Given the general gridlock in the federal government, Wise Traditions readers are probably not surprised to hear that Congress hasn’t done much on food and agricultural bills in the last few months and is unlikely to do anything until after the inauguration in 2021. Our work continues, though, laying the groundwork for 2021 actions while we assess the lay of the land.
Representatives Pingree and Massie have committed to bring back the PRIME Act in the new Congress, to allow small farmers to use custom processors to sell meat within the state. At the recent Farm & Food Leadership Conference, Massie dubbed a revised version of the bill, which would allow direct-to-consumer sales only (no restaurants or retailers), the “sub-PRIME Act.” After giving the pun a well-deserved chuckle, it’s important to remember that those direct-to-consumer sales have been at the heart of the movement for this bill all along. While it’s disappointing that the PRIME Act did not move forward this year, the explosion in the number of sponsors provides momentum as we move forward to 2021. We need to ensure that Congress remembers the problems at the meatpacking plants during the pandemic (for more thoughts on how to do that, see the sidebar).
U.S. Representative Colin Peterson lost his seat in the November elections, so there will be a new chair of the House Agriculture Committee. The Democratic caucus has elected Rep. David Scott of Georgia, the first African American to chair the Committee.1 Rep. Scott hasn’t been a strong voice either for or against reforms such as the PRIME Act, so it’s unclear where he stands.
MORE ON ANIMAL ID
As dicussed in the last Wise Traditions, the USDA is yet again trying to mandate electronic ID for cattle. In August, the agency announced that it would stop approving any non-electronic forms of “official identification” at the end of this year.
Just how expensive is it to use electronic ID? The tags themselves typically cost two to three dollars, which may not sound like a lot until you compare it to the cost of the current metal tags (ten cents each). And the tags are just part of the real cost. There is also the cost of the readers and other infrastructure needed to move to an electronic system. It’s not as simple as bar code readers in a grocery store. . . think about how close you have to get the cereal box to the reader, and then think about trying to do that with thousand-pound animals, possibly with long sharp horns!
The USDA has refused to provide any cost analysis of its plans. So let’s look at a real-world example. One state, Michigan, already has mandatory electronic cattle ID. Michigan instituted the requirement under its tuberculosis program back in 2007. The Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Michigan ag department to find out how much their program costs—not just costs to the state, but farmers, sale barns, veterinarians, all of whom are affected by it.
You would think that they’d know this, right? The agency mandates the electronic IDs; surely they must have assessed the costs at some point. Or perhaps not. After stalling for several weeks, the agency responded that it would produce the documents, but only if FARFA paid over seventeen hundred dollars! Supposedly, the documents are so complicated and difficult to find that it takes high-level employees many hours to identify and copy them.
Without the documents, we can indirectly assess the costs based on the impact of the program. Every five years, the USDA does an agricultural census. As it happens, 2007 was a census year. Here is what happened with Michigan cattle farms between 2007 and 2012, as compared with the rest of the country:
• Michigan saw a 3 percent decrease in the number of very small cattle operations (fewer than ten head), even though nationally the number of such farms increased by 4 percent;
• Michigan and the U.S. as a whole both saw decreases in the number of small to mid-size cattle farms (ten to five hundred head);
• Michigan saw a 35 percent increase in the number of very large cattle farms (over one thousand head), even though the number of those operations decreased nationally. Even more, while the number of cattle in large operations basically stayed steady nationally, Michigan saw a 50 percent increase in the number of cattle on large farms.
In other words, while both USDA and Michigan are hiding whatever internal analyses they have of the costs, it’s clear that the electronic ID program hurts small farms and helps big ones, just as we predicted. We need to stop the rest of the country from going down the same road as Michigan.
While USDA will stop approving non-electronic forms of “official identification” at the end of this year, the mandate to use RFID tags will not go into effect for two more years, providing a window of opportunity for producers to continue using the tags that have already been approved—and to continue working to roll back this decision.
UPDATE ON USDA ADVISORY COMMITTEE ON MEAT
In the last Wise Traditions, we reported that the USDA had appointed two Big Meat reps to its National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection: one from JBS and one from Pilgrim’s Pride.
After an outcry about these appointments, USDA did add two small-scale meat processors to the committee: Greg Gunthorp and Dr. Denise Perry of Lorentz Meats. Both are excellent additions.
Yet even with the addition of these small-scale processors, USDA has ensured that the discussions are heavily slanted away from the interests of small and sustainable meat production. At the same time, the agency added a third large meatpacker, Butterball, which is owned by Seaboard Corporation and sells over a billion pounds of turkey a year.
Two large-scale industrial meat trade associations, the North American Meat Institute and the Southwest Meat Association, also got seats on the committee. U.S. Foods, one of the largest food service distributors, got a seat.
Three non-industry associations got seats. The Consumer Federation of America and Center for Science in the Public Interest both opposed exemptions for small farmers in the Food Safety Modernization Act and now oppose the PRIME Act. A member of the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention also got a seat. While we’re not familiar with that organization’s work, it appears to be focused on high-tech solutions to deal with the problems created by the conventional meat supply, rather than addressing the underlying reasons for the problems. And the remaining members are a large catfish producer, academics and state government officials.
While the addition of two small-scale processors to the committee is a good step, we still have a long way to go to change the get-big-or-get-out mindset at USDA.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
What does it take to make a difference? At a recent conference, I asked Congressman Thomas Massie, the champion of the PRIME Act, how people can best make a difference. His response was that meetings and phone calls from constituents are powerful. Often, people believe that it takes huge numbers to make a difference. After all, on high-profile issues such as tax reform, gun rights and abortion, we hear of elected officials’ phone lines being overloaded. But what about more run-of-the-mill issues, which make up the vast majority of the work of any elected official? Congressman Massie noted that his office receives ten or fewer calls on many days, and on some days only gets a couple of phone calls! He noted that the calls on those slow days typically come from “frequent flyers”—the people who call almost every day. While encouraging people not to become frequent flyers, he pointed out that calling once a month, and getting a few friends to do the same, can have a huge impact.
This matches what I have heard from every elected official and legislative staffer I have spoken with over the last fifteen years. Elected officials represent large numbers of people (in the case of a U.S. Representative, about 750,000 people), and vote on an incredibly wide range of issues. On most of those issues, they simply don’t know anything about the topic because no one can be an expert or even reasonably track every issue with education, taxes, the budget, foreign affairs, agriculture, homeland security, food access, food safety, health care, transportation, oil and gas, veterans affairs, and so much more.2 By necessity, they rely on their colleagues (who each focus on a few issues), lobbyists and their constituents to educate them. You truly can have a major impact by taking on that role. So make those calls and start getting to know your legislators’ staff!
- It’s worth taking time one day to look at all the committees
in the House of Representatives, at https://www.house.
gov/committees. Spend a few minutes clicking on each
one and see all the bills that are assigned to each one.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2020🖨️ Print post