The Commerce Department reported this week that new home sales fell by nearly 3 percent last month to their slowest pace in 13 years. The government also reports that orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods plunged by more than 5 percent in January... their largest decline in five months.
On the other side of the equation, the Labor Department said wholesale prices rose last month at their fastest pace in more than 16 years, paced largely by oil prices which exceeded a record $103 per barrel briefly on Friday. Against that backdrop, the Conference Board said its Consumer Confidence Index fell this month to its lowest level in five years.
Still, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told members of Congress this week that the nation is "not anywhere near" the condition of stagflation that prevailed in the 1970's.
Other officials also testified to Congress this week on less abstract, but by no means less important matters, including food safety.
Food safety from farm gate to dinner plate was at the top of the agenda in the nation's Capitol this week. The House Energy and Commerce hearing began on a dramatic note as chairman Bart Stupak directed the panel to view nearby video monitors. The committee aired previously broadcast footage of a California slaughterhouse and the company's systematic abuse of "downer" cows.
Michael Greger, Humane Society: "The horrific treatment of animals we documented is being downplayed as an aberration and somehow the work of a handful of employees. We don't think this is an accurate characterization."
The video, part of a Humane Society investigation, led to the nation's largest beef recall in history. Steve Mendell, the President of Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing was the only company executive absent at this week's hearing.
Bart Stupak, D-Michigan: "We invited Mr. Mendell to appear before this committee but he refused the committee's invitation."
Committee members questioned Michael Greger, the Humane Society's Director of Public Health, on how "downer" cows should be properly treated and processed.
Michael Greger, Humane Society: "There is a system in which one can segregate suspect animals and see if they can perk up and later walk again. These would then by definition no longer be considered downed cattle. At this plant there was no suspect pen."
John Shimkus, R-Illinois: "But if they would have just moved these downed cattle to a suspect pen and then monitor those and those that revive can be processed, how do you handle the others by law?"
Michael Greger, Humane Society: "The problem is its extremely difficult to transport these downed animals. So how are going to do it? You can see they used forklifts and chains but there are humane ways to do it using via these sleds but its something that is much more intensive. It makes much more sense to euthanize them on the spot."
After discussing the potential of a future subpoena for Hallmark/Westland executives, committee members shifted focus towards the future regulatory role of USDA and FDA.
Diana Degette, D-Colorado: "So you don't really think much can be done besides the industry making a commitment?"
Gary Rodkin, ConAgra Foods, Inc.: "I think the primary responsibility must be on the industry and to cooperate with USDA."
Diana Degette, D-Colorado: "Because they've done such a good job so far."
William Marler, Food Safety Attorney: "We can not completely regulate ourselves out of this. standards need to be set with the entire food chain at the table from farmer to manufacturer to retailer and customer. Standards must also be based on good science."