It's at least a $1 billion question and it would seem to be a no-brainer. Why should federal meat inspection regulations permit chicken to gain up to 8% in water weight (and turkey up to 9%) during processing, while no water retention is allowed in beef, pork or lamb?

Using the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest figures, more than 2 billion lbs. of added water were sold at poultry prices in 1994 alone. Even at a modest 50¢/lb. wholesale price, that's an extra $1 billion consumers paid for poultry that year. Put another way, it's a $1 billion government subsidy for the poultry industry.

Individuals, associations and companies have long griped about such inequities in meat inspection. Working through the regulatory process has produced scant progress, mostly due to an effective poultry industry lobby. But, a handful of Iowa consumers and producers, led by Wythe Willey, a commercial cattle producer and attorney from Cedar Rapids, decided to try to force change through the courts.

Iowans Take The Lead
The whole challenge began in 1994 with a setback when the Southern District Court in Iowa tossed the case out in preliminary motions. In 1995, Willey and the plaintiffs were back again, this time before the 8th Circuit Court in Minnesota, the step between U.S. District Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

In September 1996, the 8th Circuit Court sided with the challengers, ruling that there was no reason to justify such different regulations for poultry versus red meat. Willey then took the case back to Federal District Court, challenging just the water retention issue. By this time, the lawsuit challenge had grown to include individuals from 28 states and support from the national trade organizations for cattle, pork and sheep.

It was in this venue that U.S. District Judge Ronald E. Longstaff ruled in Kenney v. Glickman last July that poultry regulations on added water are based on "arbitrary and capricious" standards.

"Basically," Willey says, "the judge ruled that the Secretary of Agriculture had not proven why the added water regulations for one product should be different than for another. He also directed the Ag Secretary to issue new regulations on added water for poultry.

"By the way," Willey adds, "the people who brought this lawsuit have never asked for any lessening of the standards for beef. All they've ever asked is that poultry be brought up to the same standard."

The District Court ruling was an enormous win for consumers and the red meat industry, says Max Deets, Kansas feeder and president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

"Our goal is to have one meat inspection system for the meat and poultry industries. One inspection system would help red meat producers more fairly compete with poultry," Deets says. It would also provide consumers of poultry with their true money's worth of product.

For his efforts in equalizing federal meat inspection regulations, Willey is BEEF magazine's Trailblazer Award winner for 1997. The award is given annually to a producer of foresight whose efforts in the past year were instrumental in pushing forward significant research, programs or projects.

Interest In Law Began Early
Willey grew up 50 miles east of Cedar Rapids in western Jackson County on the family farm/ranch, which he now operates. His operation consists of spread out holdings that add up to about 2,000 acres of pasture, cropland and timber. He runs about 200 head of cattle - Angus and black Simmentals, and his operation also includes a small feedlot. In addition, Willey custom feeds about 1,000 head in other Iowa lots.

Upon graduating from high school, Willey studied agricultural economics "with a lot of animal science" at Iowa State University. Upon graduation, he was off to law school at the University of Iowa.

Willey says he was always interested in the agricultural aspect of law. "And there were a number of Iowa State people at the time who fostered this. One was Dr. Neil Harl, who developed special programs between the agricultural economics program and the University of Iowa law school. Programs like that furthered my interest in solving problems and working with the opportunities that were there," he says.

For 2 1/2 years after law school, Willey went into private practice with an existing firm in northeast Iowa. It was a period he calls "a super opportunity," due to the large amount of trial work he was allowed to do. The following 10 years he served as legal counsel on the staff of Iowa Governor Bob Ray.

Willey had ranched throughout his legal career, but decided to spend more time with it. He left the governor's staff in 1981, moved back to Cedar Rapids and took over operation of the home farm. Initially, he worked part-time on the Cedar Rapids staff of Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley. He quit that position, however, in 1987 and has had his own practice ever since, roughly dividing his time 60:40 between his law practice and ranching. Willey and his wife Susan have five children.

"Wythe's a lawyer with his heart really in the cattle business," says friend John Greig, a cattleman from Estherville, IA. "His hands are dirty and callused but he can work both sides of the street. He has the ability to package complex topics and explain them to diverse groups and bring them to common ground," Greig says.

An Agricultural-Based Practice
In his legal work, Willey says he's tended to represent farmers or livestock people. "There are always two sides to every issue, and I've pretty much decided my side is the production and livestock side," he says. His adversary, therefore, is often the government, and he's argued constitutional law cases before the Iowa Supreme Court. Most have to do with property rights.

It's an area of law, Willey says, where there's a growing mountain of work to be done. Rule by litigation is definitely escalating these days.

"The Sierra Club, for instance, has dramatically cut its budget for legislative activity and equally dramatically increased its budget for legal actions. That's what cattlemen and folks who live off the land are up against.

"What's really scary is that a lot of these questions aren't really about the environment, clean air or endangered species. They're about who's going to make the decisions. They're about power and who's going to manage public lands and how they're going to be managed," Willey says.

"Right now, property can be taken by regulation just as if someone stole it. The people most under stress right now in the cattle business are those operating on public range. But, private property problems are right behind, and the place to protect that constitutional right is in the courts," he says.

Willey currently serves as the vice-chairman of the board of directors for the CATL (Cattlemen Advocating Through Litigation) Fund, a non-profit legal defense fund that supports precedent-setting litigation of importance to the U.S. beef cattle industry. He's been involved with the group since its inception and he says he sees a growing role for the organization.

"Individual farmers and ranchers are not equipped financially to take on the government or large, well-funded groups like the Sierra Club. These groups know that," Willey says. "I can see the CATL Fund playing an increasingly important role in this area, but we flat out have to raise a lot more money to be a factor."

But, Willey says, the livestock industry is seeing a lot more cooperation between organizations today. The inspection inequities suit is one example. "Frankly, people are seeing the writing on the wall and are more willing to step up with their support and pocketbook," he adds.

More Inspection Inequities
Willey's court victory was a huge step toward replacing politics with science in the federal inspection system. But, despite the court victory scored last July, there's still work to be done in inspection inequities.

Support from NCBA will help that effort, Willey says, as the funding has allowed the suit to be expanded and include a number of other inequities besides added water and zero tolerance. Some of these include multiple labeling, mechanically-separated tissues, sanitation requirements and product identity standards (see June 1997 BEEF, "Level The Playing Field," page 23).

H. Russell Cross, a former administrator of USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, agrees. He now serves as executive director of the Institute of Food Science & Engineering and the International Meat and Poultry HACCP Alliance in College Station, TX.

Cross says that before all proteins compete fairly, three major changes have to occur:

* The playing field must be leveled.

* One food act must be developed. Currently, there are three food acts covering poultry and meat and other foods. In addition, all federal food safety regulations must be placed on one single food safety agenda.

* The same risk-based rules on safety must be enforced on all foods.

"The cost to the beef industry of unfair poultry regulations is $100 per steer," Willey says. "So, it doesn't take long to see that unfair regulations cost an individual operation."

These changes, Willey says, will allow every beef producer in the nation to see more profit in fair competition in the marketplace with another protein source.