Soviets Say U.S. Grain Exports Are Dirty, Decaying and Insect-Ridden
Men in gas masks pump clouds of poison phosgene into the stench-filled holds of Soviet freighters, vessels abandoned by their crews and anchored far from port like medieval plague ships.
The freighters do not carry pestilence. They carry the pride of the American heartland: mountains of amber corn. But the grain is riddled with decay, insects and mold--declared not fit for human consumption and even hazardous to animals.
“It (the corn) was little better than garbage,” Andre Filiursky, New York agent for the Soviet grain-buying consortium, told United Press International of the recent shipment described above.
“In fact, 75% of all American grain we’ve received recently--that’s an average of both wheat and corn--is infested in some way.”
“We’ve found bad grain in ships at Odessa, at Riga, at Leningrad and many other ports.”
USDA officials dispute the claims, saying the Soviets bought so much grain last year they couldn’t unload it quickly. Lacking fumigation, it rotted on the high seas.
But similar protests have poured in from other corners of the globe.
“We received very bad (soy) beans from you,” said Hidenora Murakami, agriculture press secretary in the Japanese Embassy. “We don’t know how they got past U.S. inspection. The moisture content was too high. We found many solid (non-soybean) materials.”
The Japanese, Soviets and many other trading partners are threatening to take their business elsewhere. Some have acted on their threats.
“Complaints are definitely up and it’s hurt us,” said William Shuey, who directs the USDA’s export monitoring program. Some crops were damaged by late rains, he explained, and others were infested by bugs because powerful pesticides such as EDB were no longer used.
“This season we had a problem crop for soybeans and corn,” he said. “The grain was harvested a little wetter. There was no freeze. A freeze inhibits microbial activity. We had a long, warm year.
“Wheat had more (insect) infestation and it’s going to get worse, partly as a carry-over from the EDB controversy,” he said. Ethyl Dibromide, EDB, was banned when studies linked it to cancer in animals.
But the problem goes deeper. As Filiursky put it: “Why wasn’t this mess detected before the grain left the United States?”
Somewhere along the line, experts say, the U.S. inspection process broke down and a lot of bad grain was shipped out to a lot of good cash-paying customers.
“Of course, it (the complaints) has us worried,” said Bill Pauly, a Denton, Kan., corn, wheat and soybean grower. “As farmers, we’re the ones who ultimately pay.
“We grow good grain. But if we lose all our customers because they don’t like the way we ship it or grade it, it’s worth nothing. We’ve got to pay attention to what these people are saying. We’re already feeling the pinch.”
Wheat Shipments Down
U.S. shipments of wheat in February were the smallest since the January, 1980, Soviet grain embargo, and the nation’s share of the world coarse grain market is predicted to fall from 61% to 58% this year, led by sharply curtailed corn exports.
The market slippage, of course, is attributed to a wide range of factors, including the strong American dollar and aggressive marketing by competitors. But the quality issue is regarded as important.
“We’re no longer the only store on the block,” said Ray Chartier, manager of the Farmers Co-operative of Dallas City, Iowa, and chairman of the USDA’s grain inspection advisory subcommittee. “But we’re still acting like it.
“We’ve got to drop this high-blown attitude, get down to real terms with the rest of the world. We’ve got to do some basic housecleaning.”
In general, the U.S. industry has refused to clean up its act, at least to the satisfaction of international buyers. UPI found, for instance:
- Terminal elevators still rely heavily on the practice of “mixing” grain to ensure an international buyer receives the maximum allowable level of foreign material. The material includes everything from broken kernels to dirt and stone. When a shipment appears to be “too clean,” debris is added.
- The U.S. wheat marketing system is not designed to eliminate “dockage,” material other than wheat which can easily be removed and for which the customer must pay freight. The Canadians and Australians, our chief rivals, sift out all this waste.
- The government’s method for testing wetness in some types of grain has been found to be consistently wrong, understating decay-causing moisture content.
- Certificates are issued that allow bug-infested and moisture-laden sub-lots to be loaded aboard ships, and, in some cases, forbid customers from appealing an inspector’s incorrect ruling.
Many customers do not understand U.S. classifications, which are unique in the world. Asians don’t understand why protein content--a key aspect of nutrition--is not considered in grading of soybeans and other grains. Europeans don’t understand why our grain contains such large amounts of waste material.
“People around the world are asking me why they should pay freight and tariffs on our junk,” said Doyle Rayjes, president of the Kansas Farm Bureau. “If we’re coming up short on business--and it appears we are--we should consider changing the standards.”
But standards are no better than the standard keepers, the inspectors. And they can be corrupted.
That was made clear in a little-publicized Texas investigation concluded this spring. Three Houston-area grain inspectors were fired for taking bribes from ship captains to certify the cleanliness of grain-carrying ships. Another three inspectors were suspended for a month.
Based on a Complaint
The investigation was launched 18 months ago at the Pasadena, Tex., office of the Federal Grain Inspection Service, according to documents obtained by UPI. It was based on a complaint from a ship captain and subsequent reports from other inspectors. Under the current system, field inspectors are the only officials who can certify a ship’s hold is clean. No grain can be loaded without their signed approval. Shippers often pay dearly for inspector-mandated cleanup.
Eventually, one Houston area inspector admitted to accepting bribes totaling about $4,500. He later resigned. Some inspectors, evidence indicated, even went so far as to solicit crew members for additional “contributions.”
Detailed information on the scam was submitted to the U.S. attorney’s office in Houston, but it declined to prosecute. It gave no reason.
The Justice Department action--or inaction--left the USDA no other recourse but the disciplinary steps.
“Hopefully our action to terminate (employees) is an indication that we won’t hesitate to take measures,” said Chuck Nelson, confidential assistant to FGIS administrator Ken Gillis. “This case is closed as far as we’re concerned.”
Part of Campaign
The FGIS was established nearly a decade ago as part of a congressional reform campaign in the wake of a grain-bribery scandal that rocked the agriculture community. The Justice Department got involved at that time with the result that 62 individuals and private companies were charged with short-changing foreign customers, shipping dirty grain and accepting bribes. In 1976, Congress took grain inspection duties out of private hands and turned them over to the USDA.
Unfortunately, the USDA has been unable to persuade private producers to change practices that irk foreign customers. One of those practices is the widespread use of blenders--giant machines that “mix” or “blend” various lots of grain at terminal elevators.
The system has obvious advantages to the producer. Skillful blending can upgrade a product, increasing a producer’s profit. It can also add weight or mask discrepancies in a particular load. Mixing is also cheaper than cleaning.
The Canadians and Australians, the chief American trade competitors, generally export a higher quality and cleaner grain. Studies indicate part of the reason is that the entire system is in the hands of the government, which balances the expense of cleanup with eventual profits.
Cleaning is done at central locations under strict supervision. In the United States, cleanup is haphazard. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all.
“Our system is geared to profit,” said Frey. “We don’t clean the grain because the customer doesn’t pay for clean grain.”
Despite resistance from private industry, the USDA is forging ahead with reform proposals.
“We wanted to correct this (unclean grain) problem some time back and put out proposals to change the system,” said the USDA’s Shuey, “but the producers didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
“In this year of lean business and fierce competition, we’re hoping their thinking has changed.”
Some of the reforms proposed or under study:
- Eliminate the use of multiple certificates when portions or sublots of a shipment do not meet inspection requirements.
- Provide waivers that would allow request for reinspections or appeals to be made after a grain carrier has left port.
- Revise and update methods used to determine moisture in grain.
The nation’s grain inspection system must be overhauled, officials agree, if the American farmer is to have a fighting chance in the international marketplace of the future.
But there is another--more fundamental--reason supporting change.
“It’s a matter of common ordinary pride,” said Gordon Hibbard, Kansas Farm Bureau spokesman.