Food & Power – Consumers, Small Meatpackers, and Labor Lose Their Voice to Corporate Packers on USDA Food Safety Advisory Committee, Violating Charter
Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced 10 new appointments to an independent committee advising food safety and inspection policy. New members include a food safety employee from monopolist meatpacker JBS and trade group representatives but not a single representative for consumers, small meatpacking plants, or meat industry workers.
This leaves one lone consumer safety advocate on the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (NACMPI), but that member’s term expires next month.
Losing these stakeholders not only violates the committee’s charter, which requires consumer representation, but also reflects dominant meatpacking corporations’ influence within the FSIS under the leadership of former agribusiness consultant Mindy Brashears.
Food inspection policy is in the national spotlight, after large meatpackers failed to protect workers from COVID-19 and after plant closures upended the meat supply chain, renewing interest in regional meat processing.
“I think we should take the lesson from [COVID-19] that the concentration of food production in this country is very fragile,” says Donna Moore, owner of a small meatpacking plant in North Carolina. “By that same token, you look at this committee and … I don’t think USDA and FSIS is any closer to acknowledging that.”
USDA did not respond to a request for comment.
The committee was formed in 1971 to bring together a diverse group of experts from industry, academia, local governments, and consumer groups to advise the USDA on food safety and inspection policy. Since the George W. Bush administration, the committee has met once or twice per year, but, the committee has not met during the Trump administration, though there will be a meeting next month.
At each meeting, the USDA presents a handful of policy questions for members to answer in a report, but it is not clear how the USDA decides which questions to pose. For instance, since the committee’s last meeting, the FSIS has introduced a controversial New Swine Inspection System that has drawn at least three legal challenges; granted the first ever waiver for a beef processing plant to operate at faster speeds with fewer government inspectors; and grappled with a pandemic that threatened the meat supply.
But rather than take on these weighty policy debates, the next committee meeting will discuss artisanal, fermented, salt-cured, and dried meat products and whether to test beef for Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC).
“How in the world did they even come up with this agenda?” asks Greg Gunthorp, who operates a small meatpacking plant in Indiana. “A few months ago, store shelves were empty. Seems like they ought to be having the discussion right now on … ensuring that we actually have resilient domestic slaughter and processing capabilities and what role are they playing in either encouraging or discouraging that as a meat and poultry inspection system.”
Further, the voices on the new committee do not represent critical stakeholders and skew heavily toward industry and academia. Food safety and inspection policies directly affect meatpacking workers’ safety, working conditions for inspectors, consumer safety, and, of course, operations for meat processors.
However, the USDA did not appoint any new consumer, labor, farmer, or small packer representatives to speak for these interests. Past committees traditionally had at least three consumer representatives and one farmer or small processor. From 2014 to 2018, the committee also had a representative from the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Instead, the agency last week appointed two trade industry representatives and a food safety official from dominant meatpacker JBS, which has a history of exporting tainted and rotten meat and pressuring employees to work while sick, even during the pandemic. Another JBS employee from Pilgrim’s Pride already sits on the committee. Other new appointees include five academics, a local government official, and a catfish executive.
Consumer and local food advocates worry that this committee makeup gives dominant packers even more influence over policy. “JBS, the largest beef processor not only in the world but in the United States, gets to have a direct impact on writing the rules for E. coli in their beef operations, and they also get to write the rules on how I make dried cured hams on my own farm,” says Gunthorp. “There’s no excuse whatsoever for USDA not to have a small poultry or red meat plant in that meeting.”
The current consumer advocate on the committee, Thomas Gremillion from the Consumer Federation of America, says industry tends to narrowly define food safety concerns and exaggerate the costs of taking precautions, such as the additional E. coli testing on the docket. “Pushing back on the tendency to minimize the cost to consumers of foodborne illness … that’s the role that we played in our stakeholder meetings,” he says.
NACMPI’s charter requires members drawn from “consumers and consumer organizations,” though it does not mandate representation for labor and small packers or farmers. If Gremillion’s term expires next month as planned without a replacement, the FSIS will violate this provision.
“I’m concerned this is an attempt to minimize consumer voices within this committee,” Gremillion says. “Just having a bunch of industry advocates with academics who maybe are getting grants from USDA and maybe aren’t inclined to pick up a political fight … I think that will skew the process in a predictable direction.”
Academics from agriculture extension offices make up the largest group of committee members. While academics represent less partial and more varied viewpoints than do industry representatives, Moore, Gunthorp, and Gremillion all emphasized that researchers are no replacement for direct voices representing consumers, workers, or small producers.
“You want diverse stakeholder representation … and I don’t see that in this group,” says Steve Warshawer, a cattle rancher who served on NACMPI from 2010 to 2014. “Not being represented in these circles doesn’t just adversely affect our input to FSIS, but … that networking across the stakeholder spectrum is very important.
“Whoever decided to just appoint JBS and other cronies misses the whole point.”