These are heady times for foodies — you know, the people who love farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs), and hate Big Ag. They’ve turned the documentary movies “Food Inc.” and “Fresh!” into big hits. And they’ve turned “Slow food” into a generic term (there actually is an organization by that name that boasts more than 100,000 members in 132 countries).
A seeming army of foodie bloggers (of which I am one) sees the hand of Big Ag’s pesticides and feedlot practices (Monsanto, Con Ag, Tyson, etc.) in the explosive growth of chronic disease, and genetically modified food. It’s a neat good-guy/bad-guy scenario, with only one wild card: Is the U.S. government with or against the foodies?
The movement is about more than symbolism. After years of decline during the last century, the number of small farms (those with less than $250,000 annual sales) increased about one percent between 2002 and 2007. Many of these farms have adopted innovations in farming practices popularized by farmers like Eliot Coleman and Joel Salatin — using compost and seaweed rather than commercial fertilizers to build up soil, putting chickens onto pasture so they eat bugs and grass, using pigs as low-maintenance rototillers, and substituting mineralization and homeopathic programs for antibiotics and vaccinations to improve animal health.
Increasingly, the heroes in this ongoing food drama are President and Michelle Obama, along with the president’s appointees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Michelle Obama has received much acclaim for planting an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn. A popular blog, Obama Foodorama, even chronicles the Obamas’ food and eating experiences, including menus at state dinners, and Michelle Obama’s guest appearance on Sesame Street, promoting fresh vegetables.
Subordinates are trying to get with the program. Over the summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture set up a farmers market in a parking lot outside its massive Washington headquarters. And to the accolades of foodie bloggers everywhere, it launched an initiative, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” to encourage expansion of the local food boomlet.
It’s tempting to view all these developments as part of a shift in long-time official priorities, to encourage small farms practicing sustainability, at the expense of Big Ag. Unfortunately, this view is more mirage than reality.
In a classic example of the government speaking out of both sides of its mouth, the Obama administration is actively supporting another movement — one that really does favor Big Ag at the expense of the budding local food movement. It’s the Congressional push for sweeping food safety legislation, which has passed the U.S. House, and is pending a vote by the full Senate. It’s overlooked by the foodies because it’s endorsed by a wide range of consumer organizations, and besides, who wouldn’t want to counter the high profile cases of serious illness, and even a number of deaths, from contaminated spinach, hamburger, peppers, and peanut butter, among others, over the last three years?
But in their 119-page House and 133-page Senate versions, these bills do much more than increase the FDA’s army of food inspectors. They take a sledgehammer to a problem that may well benefit more from highly targeted, and less invasive approaches. Consider:
Both bills require all food producers, including even the smallest makers of specialized cheeses and jams, to put together highly detailed production plans (known as HACCP plans, for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), at a cost of many thousands of dollars requiring dozens and sometimes even hundreds of hours of specialized input designed to identify potential “hazards” in the food production process; this despite the fact that nearly all cases of food-borne illness have come from products made and distributed by mid-size and large concerns.
Moreover, it allows FDA inspectors complete discretion in approving or disapproving such plans. Working within such an arbitrary system isn’t a big problem for multimillion dollar corporations, which can afford fines of possibly $10,000 a day (under the House legislation) and expensive consultants to work through any problems.
It was a USDA requirement in the late 1990s that slaughterhouses have HACCP plans that led to the demise of hundreds of small local and regional slaughterhouses. Today’s small farms raising cattle and pigs bear a heavy burden as a result — they must often schedule slaughtering months in advance and send their animals hundreds of miles away, only to be shipped back for local distribution, adding substantial costs and energy consumption.
The pending legislation actually thrusts not only the federal government, but also possibly the United Nations, right into the middle of the food production process currently experiencing so much innovation in the U.S. The Senate bill requires within one year the development of “updated good agricultural practices” — a seemingly benign term that is used by the Farming and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (GAP, in its lingo) to describe its establishment of standards covering use of fertilizers, crop rotation, animal grazing practices, and other such fundamentals of farming. The U.N. organization has been active working with farmers in places like Egypt, Uganda, Zambia, South Africa, and Burkina Faso.
How will the U.N.’s standards mesh with those of Eliot Coleman, Joel Salatin, and other American farming innovators developing sustainable techniques for rejuvenating soil or aging cheeses or bringing back old varieties of vegetables and fruits? The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund worries that the FDA “will adopt regulations that treat small farms growing a diversity of crops organically (whether certified or not) the same as a facility growing thousands of acres of a single crop conventionally.” Farms that fail to measure up — perhaps fail to follow government standards for making compost or for crop rotation — would have their products considered “adulterated,” according to the FTCLDF, and thus be subject to huge fines.
In allowing for the establishment of “science-based minimum standards for the safe production and harvesting of those types of fruits and vegetables that are raw agricultural commodities,” the Senate bill provides an opening for the FDA to embark on a big foodie no-no: the irradiation of leafy green vegetables. The FDA gave irradiation its stamp of approval last year.
On and on it goes. The legislation thrusts the FDA, which has been limited to regulating food and drugs involved in interstate commerce, into the intrastate sphere, allowing it to regulate businesses that are truly local. “The bottom line is that local jam-makers, cheese-makers, and bread-makers have to register with the FDA, and if (the Senate bill) passes, they will buried in federal red tape,” says Judith McGeary, head of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, and a lawyer.
The real impact of the pending food legislation is difficult to fully gauge, partly because the language in the two bills is in many places vague and obtuse. For example, the distinction between farmers and food producers is up for grabs. “If a farm processes food — which could be as simple as sun drying tomatoes or making jams from their own fruits — it will be treated as a processor” under the Senate bill, says McGeary.
As admirable as this legislative push is for trying to fix flaws in existing food safety regulations, and thus reduce serious outbreaks of illness, it is equally onerous for going way beyond the business of safety. The legislation would do better to focus on identifying and going after repeat offenders and large producers that are the most frequent food-borne-illness culprits rather than placing unreasonable burdens on the budding local-food movement. Otherwise, there could well be many fewer smaller farms and food producers turning out the locally-produced items so prized by foodies.