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2004-11-16

Agriculture Secretary Veneman’s Tenure Marked by Anthrax Scare, Trade Disputes and Mad Cow Disease

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Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman–the first woman to hold the post–resigned from Bush’s Cabinet. We speak with radio host and author Laura Flanders and John Stauber, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy. [includes rush transcript]

Yesterday’s resignation of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, the first woman to hold the post, caught many in the farm community by surprise. She had campaigned feverishly for President Bush in key farm states in the run-up to the November 2 election. At a teleconference with reporters last Tuesday, she sidestepped a question about her future, saying only that, "the president will be making decisions on personnel." But in a letter to Bush just three days later, she declared that "now is an appropriate time for me to move on to new opportunities."

Veneman’s tenure spanned a tumultuous period that included the 2001 anthrax scare, the 2002 farm bill; major agricultural trade disputes with Europe, Asia and Brazil; and what was presented as the first verified U.S. case of mad cow disease earlier this year.

Among those mentioned yesterday as possible replacements were Allen Johnson, the chief White House agricultural trade negotiator; Chuck Connor, agricultural adviser to the president; and two Texans with long terms on the House Agriculture Committee, former congressman Larry Combest and Rep. Charles Stenholm, who was defeated this month in a bid for a 14th House term.

  • John Stauber, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy. Along with Sheldon Rampton, he edits the publication PR Watch based in Madison, Wisconsin. Stauber and Rampton have written a number of books including "Weapons of Mass Deception" "Mad Cow USA" and their latest "Banana Republicans."

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, yesterday’s resignation of Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, the first woman to hold the post, caught many in the farm community by surprise. As we move from Condoleezza Rice to Ann Veneman, she had campaigned feverishly for President Bush in key farm states in the run-up to the November 2 election. She had a teleconference with reporters last Tuesday. She sidestepped a question about her future saying that only that, "The president will be making decisions on personnel." But in a letter to bush just three days later, she declared that, "Now is an appropriate time for me to move on to new opportunities." Veneman’s tenure spanned a tumultuous period that included the 2001 anthrax scare, the 2002 farm bill, major agriculture disputes with Europe, Asia, Brazil, what was presented as the first verified U.S. case of mad cow disease earlier this year. Among those mentioned yesterday as possible replacements, Alan Johnson, chief White House agriculture trade negotiator, Chuck Connor, agricultural advisor to the President, two Texans with long terms on the House agriculture committee: former Congress member Larry Combest and Congress member Charles Stenholm who was defeated this month in a bid for a 14th House term. What will Ann Veneman?

LAURA FLANDERS: Ann Veneman is another one who traveled the country handing out goodies before the election. Just weeks before the election this past November, she was in Columbus announcing a $207 million water clean-up project for Columbus, Ohio, which we know became the center of the disputed election. The USDA under Ann Veneman has basically been handed over to U.S. food and trade corporations. Her second in command is a man from the National Cattleman’s Association, a trade group for those who distribute our meat. Are they going to take very seriously the threat to the food supply? I don’t think so. But Ann Veneman has been convenient, very useful. When the mad cow disease scare hit, she went on television saying that she, as a woman, was going to be feeding steak, I think she said, to her family, at which point I pointed out at the time, as far as I could see, she only had a cat as family. Nonetheless, her use has been to reassure the public, "There’s no reason to be concerned." Even as the administration — the USDA, which is supposed to be an entity protecting the consumer’s interests and small farmers’ interests — has been turned over to the largest corporations. We just heard as an almost parting note from Ann Veneman — the news out of Iraq is that Paul Bremer’s instructions have now changed the law — the regulations put into effect before the appointment of the new so-called independent government. The new laws around the use of seed in the birthplace of agriculture, have been changed such that farmers can no longer use their seed that they have gathered from the year before and replant it as they have for millennia. Now, they must buy the seed from the U.S. corporations that made Ann Veneman’s career possible. On a personal note, she has been fighting breast cancer, and that may have something to do with her departure. But she is somebody who has rotated in and out of the U.S. agriculture corporations — Monsanto, Cargill and all of the rest — and offices in public service, so-called. Whether she has been serving the public, I think is hugely in dispute. She has been serving those who work for corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: John Stauber is on the line us with, co-author of the book, Mad Cow USA and wrote Weapons of Mass Deception and Banana Republicans along with his colleague Sheldon Rampton. He’s executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy. Ann Veneman — your assessment of her as Laura talks about the corporate ties.

JOHN STAUBER: First of all, it’s great to be with both of you. Ann Veneman was certainly qualified to be Secretary of Agriculture, if the qualification begins with a long history of serving agribusiness, and that seems to be the principal qualification in the U.S. for that position. She was on the board of Calgene, one of the earliest genetic engineering companies. She served as an undersecretary of agriculture, and she was very critical in that role in negotiating the free trade agreements, the GATT agreement, and NAFTA in particular. And when the first U.S. mad cow was discovered, and announced, December 23rd, last year, she came forward immediately and held a high-profile live national news conference, as Laura said, downplaying the risks and providing misinformation, saying that this was really nothing to be very concerned about, but whatever it took to fix the problem, she would pursue. Since then, in fact, virtually nothing has been done to address the reality of mad cow, now infecting the U.S. meat supply, and I have to think that one of the major reasons for Ann Veneman leaving is that she was so successful in sweeping this issue under the rug, getting it off the TV screen, while actually doing little or nothing to address the problem, that she has to be well aware of how the mad cow issue is going to persist and grow worse, and really bite whoever is in that position in the years ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Flanders, last comment?

LAURA FLANDERS: The last comment is simply on the question of breast cancer. All thoughts, of course, are with Ann Veneman as she fights the disease that plagues so many in our community. A lot of people believe the very policies she has pursued restricting regulation on pesticides and what we put on our food is exacerbating the problem of breast cancer. There’s an irony there that I think is both sad and enraging. Should be.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Laura Flanders, author of Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species, and Air America radio talk show host, Saturday and Sunday nights, the Laura Flanders Show. And also John Stauber, thanks for being there, and your books, among them, are Mad Cow USA. Thank you for being with us.

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