NMA State of Association
Another tumultuous six months! Is this industry always destined to be behind the eight ball?
Some major events happened that have the potential to impact NMA’s members in a big way. First was the decision in a federal district court finding three USDA officials liable for $1.6 million to Velasam Corp., a member of NMA in Petaluma, California. This small processor of high quality meats for both the domestic and export market spent five years pursuing what is known as a Bivens claim which effectively pierces the government protective shield around federal employees taking official action. He pursued and he got the judgment made by a jury. His case against the USDA is still pending a decision by Judge Claudia Wilkens. A hearing was held on the government’s request that the Court overturn the verdict against the USDA officials and conduct a new trial about a month ago, and the decision is still pending. Reportedly, one of the options that the Judge is weighing is to conduct a new trial on only the damages that were awarded. NMA provided member support, but this small company which struggled to survive against huge odds never asked for financial support. I literally sat through the trial in Oakland which had started while we were in Las Vegas and lasted for nearly three weeks. The Sampsons and their firm persevered and while they are still a long way from collecting on the judgment, it was a surprise for the government which turned out many officials to testify in its defense.
The next wave came with the announcements by the Secretary of Agriculture herself in the beautiful Williamsburg Room at USDA about her subliminal views about needing additional enforcement provisions in the statutory authority she has in the federal meat inspection act. We disagree. We disagree strongly! The industry’s critics were delighted and wasted no time in speaking their minds to the media.
Shortly thereafter, leaders of NMA joined by SMA leaders, made their annual visit to Washington, always an interesting experience even for those of us who have never missed the trip. This year, because of our concerns about the Secretary’s views, it was imperative that we communicate our concerns at the White House, the more so since the Secretary was not available to meet with us herself. It’s always a treat to go to the Old Executive Office Building, that building standing next to the White House that looks something like the castle in Disneyland except that it’s been there a century or so! Charles Connor, the WH Liaison, met with us and was joined by Barry Ashworth. Both appeared receptive to our concerns at the way the regulatory train was moving at USDA – they made copious notes.
In May, that one little cow in Alberta diagnosed with BSE turned the North American beef market upside down. The pain and suffering of our meat packing friends North of the border, our most loyal and credible sellers of beef, has been deeply grievous. In July, I attended a meeting of the International Livestock Congress in Calgary, the first of its kind away from Houston, and I was tremendously proud of the folks, especially the Texans, who travelled to Canada as a signal of support for our industry friends there. ILC provides a real “think tank” opportunity every year in Houston, in conjunction with the Livestock Show, and I recommend it to you. I serve as a Director of ILC and once again am asking that we support it with a contribution.
So BSE and the resolution of the related export issue to Japan, has consumed much time and polticial discussion through these hot summer months as the Canadians have tried to eat their way through the meat that they would normally send to the United States. It’s been a roller coaster. And any such impact reaches into the other meat and poultry protein markets, and creates all kinds of unexpected consequences.
And while all of this was happening, Dr. Elsa Murano, who was your guest speaker at lunch yesterday, announced her Vision Message for Food Safety. We’re grateful that the Vision did not include giving FSIS any more regulatory hammers to swing at our industry – because if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Dr. Murano was also successful in developing and issuing a science-driven rule for Listeria monocytogenes in RTE products. She’s only been there two years, but in that short time she has made substantial efforts to energize a science-based regulatory program to replace a regulatory HACCP straight-jacket that awaited her on arrival. It’s not easy to change course in government, but she’s made some significant efforts, with some success.
We are, and we should be, concerned about the enforcement bias which is increasingly evident at the Food Safety & Inspection Service. While we were pleased to have Mr. Bill Smith, Deputy Administrator in charge of Field Operations with us in Wisconsin, the increasingly heavy hand of his sister division, Program Evaluation and Enforcement Review, PEER for short, is daily more apparent. PEER’s investigative and compliance officers motive is to find packers guilty, not to presume their innocence or that an innocent error is even possible. This was all too evident in the agency handling of Nebraska Beef, with its announcement in the middle of a meeting requested by the company to discuss inspector malfeasance that it was not merely reinstating a suspension but moving to withdraw inspection. That case too, a tort claim against the USDA and a Bivens action against certain inspectors, is also still in the courts.
Many issues that NMA is engaged are reported through your excellent committee structure which works remarkably well. Your leadership has demanded this past year that we share the mantle of leadership which strengthens your organization. Back at home in Oakland, we run a business called NMA. More and more, our members recognize that we are a community of interests that come together to try to address both the individual needs of each member but also the larger policy issues. At a time when many organizations are trying to figure out how to organize and fund their activities, you have done the heavy lifting in this regard and what you have done this week is to provide policy input to guide our activities. You can be proud that dues funding for NMA is strong – we have already collected 85% of our membership dues revenue for FY04, and we’re not two months into our fiscal year. It’s a privilege to serve as your Executive Director and to hear from you here, and when I’m back at my desk in Oakland.