Am I the only one who is struck with the idea that there is something very suspicious about the recent purchase of Hudson Foods by bigger rival Tyson Foods?

Hudson is the Arkansas food company shut down by the Agriculture Department for selling beef tainted with the deadly E. coli bacteria. Tyson is another Arkansas-based company and the nation’s largest poultry producer. It is owned by Don Tyson, long-time friend and political contributor to Bill Clinton and a man investigated as a drug smuggler by state and federal law enforcement agencies. Because of the shutdown of Hudson, Tyson was able to buy the company at a bargain price of $642 million.

Armed with just those facts, this deal, which still needs to be approved by federal regulatory authorities, should raise eyebrows from coast to coast.

For starters, how did that E. coli find its way into Hudson meat? Was it carelessness, negligence or sabotage? Was this transaction being negotiated before the recall of 25 million pounds of hamburger meat or only after? Is it simply a remarkable coincidence that federal government actions benefited so directly one of Clinton’s biggest supporters?

Hudson and Tyson have been long-time competitors. The much-smaller Hudson, like Tyson, specialized in poultry before branching out into the beef business only two years ago. James Hudson founded the business in 1972 and bought out poultry-processing operations in Arkansas and Missouri from Ralston Purina. Tyson reportedly had tried to buy Hudson several times in the past, but, until his E. coli problem arose, his offers were spurned.

Tyson was a key figure in the investigation of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who was indicted on federal charges two weeks ago. He also was a major supporter of Clinton’s bid for the presidency in 1992, loaning the campaign millions at a time when it was faltering.

Three years ago, we found out that Tyson’s general counsel, James Blair set up a sweetheart deal for Hillary Clinton to get into the cattle futures business. She parlayed a $1,000 investment into nearly $100,000 in a year.

Joseph Henrickson, a former pilot for Tyson, has testified that he flew cash payments from the company to Clinton while he served as governor of Arkansas. Memoranda that circulated in the Criminal Intelligence Section of the Arkansas State Police show that Tyson was under suspicion of drug dealing from the early 1970s until the late 1980s. A file dated March 25, 1976, states that Tyson “is an extremely wealthy man with much political influence and seems to be involved in almost every kind of shady operation, especially narcotics.” The DEA also had a file on Tyson. He was never prosecuted for any drug offense.

Let’s also remember just how quickly the Agriculture Department jumped into the Hudson Foods fiasco. Secretary Dan Glickman boasted that he was sending a “SWAT team” to Arkansas to investigate the E. coli contamination. I’m still trying to figure out why the Agriculture Department has a SWAT team and exactly what it does.

While Tyson seized the opportunity afforded by the Hudson problem to make a great business deal, the U.S. government seized the opportunity to grab more power.

Glickman is proposing legislation that would broadly strengthen his department’s authority over companies found to have produced tainted meat and poultry. Under the bill, now before Congress, the Agriculture Department would be allowed to order a recall of meat, impose fines of up to $100,000 a day and make it easier to withdraw federal inspectors from plants thereby closing them down.

A companion bill, giving the Food and Drug Administration the same powers over the rest of the American food supply, is expected to be introduced shortly.

It’s interesting to note that the Agriculture Department’s blitz against unsanitary slaughterhouse practices scrupulously bypassed chicken producers like Tyson. The Clinton administration has actually opposed tougher enforcement standards by individual states on poultry products. Espy, in fact, told his staff to lay off the poultry producers.

I can only hope Independent Counsel Donald Smaltz, responsible for the Espy indictment, is watching this matter very carefully. A full and thorough investigation of the events surrounding the E. coli contamination, the federal government’s response and the subsequent purchase of Hudson Foods by Tyson is warranted.

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