or inhumane treatment of animals at factory farms by Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have led to the closure of farming facilities, nationwide meat and egg recalls and, in some cases, criminal convictions. In response, industrial agriculture heavyweights like the American Farm Bureau, Monsanto, and cattle, poultry, and pork producers have pushed for what animal rights activists call “ag-gag” bills.
“We’ve been able to show what goes on at their facilities, and that’s got them scared,” says Matthew Dominguez, public policy manager for farm animal protection at the Humane Society. “This is their reaction to it. They are trying to commandeer legislation to protect themselves.” The group’s 2008 undercover investigation of a slaughterhouse in California prompted the largest meat recall in US history and led to a federal ban on the slaughter of sick and injured cattle.
Industry representatives respond that farmers need protection from activists whose aim, they say, is to damage their business. Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, alleges that in some instances activists instigate farm workers to perform damning actions so that they can record them. “If employers are doing bad things, we encourage workers to talk about it. We won’t curtail honest disclosure,” he says. “But these activists are often just seeking dramatic footage.”
Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, isn’t surprised by the legislative offensive. It’s not uncommon for Big Ag to try to push through identical bills in the states, she says. “A few years ago at least 10 states introduced legislation that would prohibit dairy manufacturers from labeling their milk rBGH [hormone] free,” she recalls. The bills, Lovera says, were a coordinated effort to restrict rBGH-free labeling by the maker of the patented genetically engineered bovine growth hormone – biotech giant Monsanto.
Lovera says Big Ag often presses for state-level legislation rather than federal laws because the industry has a greater chance of success in the statehouses. “They do have more direct influence on state lawmakers.”
A look at political contributions in Iowa shows that Big Ag knows where to place its bets.
In 2010, the agriculture industry poured $875,238 into Terry Branstad’s election campaign – nearly 10 percent of the money he raised. Pork producer Debra Hansen of Iowa Select Farms – the target of a 2011 Mercy For Animals investigation – was among his top donors, contributing $50,000. Other pro ag-gag groups that contributed to Branstad’s campaign included the Iowa Corn Growers Association ($15,000) and Monsanto ($5,000). Iowa State Senator Joe Seng, a lead sponsor of the ag gag bill, received $8,000 from the agriculture sector. Representative Annette Sweeney, another sponsor of the bill, received $8,454 from the agriculture industry, making it the largest contributor to her 2010 campaign.
Big Ag’s influence is evident in Utah, too. “It’s fun to see my good ag friends in this committee,” Representative John Mathis, who introduced Utah’s ag-gag bill, said during a hearing on the law. Two of these friends were Mike Kohler of the Dairy Farmers of America and Sterling Brown of the Utah Farm Bureau.
In Missouri, which in May passed a watered-down version of its original ag-gag bill, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, was the top contributor to the 2010 campaign of the bill’s House sponsor, Representative Casey Guernsey. Smithfield also gave Missouri Governor Jay Nixon $15,000. The company, which has been fined repeatedly for water and air pollution caused by its hog factories, has given at least $57,000 to candidates in Missouri during the 2012 election.
A money trail connects Big Ag interests to state lawmakers in each of the 10 states that introduced anti-whistleblower bills. During the 2010 election cycle, the agriculture sector contributed $18.8 million to political candidates in the states that introduced ag-gag bills, according to data from the National Institute of Money in State Politics. That’s a disproportionate 32 percent of the industry’s total campaign contributions (about $59 million) for 20 percent of the states.
Humane Society campaigner Matthew Dominguez is preparing to fight another round of anti-whistleblower bills that he’s sure will be re-introduced in many states in 2013. “We have learned a lot from our mistakes,” he says. “In Iowa, for example, we didn’t know how much money the governor was getting from the ag industry. If we had, we wouldn’t have spent so much time petitioning him. Now we are going to follow the money more closely.”
Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of Earth Island Journal.
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