Public Policy Challenges to Local Foods
While the local foods movement grows by leaps and bounds, government policies frequently do not recognize the important and unique role that local food plays for both farmers and consumers. WAPF members have been reading for several years about the problems that the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) poses, and have more recently been alerted to the federal food safety bills that are pending in Congress. Both of these issues continue to pose dangers to the availability of healthy, nutrient-dense foods.
For newcomers, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) is a plan to require anyone who owns even one livestock or poultry animal—even just a single chicken or a pet horse —to register their property, tag each animal (in most cases with electronic identification, such as microchips or RFID tags), and report their animals’ movements to the government within twenty-four hours. In the last issue of Wise Traditions, we covered the Senate amendment that cut NAIS funding for 2010 in half, to seven million dollars. The House and Senate then appointed a conference committee to work out the many differences between their versions of the 2010 Agriculture Appropriations bill, which provides funding for all USDA programs in the coming year. Ultimately, Congress authorized just over five million dollars for NAIS, about a third of what the agency had requested.
Unfortunately, the conference committee report includes language that encourages the USDA to consider an “effective” NAIS program, which appears to be the new euphemism for a mandatory program. So the threat of mandatory rulemaking remains. In October, one hundred organizations signed a letter to Congress and to the USDA asking that the USDA use the 2010 appropriations to wind NAIS down and refocus the agency on programs that actually improve animal health and respect individual rights. Both letters are available at www.FarmAndRanchFreedom.org.
At the same time, Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack has announced that the agency will release new plans for animal identification. He has not provided any details on the direction the program will take, and said simply that the plans were going through the agency channels. In recent weeks, we have seen several articles in various trade journals, from equine magazines to food publications, extolling the virtues of NAIS. So it appears that the pro-NAIS industry is working on a plan to stage a comeback of the program.
In the last issue of Wise Traditions, we discussed the status of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund’s lawsuit against the USDA and the Michigan Department of Agriculture to stop the implementation of mandatory NAIS premises registration and tagging. The Court dismissed the lawsuit, and denied the Fund’s motion for rehearing.
But the action in the courtroom is not over yet. In 2009, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) became the first state agency to mandate NAIS premises registration, and it recently began enforcing the regulation. In October, Pat Monchilovich, a rancher, was found guilty by a district court and fined two hundred dollars plus court costs of one hundred ninety dollars. Monchilovich argued that his property was not a “premises” and that the costs of NAIS far outweighed the benefits. Notably, the DATCP discovered Monchilovch not while in the process of investigating a disease outbreak, but using pre-NAIS tracking methods when he consigned some cattle at a sale. Despite the obvious fact that the agency was able to trace the animals without NAIS, it still chose to prosecute Monchilovich.
Another case remains pending against Emanuel Miller, Jr., an Amish farmer who has refused to register on religious grounds. In fact, most of the Old Order Amish communities have refused to register, and the State is using Miller as a test case. At a hearing on September 23rd, the Judge asked for briefing on the question of whether mandatory premises registration burdened Miller’s religious beliefs and whether the State has a compelling interest in the program. A team of volunteer attorneys submitted an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief supporting Miller, signed by twenty-two organizations that support farming and individual freedom.
The brief discusses the Amish community’s sincere religious belief that they cannot register their property because NAIS may lead to the “Mark of the Beast” and denial of salvation. The brief then explains the history of premises registration and NAIS, showing how they are different from other government requirements. Although the State of Wisconsin has a compelling interest in livestock health, NAIS and mandatory premises registration do not further that interest. The State presented no evidence that premises registration would be effective even for the limited purpose of traceback and did not address the inherent problems with the databases and flawed assumptions behind the program. Ultimately, the State’s claimed need to know the location of every animal is unachievable even with mandatory premises registration. The brief also explained that evidence shows mandatory premises registration may actually harm animal health because of its reliance on random numbers generated by a centralized computer system.
The full brief is available on FARFA’s website. A decision in the case is expected in early 2010.
FOOD SAFETY BILLS
On July 30, the U.S. House passed HR 2749, to overhaul the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) food safety system. The first attempt to pass the bill actually failed, due in part to objections
by the sustainable agriculture community. The sponsor made a few changes to provide some relief for the local foods movement, and the bill then passed on the second attempt. Specifically, the bill includes a definition for “retail food establishments” that allows for some cottage level processing without FDA regulation. The amendments also inserted some exemptions in the registration and record-keeping sections of the bill for farmers selling direct to consumers. But HR 2749, as passed, still directs FDA to set standards for how farmers grow and harvest some types of produce, such as leafy greens, even for the small farmers selling directly to consumers. The bill also puts local facilities processing local foods for local markets under the same regulatory regime, and paying the same fees, as the major industrialized agribusinesses, like Dole or Del Monte. As a whole, the bill could be disastrous for local foods.
Then the Senate began its process. In November, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) approved S. 510, the Senate version of HR 2749. While FDA claimed at a hearing that the bill only covers food in interstate commerce, the language of the bill does not contain any such limitation and would impose sweeping regulations on all farms and food processors. On its face, the bill applies to any farm or food producer, regardless of the size or scope of distribution. Despite grassroots protests, the HELP Committee did not address the concerns of small producers.
Both bills place significant emphasis on the HACCP process, which stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point. Although the concept of preventative controls is a good one, the USDA’s implementation of HACCP, with its requirements to develop and maintain extensive records, has already proven to be an overwhelming burden for a significant number of small, regional meat processors across the country. In the meat industry, HACCP has resulted in fewer independent inspections of the large slaughter plants where pathogens such as E. coli originate. At the same time, the USDA has imposed sanctions on small, regional processors due to paperwork violations that posed no health threat. Authorizing the FDA to apply a HACCP system to small, local foods processors could drive many of them out of business without truly improving the safety of the food processed in large, centralized processing plants.
Both bills also authorize the FDA to regulate how farmers grow “high risk crops.” This means that the FDA would be able to dictate how a farmer growing a field of spinach or kale would have to design the field, what water to use, how to handle compost, how to harvest the crops, how to wash them, etc. Under the current bills, the regulations would apply even if the farmer is growing just a few vegetables for a local farmers market.
There are very real problems with the mainstream food supply. But, sadly, the bills will not solve those. The bills do not address the consolidation of the food supply, which has led to centralized growing and processing of foods. And, ultimately, the bills create incentives for retailers to import more food from other countries. Not only do the bills burden family farms and small business, they also create dual standards because it will be impossible, in practical terms, to hold foreign food facilities to the same standards and inspections. This will hurt both our food safety and our food security.
The Senate is expected to vote on S 510 in January or February of 2010. So call your Senators today and ask to speak to the staffer who handles food safety. Talk with the staffer about the importance of local foods to both farmers and consumers, stressing the fact that local foods provide an important alternative to the mainstream food supply that has seen so many food safety problems. Urge them to support an exemption for farmers selling directly to consumers and for local food processors, as well as protections to ensure that the FDA does not override state laws and ban raw milk.
If the local foods movement is to continue growing, it needs passionate advocates speaking up in their local communities, state legislatures, and Congress. As WAPF members, you already take extra time and effort to find and prepare healthy foods for yourself and your families. Please also take the extra time and effort to educate your communities and legislators, to protect the sustainable livestock farms that produce the nutrient-dense foods so critical to our health.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2009.