"I don't think [current Secretary of Agriculture] Ann Veneman or anyone else is doing anything to reduce the level of enforcement, but I do think they're not as actively seeking augmentation of their own powers," said Glickman, who now chairs the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
"By exercising their clout in Congress, the meat and poultry industries have always fought against the expansion of the government's powers," Glickman said.
Several of Veneman's top deputies have strong ties to the meat industry:
Chief of staff Dale Moore, senior adviser Elizabeth Johnson, and Chuck Lambert, deputy undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, all came from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, a ranchers' lobby that contributed $800,000 to Republicans and $146,000 to Democrats in the last two election cycles. Press secretary Alisa Harrison also was an association employee.
Deputy Undersecretary James Butler joined USDA after serving as partner in Butler & Son Charolais Ranch, a Texas cattle company, while Deputy Secretary James Moseley was managing partner of Infinity Pork L.L.C., an Indiana hog farm.
Donna Reifschneider, the agency's administrator of grain inspection, packers and stockyards administration, is the former president of the National Pork Producers Council, and her family owns a large hog farm in southern Illinois.
Mary Waters, the assistant secretary for congressional relations, used to be senior director and legislative counsel for ConAgra Foods, which gave $634,259 to Republicans and $128,316 to Democrats in the last two election cycles.
Before joining the USDA in 2002, chief information officer Scott Charbo was the president of mPower3 Inc., a subsidiary of ConAgra.
Last year, the USDA was sharply criticized for its handling of ConAgra's recall of 18.6 million pounds of tainted beef. After 47 people were sickened and one died from E. coli poisoning, the agency acknowledged that it had allowed the company to continue operating when inspectors knew of 34 E. coli samples in the Greeley, Colo., plant.
The ConAgra disaster is emblematic of the USDA's unwillingness to crack down on influential meat companies, said John Munsell, owner of a small beef plant in Miles City, Mont.
Five months before the E. coli outbreak was traced to ConAgra, Munsell and two USDA inspectors notified agency supervisors that tainted meat found in his plant had come from ConAgra, but the company was not thoroughly investigated until people began showing up in hospitals with E. coli poisoning.
"The bottom line is, the USDA does not want to confront the big meat packers, because they're the ones with the clout in Washington," Munsell said. "We gave them everything they needed to prevent people from getting sick."
USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison said the agency's top food-safety officials had no connection to meat interests: Undersecretary Elsa Murano is a microbiologist who worked at Texas A&M University; food safety and inspection administrator Garry McKee worked as a public-health official in Wyoming; and deputy undersecretary Merle Pierson is a microbiologist who has written more than 100 articles on food safety.
"The fact that we have people here from the meat industry is irrelevant," Harrison said. "When you join the government, you report to the USDA and you implement the laws as Congress wrote them. We have a very clear commitment to food safety, and making regulations based on sound science."
Janet Riley, of the American Meat Institute, said industry and the USDA, which employs more than 100,000 people, were committed to food safety.
"Making safe food and regulating it effectively is good for business, good for government, and good for consumers," Riley said. "There are some USDA appointees with industry backgrounds, but the backbone of the agency is made up of career employees."
According to an internal newsletter of the National Food Processors Association published by Time magazine, the trade group and major Republican donors boasted of "industry efforts made at the White House level" to oppose the tougher listeria rules. "Key [USDA] personnel have bought into much of the industry proposal," the letter said. Industry leaders had argued that USDA penalties for listeria on plant surfaces would have dissuaded companies from doing comprehensive in-house testing.
The industry connection to the USDA became apparent to Michael R. Taylor in 1994, when he moved into his office as the department's head of food safety. He found his phone was equipped with speed-dial buttons for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Meat Institute.
Taylor, now a senior fellow at Research for the Future, a Washington-based think tank, is a leading critic of the USDA's dual mission of promoting meat sales while also inspecting its quality.
"USDA's weakness [in] food safety is that the department's primary role is to promote and protect the interests of U.S. agriculture," Taylor said. That "creates a fundamental conflict of interest because it forces the secretary of agriculture to balance her food-safety responsibilities with her economic and promotional functions."
Contact staff writer Oliver Prichard at 610-313-8219 or firstname.lastname@example.org.