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Archives for Food and The Law

Politics as Usual?


It appears that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack will be our next Secretary of Agriculture. By all accounts, the choice is as carefully considered, intelligent, and unimaginative as President Barack Obama’s other cabinet appointments. When naming him Obama said, “As governor of one of our most abundant farm states, he led with vision promoting biotech to strengthen our farmers in fostering an agricultural economy of the future that not only grows the food we eat, but the energy that we use.” The food community has responded with thunderous, “meh.” – “big f-ing deal.”

Personally I think our new president is doing fine in his cabinet choices. I think they reflect his awareness of his own lack of experience at the national level and the need to put together a team that knows the ins and outs of the beltway. I don’t think he’ll be anyone’s bitch (unlike his predecessor) and while he will listen to counsel he won’t be ruled by it.

Still, Vilsack isn’t a tremendously exciting choice. In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition back on December 18, Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food) said, “I was very disappointed in that news conference not to hear Vilsack use the word ‘food’ – or ‘eaters.’ And the interests of everybody except eaters was discussed: farmers, ranchers, people concerned about the land.”

Nevertheless, Vilsack, like his fellow appointees does seem able to consider issues outside of the mainstream. Not so much the senators who held hearing on his appointment, most of whom made the usual gestures of support for their primary campaign contributors and they interviewed the nominee. That’s fine, it really is the senators’ job to support those they consider their constituents. But Pat Roberts of Kansas really put his foot in the manure by dissing “small family farmers.” In his remarks he claimed:

“That small family farmer is about 5′2″…and he’s a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman’s Quarterly – he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab – and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he’s very happy to have that.”

Kansas is a major corn producer – meaning Big Ag mega-farms. These industrial food companies make large campaign contributions to senators like Roberts, who received more than $400,000 of the roughly $6 million he raised in this campaign cycle from agribusiness, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog outfit. Small producers can’t afford these sort of contributions and it’s the little guys that need help. And – judging from some of the names being bandied about for other high-level jobs in the Department of Agriculture – small farmers may once again get left out.

For example, Joy Philippi is reportedly being considered for Deputy Secretary of Agriculture. Philippi spent two years as president of the National Pork Producers Council, an industry lobbying group. During her tenure there she argued strongly against applying pollution regulations to the huge manure ponds produced by industrial pig farms. In fact, she’s pretty much against any limits on CAFOs (Confined Animal Feed Operations). Another name that’s come up in conjunction with the USDA is Dennis Wolfe. Wolfe is a former Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture where he did his level best to prevent milk producers from informing customers that they weren’t dosing their dairy cows with artificial hormones.

In short, while Vilsack is maybe not so bad, the lower ranks may well be turned over to people closely associated with Big Ag. It’s not all that different from Bush loading up the Energy Department with coal executives.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Milk: The Raw Deal


A few days ago I received an offer to purchase unpasteurized milk for my pets from a local organic farm. For $103 I’d receive a gallon of raw milk once a week for 12 weeks. I’ll save you the trouble of doing the math: that’s $8.58 a gallon. I’m really fond of my cat, but not $8.58-a-week fond. Which is why I’m pretty sure this offer is an end-run around Tennessee’s laws preventing the sale of raw milk for human consumption.

It’s still very much on the fringes, but there’s a growing movement in this country promoting the health benefits of raw milk. But a little history first.

When our country was largely rural, raw milk was a common beverage, often produced by your own cows, but sometimes purchased from a neighbor. There were no mortality and morbidity survey from public health departments or the Center for Disease Control to track illness from raw milk but it’s certain no one thought twice about drinking it. Both of my parents, who were born in 1920, regularly drank raw milk as children.

But as our society became more urban, providing truly fresh raw milk became more and more difficult. Transportation was slow and there was no effective refrigeration. Perhaps worse, because the milk producers weren’t the friends and neighbors of the people buying the milk they were less inclined to be scrupulous about the quality. And even for well-intentioned milk producers, the inability to easily test for contaminants like campylobactor, salmonella, and e-Coli meant problems could arise. And, given all these factors, they did.

Food poisoning from raw milk sky-rocketed in the first half of the 20th century. In 1938 25 percent of all cases of food poisoning were associated with dairy products. In 1924 the federal Public Health Service began mandating pasteurization for milk sold across state lines. With the passage of this ordinance (and subsequent legislation in most states) incidents of poisoning dropped dramatically (although they still haven’t disappeared, as we’ll see) and the program was deemed a complete success.

Jump ahead to today. Transportation is an order (or two) of magnitude faster and everything is refrigerated. Testing for bacterial contamination is easy, cheap, and highly effective. And these days, even living in a metropolis such as New York City, you can know and learn to trust a milk producer if you take the trouble to do so.

Still federal and state governments remain strongly antagonistic to raw milk sales (22 states absolutely prohibit it and where it’s permitted sales are discouraged in various ways) and they are quick to point fingers at raw milk as a source of food poisoning. In 2008 three cases of campylobacter poisoning were blamed on raw milk from Hendricks Farms near Franconia, Pa. A single sample of the milk did turn up the bacteria – at the purchaser’s home. Additionally, two of those sickened had just returned from travels abroad. No other samples tested positive and thorough testing at the dairy failed to find the bacteria. I happen to have a friend (a professional chef) who works at that dairy and he tells me the food processing areas are as clean or cleaner than any restaurant where he’s worked.

In 2004 FDA Consumer published an article warning against drinking raw milk. Ironically, that same year 38 cases of salmonella poisoning in several states were traced to pasteurized milk but FDA Consumer didn’t publish a subsequent article warning of the dangers of pasteurized milk.

Raw milk advocates argue that raw milk is healthier and tastes better than pasteurized milk because the pasteurization process kills helpful bacteria (probiotics) as well as harmful bacteria and that the process also destroys helpful enzymes. True or not, there are people who want to drink raw milk. Presumably they’re aware of the risks – it takes some research to even find a source. And clearly pasteurized milk presents a risk as well.

Raw milk does taste better, but not so much so that I’m willing to pay $8.58 a gallon for it. But it’s ridiculous that in order to sell raw milk here in Tennessee, the farm near me has to emphasize that it’s for pets, not humans. As I said, I’m fond of my cat, as most people are of their pets, and if I thought raw milk was unsafe for me I certainly wouldn’t feed it to my cat. But at that price neither of us are going to be drinking it.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Something COOL


This past Tuesday (October 1) we finally saw something good for consumers come out of the federal government: Country Of Origin Labeling (COOL) for food. Grocery stores have six months to comply and then most meat and produce and some nut producers must specify the origin of their products (exceptions include roasted nuts, mixed vegetables, and a few other items).

SalsaThis requirement (which applies to retailers not producers, although it certaily affects producers) is a provision of the Farm Bill – not the most recent Farm Bill but the 2002 Farm Bill. The requirement for fish and shellfish was implemented in 2005 because of concerns about foreign seafood, but the other labels were delayed first in 2004, then in 2005. The retail food industry was, inevitably, totally opposed to the idea claiming it would raise prices, drive small retailers out of business (Ever noticed that it’s big business that hires lobbyists to supposedly defend small business?), and would reduce consumer choice – as though I’m going to give up eating leg of lamb because it comes from New Zealand or might not be just as happy with ground lamb from Oregon in Kofta.

Such end-of-the-world objections about added costs, whether to parsnips or ball bearings, are almost always nonsense if the added costs are applied equitably.

There are inevitably exceptions, which is why writing laws, rules, and regulations is hard. Requiring Donna, who grows the best tomatoes in East Tennessee and sells them at farmers’ markets, to individually label her tomatoes as grown in Tennessee would be silly. However, apparently this regulation doesn’t require that (it only applies to those selling more than $230,000 of produce a year).

Although COOL isn’t directly concerned with safety issues, it’s certainly a step in that direction. If you have concerns about grapes grown in Chile or peppers from Mexico you will have the opportunity to avoid these products. And in the case of the salmonella-ridden Mexican peppers the labels would probably have sped up discovery of source of contamination.

The law does contain some rather large loopholes. For instance, if the food is processed in some way it needn’t be labeled. So raw chicken from Guatemala has to be labeled but if that same chicken is made into chicken nuggets. Raw peanuts are covered but salted peanuts aren’t. Additionally, dairy products aren’t covered.

Also, if foods are mixed together they needn’t be labeled so although Mexican cantaloupe has to be labeled, if it’s mixed in a fruit salad with American oranges or Nicaraguan pineapple then no label is required. And oddly enough, meat and seafood sold in dedicated butcher shops or fish markets isn’t covered by the law.

Hopefully COOL will have some effect on food safety (although most cases of contaminated food during the past decade has been produced in this country). It also gives consumers the option of making more informed buying decisions. I may not care if a cantaloupe comes from the U.S. or Mexico – but then again, I just might.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

More Insanity from the U.S.D.A.


Most bureaucracies are famed for their lack of imagination, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture manages to consistently confound that dismal notion by finding new ways to control what we eat and who we buy it from. How the U.S.D.A. plans to regulate the farmers from whom I buy locally-raised meats is a good example of this ineptitude.

On many Friday afternoons I drive down to an empty grocery store parking lot to meet up with Ralph and Kimberley Cole who operate West Wind Farms. On these occasions I’ll buy a chicken or a pork loin or even, on rare occasions, a steak. Their animals are not only organic, but raised on pasture. I also buy meat from Tracy Monday who operates Laurel Creek Farms, and although Monday’s farm isn’t certified organic, there is no appreciable difference between the way he raises his animals and the Coles raise theirs. Both are small farms, personal operations, if you will.

But it seems clear that the U.S.D.A. doesn’t want me – or you – to buy meat raised sustainably by local farmers. Oh sure, it claims it supports all farmers, but in reality it only supports industrial farmers: Big Ag. Or least that’s what its new project, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) seems to prove.

The headline statement on the NAIS Web site is: “To protect the health of U.S. livestock and poultry and the economic well-being of those industries, we must be able to quickly and effectively trace an animal disease to its source.”

Note, first, that there’s no mention of consumers in this statement. Animals will be protected (supposedly), industries will be protected (certainly), but you and me? Phfft!

Created as part of the Patriot Act – an act of Congressional insanity if there ever was one – this initiative required that every “livestock” animal – cows, goats, chickens, your child’s pet Easter rabbit or pony – be registered in a national database, implanted with a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) chip, and its every movement be tracked from birth to death.

So, let’s assume you were foolish enough to give your kid a live rabbit at Easter. The breeder would have to register his premises and that rabbit. When he sold it to the pet store they would have to do the same. When you bought the rabbit… Yep, you too. Furthermore, every movement of the rabbit must be logged, so if you take the rabbit to the vet you’ve got to log that movement – to the vet first and then back again. And the vet also has to log it. And, of course, fees will be charged for all this folderol. Also, note that NAIS does nothing to directly improve the safety of the meat you eat, it is simply a tracking program.

OK. So you’re not foolish enough to buy your daughter a rabbit. But my local farmers would have to register their premises, implant RFID chips in every chicken, pig lamb and duck and log any movement of their animals in the national database. I know these folks, they’re scraping by on a prayer and passion for quality. NAIS means time and money they can’t spare.

But here’s the real killer. “Vertically integrated” operations, such as Tyson foods, that own the entire chain from birth to slaughter only need to register animals as a group. So while the Coles have to track each individual chicken because that’s the nature of their business – small and personal – Tyson pays the same price for 30,000 chickens. Guess what? Tyson is all in favor of this “government interference.” The result? The U.S.D.A. is throwing the weight of the federal government, on the side of Big Ag once again.

There has been push-back from small operators and the U.S.D.A. has backed off from enforcing it at a national level. Instead the U.S.D.A. is strongly encouraging individual states to enforce the initiative. Again note, NAIS will remain a federal program administered by the U.S.D.A., the states are simply being made to do the dirty work of making it mandatory.

NAIS may be a good idea for the Tysons and Smithfields that have no sense of social responsibility to begin with. But NAIS won’t directly improve quaility, will be devastating for small farmers, and makes no sense at all when it comes to that pet rabbit.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

No Prevention, No Cure


Two weeks ago in “USDA – D is for ‘Downer’” I discussed the graphic and disturbing video taken by the Humane Society containing footage of “downer” cows – those too ill to walk – being shoveled into a meat processing facility in Chino, Calif. That film has since led to the recall of 143 million pounds of beef.

Click for larger image.The recall has become big news which is great, but as I’ve read and listened to the coverage I’ve been angry about one thing: The news agencies keep calling it a “USDA recall,” which is flat wrong and is misleading the public.

Why? Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has no authority to recall so much as a single hamburger. All it can to is request, “pretty please,” that the manufacturer voluntarily issue a recall. If the system really worked – or even if it were meant to work – there might still have been a recall but it wouldn’t have been for 143 million pounds of meat processed over two years, and it certainly wouldn’t have been voluntary.

Oh sure, as this Congressional Research Report states, USDA can apply some pressure by, say, pulling inspectors from plants – in which case the facilities are no longer permitted to sell across state lines. Or the agency can put a hold on distribution for up to 20 days. But if the meat processor balks there’s nothing the USDA can do about it. The USDA isn’t even permitted by law to inform consumers about where the recalled beef was sold. So if you’re wondering if you bought some of the beef that’s being recalled – you’ll have to keep wondering. That’s a trade secret of the company selling the possibly contaminated product. Nor can the USDA require that the recalled meat be destroyed. If Hallmark chooses to it can turn around and sell that meat outside of this country. In other words, their corporate “trade” secrets are more important to our government than your health.

Someone once commented that corporations have rights without responsibilities. This is a fundamental flaw in any social actor. When the health of corporal (living) members of a society is stacked against a corporation’s (non-living entity’s) welfare and then arbitrated by a government that feels it must treat corporations as individuals without the authority to impose the same set of responsibilities on the corporations that it does on real humans, well, then you – we – have a problem.

I quite understand the value of corporations and their ability to concentrate and apply capital. Without them I wouldn’t be able to catch a plane to New Orleans. Corporations make it possible for me to use the Internet to research places to stay (and more importantly eat) when I get to there. Corporations make renting a car in advance simple. But while I may need a large well-run corporate entity to help me find a bed and breakfast, it doesn’t have to be owned and manage by one. The same goes with a restaurant. And when a corporation can make me ill or even kill me without being held responsible for its actions then we – you and I – have failed in our effort to govern ourselves.

You can argue that the recall shows the system works. And the same argument may well be made in defending the lawsuits that may be filed in the wake of this scandal. But becasue there’s no evidence that anyone was hurt by this specific event, it’s not very different from pointing a gun at a stranger’s head, pulling the trigger, and upon failing to blow their brains out argue, “Hey! No harm done.”

In the latest recall Hallmark could have simply stonewalled. And that, may in the end, be the result. Apparently the company is going out of business just as Topps Meat did and under similar circumstances. So, in the end, what does the corporation stand to lose by not recalling the meat? In fact, it may have been better off if it hadn’t since then it wouldn’t have to reimburse those who purchased the meat. And, of course, a company closes its doors is one that’s harder to sue for any damages.

Given the drastic increase in recalls – not just meat but drugs and other products – those options becomes more logical, if you’re corporate but not corporeal. And especially if the dog guarding you has no teeth.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 8:00 AM | Permalink

Send in the Clones


“After years of detailed study and analysis, the Food and Drug Administration has concluded that meat and milk from clones of cattle, swine, and goats, and the offspring of clones from any species traditionally consumed as food, are as safe to eat as food from conventionally bred animals. There was insufficient information for the agency to reach a conclusion on the safety of food from clones of other animal species, such as sheep.” — FDA press announcement

CowLet’s apply a little logic to the issue of cloning animals. First, cloning is not genetic engineering; it is not about transferring genes from an eggplant to a cow. It’s about taking the nucleus of an animal’s cell, embedding it in an unfertilized egg, and starting the natural process of embryonic growth. There is no logical reason why the meat or milk of a cloned animal should be any more dangerous than that of any other animal. And in some six years of study, that’s what the FDA has concluded. If you think about it, identical twins are simply clones that arise naturally during gestation.

You can quibble with a few of the FDA’s assertions. For instance, according to an article by Rick Weiss at the Washington Post, “agency scientists decided to use the same simple but effective standard used by farmers since the dawn of agriculture: If a farm animal appears in all respects to be healthy, then presume that food from that animal is safe to eat.” It’s worth noting in this context that cattle suffering from mad-cow disease appear just fine until they don’t. And we know that government oversight of meat processing facilities is a joke: We’ve already had our first meat recall of the year.

It’s also unlikely that you’ll be offered meat or milk from cloned animals any time soon. It’s just too expensive a process. Instead the technique will be used to produce breeding animals and it will be their offspring, naturally produced (that’s “natural” if you consider artificial insemination “natural”) that will be enter our food chain. And nature is pretty ruthless about eliminating flawed animals, so if an offspring of a clone survives long enough to become a full-grown dairy cow or steer it’s highly unlikely it has any serious problems. In short, I think the FDA is correct in it’s assessment. But there are other issues.

Social issues first. The FDA has stated it won’t require that cloned meat or milk be labeled as such, but may allow non-cloned meat or milk to be labeled as “not cloned.” I hope they do. Although I see no problems with such products, I understand that others are concerned and they should have the option of knowing what they’re buying. There are also religious issues — for example, is cloned meat Kosher? These issues matter but there’s a larger and more damning problem, the increasing lack of diversity in what we eat.

Cloning is another step towards monoculture. Genetic diversity means that if I’m susceptible to a particular disease and you’re not then the human species has a better chance of survival. Any reduction in the gene pool increases the risk that a single fault, – whether it’s disease susceptibility or a congenital defect – could wipe out or seriously harm even a large population of animals or crops. When an entire farm is populated with genetically identical animals you have a highly fragile system that’s more susceptible to the domino effect – a single nudge from an illness or infection would cascade through the population and wipe it out.

Now, there’s a case to be made for using cloning to, say, producing pigs that are naturally more resistant to disease and require fewer antibiotics as they’re being raised. Cloning would be a way of speeding up the development of such a pig.

But care needs to be taken to keep the overall population genetically diverse. Sadly, though given its record in other areas, our food production system – meat inspections – is unlikely to encourage that use of cloning and will instead use the technology to increase production while reducing the gene pool. We won’t end up with healthier pigs, we’ll get even leaner and more flavorless pork. And that’s a damned shame.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Business as Usual


I have a lot of respect for Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor for much of Bill Clinton’s presidency. For an economist he generally seems to have appreciation of the effects of economics on the little guy. But he missed the point of much of the debate over the 2007 Farm Bill when, on Tuesday’s Talk of the Nation, he argued that a concern for family farms was misplaced because Big Ag is producing so much food so efficiently.

He is clearly missing the ramifications of where and how food is produced and delivered and it’s effect on the quality of people’s lives in making that statement. But, then again, almost everyone, including the senators who have decided to avoid almost all reforms, are ducking a serious conversation not just about how our food is produced but why it’s produced the way it is.

The farm bill is revisited once every five years and this year it was back up for renewal. There was an effort to reform the system in 1996 in something called the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (1996 FAIR ACT). This act was intended to wean farmers from subsidies and allow market forces to take over. However, the act actually put considerable pressure on small and individual farmers while enabling corporate and industrial farming operations to continue to thrive. This is because the Farm Bill’s susidies are paid on just a few commodity products (primarily corn and rice) and it’s structured in a way that favors huge farms. In fact only 25 of farm operations receive susidies and of those, 10 percent receive 75 percent of the funds.

There was considerable pressure this year to make genuine reforms and to spread the wealth by offering some assistance to the those who raise food that people actually eat. For instance, people who grow grean beans, or raise grass-fed chickens. But such measures failed in the House this past summer when that body voted to essentially maintain the status quo. The remaiing hope for reform was then in the Senate’s hands. And this past week the Senate also voted for the status quo.

Right off the top, the Dorgan-Grassley amendment to cap subsidy payments at $250,000 was defeated 43 to 56. No, that isn’t a typo, they changed the rules so that it required a 60 vote super-majority to pass. This cap would have produced savings of more than $500 million over the five-year life of the bill. Instead, the Senate bill is raising subsidies by increasing support for some crops and adding new crops. All of this when the USDA is forecasting that net farm income will be a record $87.5 billion this year and will remain high for the next five years. In fact, the planned mandate for increased use of ethanol will make sure that prices stay high.

In Status Quo I mentioned my friends Mellani and Mike who have a small sheep farm in Missouri, they got slammed this past summer by the drought, but there was no help for them, they just had to take their losses. Another friend Martha owns a huge corn farm and although her place didn’t particularly suffer from the drought, she and her husband still received subsidies for their feed corn.

So I had hopes for another reform amendment that would have required means-testing to receive subsidies (if your income was greater than $750,000 you wouldn’t be entitled to a government handout) but it was also defeated, in this case 47 to 48. That means that millionaires will continue to receive million-dollar payments from you and me and the small farmers who continue to try to grow food that might be healthy and delicious.

Although it was Senators Dorgan (D-ND), Grassley (R-IA), and Harkin (D-IA) who were sponsoring the reforms, their fellows in the Big Ag states — mostly Democrats — that engineered the super-majority rule, which just goes to prove that if money’s involved, the party is irrelevant.

The bill isn’t a complete disaster. It provides $4 billion for land and wetlands conservation. It also initiates much needed restrictions on major meat processors and opens up small state-inspected meat plants to sell across state lines provided they adhere to federal food safety standards which potentially opens up new markets for small farmers such as my friends at Locust Grove.

There are also provisions for better interest rates and terms for Beginning Farmer and Rancher Down Payment Loans and the bill creates a USDA Office of Small Farms and Beginning Farmers and Ranchers to ensure coordination and goal-setting for all small and beginning farmers and ranchers programs. Also benefiting beginning and minority farmers is a new eligibility program for rural development loans for processing and other infrastructure for local food systems.

Nevertheless, the lack of significant reform to the subsidy system means that the short-sighted continuance of past farm policies will continue to distort the fabric of this country’s food supply by affecting what is grown and what isn’t, who grows it and where, and what’s on your table tonight.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Safer By the Half-Dozen


Meat inspection – and by extension, food safety – were back in the headlines last week. And, once again, you’ve got to wonder what it is that government regulators, consumers and farmers are getting out of the nation’s inspection system.

Before announcing that it was going out of business Topps Meat recalled 21.7 million pounds of frozen ground beef after 27 people became ill as a result of eating some that was contaminated with our old friend E. coli. By contrast, agri-giant Cargill is recalling 845,000 pounds of beef due to E. coli contamination.

Click to view larger versionThese recalls throw into relief a provision in the current Farm Bill that would allow meat from state-inspected plants to be sold across state lines. Currently only meat from federally-inspected sites can be sold across state lines, but the House of Representatives inserted a provision in the bill allowing smaller processing plants – those with fewer than 50 employees – to also sell across state lines. As a result, a political turf fight has erupted. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), citing safety issues, has threatened to put a kibosh on the legislation unless that safe inspection provision is removed.

That may sound like a reasonable precaution, except that Topps Meat’s abattoir was USDA-inspected as was Cargill’s. Clearly a federal stamp of approval is less than it should be. Which is why the law need a good hard look.

There are currently three types of processing facilities: USDA-inspected abattoirs, state-inspected abattoirs, and so-called custom abattoirs. Meat processed in USDA-inspected plants can be sold anywhere, meat processed in state-inspected plants can only be sold within the state, and meat processed in custom-exempt plants cannot be sold, it can only be consumed by the owner of the animal and his/her non-paying guests (this enables me to buy a local lamb while it’s alive and have the person who sold it to me take it to a custom plant for processing; so long as I don’t sell any of that meat to anyone everything is legal).

Those opposed to the provision allowing state-inspected meat to be sold outside the state have implied that smaller, state-inspected facilities operate at a lesser level of care than the USDA. According to the Associated Press, Boxer said “Allowing uneven and lax state standards to replace a uniform federal standard is not appropriate. It is irresponsible.” But a 1967 law called the Wholesome Meat Inspection Act (and the subsequent 1968 Wholesome Poultry Products Inspection Act) provide that state inspections must be equal to or exceed federal requirements.

But why care?

For one thing a state-inspected site may have stricter standards than a federal site. A farmer named Steve Atkinson noted in an on-line discussion that initially he had planned to have his meat processed at a nearby federally-inspected plant but a visit to the plant changed his mind, writing it “smelled of rotting meat, had exposed animal offal in the livestock corral, and an abundance of flies.” Atkinson is using a much cleaner state-inspected plant instead.

And there’s another reason; in “Status Quo” I mentioned my friend Mellani and her problems finding a market for her lambs. When discussing this with her my immediate thought was, “Go mail-order,” or, more specifically, Web order. She has a hugely popular blog and would have no problem selling her lambs. When I suggested this she said she doesn’t have access to a USDA-inspected facility and so can’t sell to the large majority of her readers who live out of state. This restriction, like so many such regulations, favors the large meat producers and meat processors at the expense of the smaller, local producer and it isn’t even necessarily any safer!

I’m all in favor of strict safety regulations, but let’s look at reality. A federal inspection is no guarantee of safety and the law already requires that state inspections meet or exceed federal requirements. If there is concern that state inspectors are slacking off, then step up monitoring and enforcement of the states. Clearly they seem better able to handle the work than the feds.

Also, I’ve noted earlier there is a fundamental flaw in applying efficiencies of scale to packaging food – a flaw that feeds into the federal government’s inability to properly inspect almost all of our food. One bad apple can indeed spoil the barrel, or in this situation, one mad cow can potentially infect hundreds and hundreds of people.

We are better served in matters of contamination by having more plants processing fewer animals. It doesn’t improve the food security for any given facility, but it spreads the risk more widely and reduces its overall potential impact. Allowing meat that’s processed in state-inspected facilities to be sold across state lines is a good idea.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Status Quo


My two friends, “Mellani” and “Mike” raise grass-fed sheep on 50 acres of organic pasture set in a wooded farm in Missouri. They had a record-breaking 38 lambs born this year, which, on the face of it, sounds great. But not so great actually. The problem is, they really don’t have a market for their lambs (nor the cattle or hogs they used to raise before the market price dropped below the production price). It’s eight hours round trip to the nearest large city where they might be able to sell their “crop” but that isn’t practical.

Click to view larger versionLike many owners of small farms, at least one family member, Mike in this case, has a day-time job and this income is what they live on. Managing the sheep alone (89 ewes) requires almost all of Mellani’s efforts. That means she doesn’t have time to develop the contacts and connections needed to build a restaurant clientele. So they sell their lambs locally as whole or halves, which covers their costs (barely) but certainly doesn’t provide enough income to live on. And the local market is too small to adequately support even their current production – the result is they’re cutting back on the number of ewes and, so, lambs next year.

How much help do they get from the government? In 2000 during a drought they got a $300 one-time drought-relief subsidy to cover the cost of $2000 in hay they had to buy. They also participated in a now-defunct program that was created to encourage U.S. sheep producers to increase the size of their flocks. It offered a one-time $18 payment for each ewe lamb kept for breeding for at least a year. In short, they get squat from the government.

I have another friend – and I’ve changed some names here and trimmed a few details to protect these people’s privacy – named “Martha,” who owns a several-thousand acre corn farm in Kansas. Unlike Mellani, who’s a transplanted Oregonian, Martha’s farm has been in her family for generations. In many ways the farm defines her and her place as a member of our culture – she thinks of herself as a farmer, she describes herself as a farmer. Her husband, Leo, like Mike, also works outside of the farm, in his case as a financial advisor and analyst. I don’t know to what degree Martha and her husband rely on farm income versus his non-farm income, but I do know they’re quite wealthy by any definition of the word. Nevertheless, according to the Environmental Working Group database on subsidies (based on USDA data) Martha and Leo received nearly $500,000 in subsidies in the years 2003 – 2005.

I don’t want to vilify Martha here (she’s a long-time philanthropist whom I respect and admire greatly), nor laud Mellani. There’s nothing inherently ennobling in any economic status. They are both dear friends who happen to be real farmers at each end of the income spectrum. My intent is to illustrate the spectrum and to note that, despite the difference in scale, they’re both having problems keeping their farms economically viable.

The current Farm Bill (passed in 2002) and the 2007 Farm Bill the U.S. House is about to vote on favors Martha over Mellani. As the graphic I posted last week shows, those who earn more than half a million dollars a year receive 62 percent of the benefits. These are the folks I’ve referred to in past columns as “BigAg.” Some of these big winners are individual farmers, like my friend Martha, who are genuinely struggling to keep an old (albeit large) family business going. Others are multi-national corporations like Con-Agra and Archer Daniels Midland and some are wealthy individuals who are partners in businesses designed specifically to maximize their personal income. There’s nothing wrong with the desire to maximize profits, but I have to ask, should taxpayers be the source of those profits?

I do have a bias, I favor local agriculture whenever practical. It isn’t always. Here in Knoxville, Tennessee, there is no local source for fresh lettuce in December and no local source for flour at any time of year – but, as I said, my bias is practical. I’m not particularly impressed with the health claims of organic farmers, although as a general rule, I’ve found that food is best when it’s simply grown and simply prepared. However, the effects of industrial fertilizers, insecticides and monoculture agriculture are far-reaching and, among other things, have produced an oxygen-deprived “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Do we want to be funding the destruction of the shrimp, oyster and snapper that fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico rely on?

The House of Representatives passed the Farm Bill this week 231 to 191 and according to all reports it is essentially an extension of the current act. The problem with the bill (aside from devoting an inordinate number of dollars to the already-wealthy) is the side effects.

It will continue to favor industrial agriculture over local agriculture, which indirectly promotes the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides whose run-off, in turn, wreaks havoc on estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay as well as the Gulf. It will continue to favor mono-cultural farming over multiple-crop/use farming thus reducing ecological diversity. It will do almost nothing to improve the lot of those who rely on food stamps.

Direct subsidies will continue to be paid (even in profitable years) and the cap on them will even increase by 50 percent, instead of being replaced with something more akin to insurance against bad years. In fact, the only genuine bright spot in this bill is 1.8 billion in funding for programs supporting fruit and vegetable farmers. That sounds like a lot, but is only six-tenths of a percent of the $286 billion in total funding the bill is providing.

As written, the Farm Bill does little for genuine, small family farms. It does little for actually putting better tasting and safer food on our tables. It does little to help those who don’t have enough to eat. In short, it does nothing for most of us, even indirectly, and it does a great deal for political contributors with deep pockets.

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of posts about the Farm Bill. Kevin’s first post about the bill is here and his second here.
You can leave thoughts, comments, and observations here.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

FAIR or Foul


Farming is one of the riskiest occupations a person can take on. Not in the physical sense, although it does have its dangers, but in an economic sense. In addition to all the fiscal and social factors that affect costs and profits, the weather can step in at any time and make a mockery of all your planning. Farmers make professional gamblers look like overly-cautious wimps. The 1920s and 30s drove this point home for the entire nation.
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Like many of our social programs, what’s now known as the Farm Bill got its start in Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation during the Great Depression. During this period crop prices frequently dropped below production costs and sometimes even fell to zero — literally. Farmers, even successful farmers (in the sense of producing a good crop), were losing their farms. So the government stepped in and offered farmers a choice. The government would establish a target price for certain commodity crops, crops that could be stored for long periods (such as rice, wheat, and corn). If market prices dropped below the target price, farmers could take out a government loan to cover the cost of storage for their crops until prices recovered, or if prices stayed low too long, they could keep the money and let the government keep the crops.
Although the legislation had its free-market critics, it was pretty harmless economically. It kept weak markets from becoming weaker when farmers dumped their crops, it enabled farmers to survive economic downturns, and because the loan only covered the cost of storage, farmers were encouraged to wait for a better market and then sell their crops and repay the loan. (For most of its history the Farm Bill has attempted to reduce production.) The drawback from the farmer’s point of view is that they still needed money to live on while their crops were in storage, so it was far from a welfare program.

The Omnivore’s

The drawback from society’s point of view is that the legislation did nothing to help out farmers raising crops that can’t be stored indefinitely, so it had the side effect of encouraging more farmers to raise commodity crops. This has made the programs more important, and more farmers came to rely on them, and so they became more important… You can see how this spirals. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, author Michael Pollan quotes a farmer named George Naylor: “What am I going to grow here, broccoli? Lettuce? …the [grain] elevator is the only buyer in town, and the elevator only pays me for corn and soybeans. The market is telling me to grow corn and soybeans, period.”
Nevertheless, the original concept wasn’t a bad idea.
As with all legislation, over the years other programs were tacked on to what came to be known as the Farm Bill (the first legislation known by that name was passed in 1949). Food stamps were added, grants for land conservation and agricultural research found a home, and various other programs were included. Then, in the 70s the government started providing direct subsidies to farmers and the cow was out of the barn.
In 1996 an attempt was made to get the cow back in the farm through the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 (1996 FAIR Act). This act was intended to wean farmers from subsidies and allow market forces to take over. Called the “Freedom to Farm” act by its Republican supporters, small and family farm operators called it the “Freedom to Fail” act. And in fact the act put considerable pressure on this constituency while enabling corporate and industrial farming operations to continue to thrive. According to a report by the Rural Coalition, “Studies show that these payments help small farmers less than ever before — nearly half of agriculture payments have gone to just 12 percent of agriculture recipients, most of them larger producers.” The report goes on to say, “A key goal of the agribusiness sector, which makes its profits chiefly from the volume of goods handled, was to use FAIR to remove any restrictions that depressed production.”
Production has increased, resulting in declining farm prices. Additionally, budget costs have been three to four times higher than claimed (higher, in fact, than before passage of the act), and the number of small farms has decreased dramatically.
FAIR made the farming business even riskier for the small guy while the big players continued to receive subsidies of up to $1,000,000. Essentially nothing changed when the bill came up again in 2002. But the pressure for genuine reform has increased as the 2007 Farm Bill is being written.
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts about the Farm Bill. Kevin Weeks’ first post on the bill is here.

You can leave thoughts, comments, and observations here.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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