FOOD & FUEL FILE
It’s hard to mix today’s politics with today’s food and not get slime, slimed or both.
For example, when First Lady Michelle Obama harvested her first White House vegetable garden in 2009, political foes blasted her as a lettuce-crunching urban idealist.
That the garden saved money (First Families pay for their own White House meals), was a terrific value (its 740 pounds of produce cost only $180 to grow and showed that a mixture of sweat, dirt and desire can deliver sweet, even succulent, success didn’t matter).
To her detractors the garden was about politics, not potatoes; their perceptions, not its parsnips.
The governors of Texas, Iowa and Kansas played a similar game when they stopped briefly March 29 at a Beef Products Inc. plant in Nebraska that makes lean, finely textured beef.
“Their half-hour tour showed their support for the company and the thousands of jobs it creates in their states,” reported the Kansas City Star. No surprise; that’s politics and politics is what politicians do.
But the governors, Iowa’s Terry Branstad, Kansas’ Sam Brownback and Texas’ Rick Perry, stepped through the political looking glass when they offered their full-throated defense of BPI.
For example, Branstad claimed BPI’s processed product is, “leaner than beef, which is better for you.”
Brownback went further out on the limb to note that “this is a 20-year-old product that has not had a safety issue surrounding it at all.”
Russell Cross, “a former administrator of the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service,” reported the Star, “agreed saying: This product has never been in question for safety.”
Not so. In fact, none of the above is true.
According to a lengthy Dec. 31, 2009, New York Times story, “(G)overnment and industry records show that in testing for (USDA’s) school lunch program, E. coli and salmonella pathogens have been found dozens of times in Beef Products meat, challenging claims by the company and the USDA about the effectiveness of the treatment.”
That treatment, “injecting beef with ammonia,” explained the Times, was what the governors went to see and defend March 29.
In fact, the Times’ story continued, USDA’s “School lunch officials said that in some years Beef Products testing results were worse than many of the program’s two dozen other suppliers
“From 2005 to 2009, Beef Products had a rate of 36 positive results for salmonella per 1,000 tests, compared to a rate of nine positive results per 1,000 tests for other suppliers, according to statistics from the program.”
(Links to the Times 2009 story, its 46 pages of supporting government and industry documents, and other sources are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.)
Beef Products did not deny those facts, reported the Times, but explained the disparity by noting “its testing regime was more likely to detect contamination.”
Wait a second. The problem wasn’t the higher rate of contamination; the problem was BPI’s ability to find it more often?
Did BPI officials and their political defenders simply forget that it was BPI who confirmed these contamination problems to the New York Times in 2009?
And maybe it was BPI’s political grease-“(A)t least $546,500 to candidates for state office in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota and Texas, where it has plants,” reported the Des Moines Register March 31-that caused the unsavory facts to slip right out of their collective memory.
Or maybe the truth, like facts, simply has no role in political discourse today.
And maybe it doesn’t matter that if consumers walk away from BPI’s product completely, an estimated 1.5 million more cattle will be needed to take its place.
For the record, 1.5 million cattle is far more demand created by consumers than all the demand created by $1.5 billion spent by the beef checkoff in the last 25 years.
On second thought, it matters. The truth always matters. Calling a cabbage a rose doesn’t make it a rose.
But you know that.
The Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers in North America. Contact Alan Guebert at www.farmandfoodfile.com.
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