It seems every time a bad bill or Agri-Business program stalls, it just changes colors like a chameleon, and comes back. The fight against S. 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, had been going well. More and more people were speaking up in support of common-sense changes to the bill, including the Tester-Hagan amendments to exempt local, small-scale producers and the Feinstein amendment to ban Bisphenyl A from food containers.
For months, the bill sponsors had been negotiating with Senators Tester and Feinstein to reach a compromise that would incorporate some version of their amendments. And then, suddenly, the bill sponsors released a “Manager’s Package” of the bill on August 13, 2010. The Manager’s Package is a revised version of the bill that replaces the version passed by the Committee, and it’s what the full Senate will vote on. Neither the Tester nor the Feinstein amendments were included in the Manager’s Package, even though we were told that negotiations continued.
So why choose to release it before an agreement was reached? It may be that the staffers simply wanted to get home for the August recess. But, on the same day that the Manager’s Package was released, a massive factory farm in Wright County, Iowa began a nationwide recall of its eggs. As the recall grew to almost half a billion eggs, and the news hit the mainstream press, FDA and groups claiming to speak for consumers told every media outlet that the egg recall proved that the Senate should pass S.510 as quickly as possible.
Never mind the fact that FDA has already adopted, under its existing statutory authority, regulations to reduce the incidence of salmonella in eggs. President Clinton had directed the agency to work on the issue back in 1999, but the agency did not adopt rules until 2009. These regulations went into effect in July 2010—without S.510.
And never mind the fact that FDA already has authority to inspect facilities like this and simply chose not to, despite a history of environmental violations by this precise farm. Instead the agency chose to spend its resources (and taxpayer dollars) on things such as pursuing raw milk and an armed raid on the Rawsome food club in Venice, California.
The only difference S.510 might have made to the salmonella outbreak would have been to give FDA mandatory recall authority, rather than relying on a voluntary recall. Yet there is no hint that the Wright County company refused or even delayed in issuing the voluntary recall. More fundamentally, this latest salmonella outbreak is merely a symptom of a much larger problem: the consolidation of our food supply in the hands of a few large companies. An outbreak this large could not have occurred in a local and regionalized food system.
Rather than solving the problem, S.510 will strengthen the forces that have led to this dangerous consolidation of our food supply. S.510 gives FDA vast new powers to regulate food producers, from telling farmers how to grow vegetables to requiring every jam maker to comply with extensive paperwork requirements. The bill also includes a provision that facilities must pay for their own re-inspection, creating a financial incentive for FDA to perform repeat inspections of facilities to raise money or to financially penalize a producer the agency doesn’t like.
While damaging small producers, S.510 does not address the causes of the food safety problems. The bill calls for increased inspections and extensive paperwork, but it dodges the issue of the source of the bacterial contamination: manure, particularly manure from grain-fed cattle and intensive confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The FDA inspection of the chicken facilities that caused the salmonella outbreak (belatedly conducted after the recall) revealed a sickening image of hundreds of thousands of chickens kept under the most unsanitary conditions imaginable. Among other things, the report noted that “Uncaged birds (chickens having escaped). . . were using the manure, which was approximately eight feet high, to access the egg laying area.” In other words, hens were climbing on top of the piles of manure in order to reach the feed within the cages. “Chicken manure located in the manure pits below the egg laying operations was observed to be approximately 4 feet high to 8 feet high” in multiple locations, built up to the extent that the manure forced doors outward and allowed rodents access to the indoors. Yet neither S.510 nor any other proposal in front of Congress or FDA even tries to reduce the growth of intensive confined feeding operations, which create the perfect conditions for bacterial contamination.
In the end, the bill does nothing to address Big Ag’s control over FDA, so the agency will almost certainly continue to target small producers rather than the real culprits in the food safety system. And as small farmers and local food producers are driven out of business, consumers will be deprived of their choices to obtain safe and healthy local foods from producers they know and trust.
The fight to include the Tester-Hagan amendments is not over, and even if the bill passes, we will continue to have opportunities to fight for our local food producers during the rule-making process. For the latest information, go to www.FarmAndRanchFreedom.org.
As discussed in previous issues of Wise Traditions, in February 2010, Secretary Vilsack announced that the USDA would drop its plans for the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and re-focus its efforts on a “new framework” for animal traceability. The Secretary stated the new framework would apply only to animals that cross state lines and would encourage the use of low-tech methods of identification.
The USDA’s announcement sparked widely divergent reactions. Groups representing independent farmers and local consumers applauded the USDA’s decision. But the proponents of NAIS, namely the Big Ag and Big Tech groups, expressed disappointment and issued statements about the horrible things that could supposedly happen without a centralized ID system. These pro-NAIS entities quickly regrouped and announced plans to adopt “model regulations” (i.e. NAIS-type regulations) at the state level.
But the issue is also still far from over even at the federal level. Despite USDA’s announcement, Big Ag and Big Tech are pushing for a more expansive federal program. And key bureaucrats who developed NAIS continue to work within the agency, and they do not seem to have changed their views despite the announcements from the top.
Under the new traceability program, USDA established a “Regulatory Working Group” that was charged with creating performance standards for the program. These standards determine how quickly states and tribes must be able to perform animal traceback activities. In May, the Working Group released four proposed standards:
1. The State where the animal is located must notify the State or Tribe where the animal of interest was originally identified: 95 percent within one business day. 2. The State or Tribe where the animal of interest was officially identified must identify the “traceability unit” in which the animal was identified: 75 percent within five business days, with a later phase requiring 95 percent within two business days. 3. The State where the animal is located must notify the State or Tribe from which the animal was last shipped: 95 percent within seven business days, with a later phase requiring 95 percent within three business days. 4. The State from which the animal was last shipped must identify the “traceability unit” from which the animal was shipped: 75 percent within five business days, with a later phase requiring 95 percent within two business days.
The USDA has held eight public meetings on the new proposal, and I attended both the Colorado meeting in May and the Texas meeting in July. Many farmers, sale barn owners, horse owners, and consumers also came, and we raised many concerns.
• What is the basis for the new proposal? While the “performance standards” are less stringent than those of NAIS, they still lack a scientific basis. At my breakout table, a USDA vet stated that the performance standards were based on the “experience” of the state vets and regulatory officials. While experience is important, why is their experience prioritized over the experience of animal owners who deal with animal health every day? Before imposing any new requirements on animal owners, the agency needs to provide solid scientific and economic analyses to show why these steps are needed.
• There is still no analysis of where the real problem lies. Is it truly an animal identification problem? Or are the problems with traceability due to bureaucratic inefficiencies or other issues? On the issue of animal health, where are the gaps?
• Government program personnel still assume that electronic ID is the best approach. While USDA has committed to using low-tech methods for the framework, there are repeated references to “progress over time,” and every government speaker emphasized the benefits of RFID tags. I asked whether USDA intended to analyze the effectiveness of the program before moving towards electronic ID, pointing to the success of the scrapie program using non-electronic ID. In response, Neil Hammerschmidt said there were no such plans. Dr. Wiemers went further, and contended that, while non-electronic ID has worked for the scrapie program, it is not sufficient for tracing all movements. Yet the advocates of electronic ID still fail to show that it is needed or cost-effective.
• The proposal itself is confusing and unclear. For example, there is no written definition of “traceability unit,” and we’ve heard three different definitions at three different public meetings. At the Colorado meeting, Colorado State Vet Dr. Roehr stated that it was a geographical unit and could be anything from the whole state to a set of counties to a county to an individual premises. At the Utah meeting, Montana State Vet Dr. Zaluski stated that the traceability unit was either a physical location or a group of animals. At the Texas meeting, Oklahoma State Vet Dr. Brewer stated that “ultimately” it is a premises. Three members of the RWG, with three different statements on what the term means! How can the public provide input when the people who drafted the proposal can’t even explain it clearly?
In August, I submitted written comments to the USDA on the new proposal, with the following recommendations:
1. USDA should provide data and analyses that identify the problem to be solved and provide a factual basis for developing an appropriate solution.
2. USDA should design the program to provide long-term support for low-cost, low-tech methods of identification, and avoid creating incentives for electronic identification.
3. USDA should clearly limit the program to interstate tracing only, and delete the portions of the Working Group’s proposal that address intrastate tracing.
4. The regulatory framework and supporting IT systems should connect identification numbers with contact information, not property identification.
5. The appointments to the Secretary’s new Advisory Committee on Animal Health should reflect the majority of animal owners, namely small-scale producers.
More detail on each of these recommendations is available at http://farmandranchfreedom.org/sites/farfa/files/Comments-to-USDA-August-2010.pdf
While the USDA develops its new proposal, the issue of animal ID remains contentious within Congress as well. The House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee and the Senate Appropriations Committee have both zeroed out the funding for animal ID in the 2011 Appropriations Bill. However, as noted by the Senate Committee, the funding may be reinstated later in the process.
The reasons for cutting funding vary, and the Chair of the House Subcommittee, Congresswoman DeLauro, stated: “We have spent over $147 million on this program since 2004 . . . . We do not feel it is a good use of resources to fund NAIS until the agency develops a clear plan for a mandatory system with measurable goals, long-term funding levels, and a plan for successful implementation.”
I agree that Congress should not spend any more taxpayer dollars on the program. But the answer is not to create a mandatory program as DeLauro seeks to do. Rather, Congress and USDA should re-focus the agency on preventative measures to protect animal health rather than a traceability program that benefits Big Ag’s export market while burdening small farmers.
SOME TALKING POINTS ON S. 510 FOOD SAFETY LEGISLATION
• Proponents of S.510 claim that the bill allows an exemption for “farms” from the requirements for facilities, but the language of the exemption is extremely narrow. A “farm” is not a “facility” only if the farm does not sell any processed goods. The definition of processing is extremely broad and covers almost everything other than fresh-cut produce. So a farmer who makes sun-dried tomatoes, jams from their own fruits, fermented vegetables, or other value-added products would not be a “farm” under this definition and would be subject to the bill’s HACCP-type requirements for “facilities.”
• Moreover, there are no exemptions in the bill from the FDA’s “produce safety standards,” which will govern how farmers can grow and harvest their crops. The only caveat is that the new standards cannot conflict with the organic standards, but this only applies to certified organic operations. Many small sustainable farmers are not certified by USDA because of the expense and paperwork burdens. Moreover, while not conflicting with certified organic standards, the FDA can still add additional, burdensome and unnecessary requirements even for certified organic producers.
• We cannot effectively address microbiological contamination of produce without addressing CAFOs. There’s excellent science showing that e. coli O157:H7 is rarely found in wildlife or grass-fed cattle, but is much more common in concentrated, grain-fed cattle. The continued avoidance of this issue creates a huge loophole in the legislation.
• Substituting paperwork inspections for actual inspections does little to improve food safety, while providing political cover for large companies. Congress needs to focus resources on actual inspections, not HACCP.
• The GAO and others have identified that one of the core problems with food safety is the consolidation of our food supply, which allows contamination at one farm or in one plant to sicken thousands of people across the country. Yet the advocates of S.510 simply ignore the threat of increasing consolidation. Any food safety bill should include an analysis of how its requirements would affect small, local producers, and encourage decentralization. This is not just about fairness for the producers themselves, it’s a necessary piece of addressing food safety.
• The bill does not respect small, local and organic farms, as claimed. On the contrary, it appears to be based on the myth that all food should be subject to FDA regulation in order to be safe, and it leaves FDA with extensive discretion over even the smallest of farms and food producers.
THE PROPOSED TESTER-HAGAN AMENDMENT
The Tester-Hagan Amendment to S. 510 would exempt facilities (including on-farm facilities) that have an adjusted gross income of under $500,000. This would protect small farms and businesses that process foods, such as people who make bread, jams, and cheeses. These businesses would still have to comply with the local and state regulations governing commercial kitchens and retail food establishments.
Opponents to the amendment contend that a business with an adjusted gross income of $500,000 is not a “small” business. However, the Small Business Act defines “small business” as one that grosses under $750,000. Using adjusted gross income does allow for some deductions, but not all of the costs of running a business. A business with $500,000 adjusted gross is not “Big Agriculture.” These are precisely the types of small-scale processors who sell foods at farmers markets and through local co-ops.
Consider Kraft Foods, which grossed over $40 billion in 2009, with a net profit of $3 billion. Or Smuckers, with gross sales of $3.75 billion in 2009 and a profit of $1.2 billion (http://financials.morningstar.com/income-statement/is.html?t=SJM®ion=USA&culture=en-US). So even if you were to treat the exemption as applying to profit (which would make it much broader than it actually is), it would exempt businesses that make less than one-one-thousandth of the money that large agribusiness companies make.
With respect to farms, the proposed amendment would exempt farmers who sell more than half of their products directly to consumers, restaurants, hotels and institutions. These are the farms that provide fruits and vegetables to people through CSAs, farmers markets, local restaurants, and farm-to-school programs.
Over one hundred fifty groups have signed on to the letter supporting the Tester-Hagan amendments: http://farmandranchfreedom.org/sff/Amend-S510-June-7.pdf. These groups represent a mix of both conservative and liberal organizations, together with local co-ops from around the country.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2010.