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The plot chickens, er, thickens

Posted By Joseph Farah On 09/25/1997 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Bertha-Hewitt elementary school students in Minnesota filed into the cafeteria one day in September 1995 excited about that day’s entree — chicken nuggets.

But one student after another found something less appetizing on the menu — hard plastic shards, some up to a half-inch long, ground into the chicken.

“Our elementary students were eating first, and they came in and complained a little bit about … things in the nuggets, and they were quite small, and nobody paid a whole lot of attention to it, until it got to be almost everybody came and said there were problems with it,” explained Superintendent of Schools Larry Werder.

Cafeteria workers collected the nuggets and ended up with a pile of plastic shards pulled from the food.

When U.S. Department of Agriculture officials examined the contaminant, they concluded that it was potentially lethal. The department then supervised the recall of 8,000 pounds of nuggets from other schools in Minnesota, Kansas and Louisiana.

While there were no reports of injuries, no one bothered to search for similar incidents following the recall. The government was unable to recover about 2,500 pounds of nuggets which are presumed to have been eaten by students or thrown away from kitchen workers. And the public never heard a word about this recall.

There were no press releases issued. There were no press conferences staged. And, unlike the way the U.S. Agriculture Department pounced on Hudson Foods for selling tainted beef to Burger King last month, no “SWAT teams” were mobilized.

What was the difference? I believe the key was the name of the company involved back in 1995 — Tyson Foods.

The Agriculture Department claims it didn’t notify the public in the 1995 Tyson case because the products were distributed to restaurants and school cafeterias and not sold retail to consumers. But that excuse doesn’t hold water, because Hudson’s meat was also bound for restaurants.

The other problem with that line is that even some school cafeterias in the three states affected by the 1995 Tyson recall were never notified by the government or the company of the threat.

For instance, Jodi Mackey, coordinator of nutrition services for the Kansas Department of Education, said she never received notification from the government or Tyson about the chicken nuggets studded with hard plastic shards ground into the food during processing. She didn’t find out about the recall until a reporter called her inquiring about it a few weeks ago.

“Certainly, if we had known about it we would have publicized it,” said Mackey. “Any time there’s a threat to the safety of the people we serve, we like to know about it so we can protect them.”

This latest revelation makes Tyson’s purchase of Hudson Foods at a steeply discounted price more suspicious than ever. Don Tyson is a long-time friend of Bill Clinton — and a major political contributor. The president even vetted former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy with Tyson before his appointment.

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. Tyson has also been investigated by state and federal authorities for narcotics smuggling, though no charges have ever been filed.

Was the unusual — perhaps, even unprecedented — government pressure applied on Hudson Foods part of a political quid pro quo?

Tyson had tried to buy Hudson Foods several times in the past, but his offers were refused. Only after the smaller company was brought to its knees through high-profile government coercion and intimidation was Tyson able to make a deal Hudson couldn’t refuse.

Maybe, though, that bargain has given Don Tyson and his $6.5 billion-a-year company a new heart. Superintendent Werder remembers handing out sodas to all the kids who got cheated out of their chicken nuggets that September day in 1995. He says Tyson finally came around, two years later, to reimburse the school district $200 for the cost of the sodas.

It also took the American people two years to find out about the Tyson recall. How long will it take us to find out why the Agriculture Department plays favorites with the food companies it regulates?


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