AUSTIN, Texas -- Have you had a terrible stomach illness lately? It's quite likely you should blame the Bush administration. I know, that sounds like some demented spoof of left-wing paranoia, but it's actually an especially visceral example of one of life's iron rules -- you can't ignore politics, no matter how much you'd like to.

Unless you have reason to suspect that your nearest and dearest are putting arsenic in your food, your bad stomach was likely caused by tainted meat. It is not hard to connect the dots on this one -- the massive meat recalls of recent months have now culminated in the largest in the nation's history, 27.4 million pounds worth, due to suspected contamination by the killer bacteria Listeria.

According to Reuters News Service, the Listeria outbreak in the Northeast has so far caused 23 deaths, and that is not particularly unusual. According to government data, contaminated food causes more than 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths annually. How's that for Homeland Security?

Consumer advocates put the blame on Bush's "industry friendly" USDA. Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America, said that since Bush took office, "there has been a message from USDA that they would give the benefit of the doubt to the industry. ... Bush administration officials at USDA have consistently made clear they do not believe meat processors must be held accountable for the safety of meat coming off the end of the line. Since November 2001, the undersecretary for food safety has denigrated pathogen testing and zero tolerance. Both the industry and government have put profit ahead of public health."

The Consumer Federation issued another statement Wednesday: "At the urging of industry, the Bush administration's Agriculture Department has refused to take final action on proposed regulations that would require companies to act effectively to prevent Listeria contamination. The proposed rule controlling Listeria in ready-to-eat products was completed at the end of the Clinton administration, held up and then released by the Bush administration. But the comment period on the proposed regulation ended in May 2001, and no further action has been taken."

The General Accounting Office, in a report on the USDA issued in July of this year, was as close to scathing as the GAO ever gets. USDA has been running a "model program" based on the ever-batty Bush notion of "voluntary regulation." As I have been pointing out for years, it was a spectacular failure in Texas, and it is not working any better in this case. The GAO found that five of the 11 plants in the pilot project were less successful in controlling Salmonella, and only one plant met the standard for eliminating visible fecal contamination. Of the 11 plants, only two had lower Salmonella than under the traditional system.

"It's a recipe for food poisoning," said the Consumer Federation. So naturally, the Agriculture Department decided to expand the program. Foreman said, "This pilot project should be dumped in the garbage along with the dirty chickens it produces. The only reason for the administration to go forward after the GAO report is to give in to the poultry industry's pressure to run their production lines faster. Faster line speeds result in more fecal matter on poultry. Consumers do not want poop on their poultry."

So who's in favor of poop on poultry? Surprise, it's the meat and poultry industry! Industry officials have argued for years that food poisoning bacteria are natural constituents of raw meat and poultry, and that they have no obligation to control them. It's up to the consumer to cook them properly. That would be fine except, as CFA points out, cooking doesn't stop cross-contamination -- the pathogens get on everything the raw meat and poultry touches -- cutting boards, utensils, hands and other foods.

In December of last year, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the industry in a case that gutted meat and poultry inspection laws. In the case of Supreme Beef (I'm not responsible for the irony), the court ruled "because cooking kills Salmonella organisms, the presence of Salmonella in meat products does not render them injurious to health." Which brings us right back to politics, because guess who appoints the judges? After the decision, the Consumer Federation called on Congress to immediately rewrite the 1967 Federal Meat Inspection Act. Sen. Tom Harken, who is in a tight race in Iowa, is the leading member of Congress on meat safety issues and is chairman of the relevant committee.

And why would politicians take chances with the very lives of their constituents? The Center for Responsive Politics reports that 82 percent of the meat industry's political contributions, $4.5 million since 1990, went to Republicans. To labor the point, it does actually make a real difference in your daily life who winds up in public office. So to all of you who "just don't care about politics," take another bite of chicken and think about it some more.

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