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Cattleman sees potential problem with USDA proposal for voluntary biotech labels

(Aug. 12, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- The USDA has proposed a system allowing agribusiness to voluntarily declare whether their products are free of genetically modified ingredients.

The USDA says the program would be similar to its meat inspection system. Companies could decide whether to tell the USDA how they segregate their products from genetically engineered varieties during harvest, processing and distribution. The USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration would conduct reviews and audits to ensure compliance with minimum standards.

Critics of such voluntary standards see problems with this strategy. They point to the meat industry to explain why.

The large meatpackers -- IBP, Cargill (via Excel), and ConAgra -- have much control over the federal meat inspection system.

"Under current law, the USDA cannot demand a recall. It can only consult with a compnay that has shipped bad meat and suggest that it withdraw the meat from interstate commerce. In extreme cases, the USDA can remove its inspectors from a slaughterhouse or processing plant, for all intents and purposes shutting down the facility. That step is rarely taken, however -- and can be challenged by a meatpacker in federal court. In most cases, the USDA conducts negotiations with a meatpacking company over the timing and the scale of the proposed recall," writes Eric Schlosser on page 211 of his book, "Fast Food Nation."

Just last month, ConAgra voluntarily recalled more than 350,000 pounds of ground beef -- the second largest such recall in U.S. history -- because of contamination with the potentially deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria.

Voluntary programs, whether meant to oversee meatpackers or biotechnology companies, don't work. They benefit only large agribusiness, says Mike Callicrate, a Kansas cattleman.

"The USDA is operated by those companies it is designed to regulate," Callicrate says. "The big packers run the USDA, which continues to promote this industrialized model of agriculture and food production."

For background on the beef recall, go to: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E53%257E705880,00.html