tugSmall-scale food producers and farmers have been vocal about their concerns that the Senate will pass highly burdensome food-safety legislation.

Equally worried, but much less vocal, is the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It frets over major gains by its arch-rival, the U.S. food and Drug Administration, over local food producers and small farms. USDA is so worried it has even had its Senate allies include language that “prohibited the FDA from ‘impeding, minimizing, or affecting’ USDA authority on meat, poultry, and eggs,” according to Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety.

The legislation, if it passes as expected (and is signed into law, as President Obama has already vowed to do), will represent a major coup for FDA, and in the process, a loss in influence for USDA. The bill wouldn’t so much take power from USDA as give FDA new power, and in the process providing FDA a leg up on its rival.

USDA had for more than a decade pinned its hopes on gaining the upper hand in food safety through the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), but when that bombed earlier this year, FDA had a clear opportunity, which it has expertly exploited through the pending legislation.

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The FDA’s growing authority over the American food system will likely include the power to quarantine large sections of the country if it decides there’s a food safety emergency and to randomly inspect virtually all food producers, including roadside stands, and monitor and approve their preparation of detailed, and costly, hazard-control plans. Moreover, the legislation gives the FDA a new foothold among farmers via the authority establish safety standards (about use of compost, application of fertilizers, etc.) under the euphemistically titled United Nations program, “Good Agricultural Practices”.

With power, of course, comes money–in this case, lots more money, for inspectors to carry out all those random inspections of thousands of tiny food producers.
“We are seeking better controls at the point of production,” crowed FDA’s commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, in a February speech about food safety. One main “point of (food) production”–the farm– has of course been USDA’s turf.

The FDA and USDA have long participated in an uneasy alliance overseeing the food supply, with confusing responsibilities (USDA oversees animal slaughtering, FDA oversees dairy production). The loss of influence for USDA that will come via the food safety legislation is merely the latest failure for USDA. A few months ago, it suffered a major setback when farmer ire forced Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack to trash, at least temporarily, its own version of a food safety program–the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). The program would have allowed the USDA to oversee the registration of hundreds of thousands of farms, and the RFID-chip tagging of literally billions of animals (including chickens, goats, sheep, cattle, and so forth)–ostensibly to protect America’s meat supply from the ravages of quickly-spreading animal disease.

Why should anyone care about which bureaucratic behemoth comes out on top in this kind of rivalry?

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For one very good reason: For all its coddling of Big Ag, the USDA has shown itself to be increasingly supportive of the growing local-food movement in recent years, while the FDA has long been very tough on small food companies, and shows no sign of wanting to encourage the move to locally-grown food.

And while Michael Taylor, the FDA’s food safety czar, talks in speeches about approving of “sustainable” food production, the agency’s actions toward those involved in promoting sustainable agriculture have long been the opposite. Any food company that even begins to suggest its food might provide health benefits becomes a target of the agency’s knee-jerk reaction that it is positioning food as a drug. Back in 2006, the FDA sent warning letters–threats of court action and possible shutdown–to 29 Michigan cherry growers, for citing studies suggesting health benefits in concentrated cherry juice.

In 2008, FDA filed suit against a small seller of herbs, coconut oil and other health foods for allegedly making similar food-as-drug claims. To avoid legal bills that would have bankrupted it, Wilderness Family Naturals signed a consent decree with the FDA that allows the FDA to conduct twice yearly examinations over a three-year period of its labeling and advertising–that the company has to pay for to the turn of $100 an hour.

When the FDA tried to impose the same kind of burden on Organic Pastures Dairy Co., a California producer of unpasteurized milk, as part of a settlement of an FDA suit for, in part, suggesting that raw milk helps alleviate symptoms of asthma (which has been demonstrated in large-scale European studies), the dairy fought back. Just a few weeks ago, a federal judge, Oliver Wanger, castigated the FDA lawyer arguing for the sanctions.

In questioning the FDA’s lawyer, Judge Wanger referred to the inspection provision as a “death penalty” on OPDC. “I simply am not convinced that this draconian, if you will, remedial construct is in any way necessary. I don’t think the public is going to be jeopardized in any way by not having this, what I call the death penalty provision in here. This is taking Organic Pastures out without going to a magistrate and stringing them up and throwing a noose around its neck and hanging it until dead.”

Meanwhile, USDA, long a proponent of Big Ag, has been steadily becoming more and more supportive of locally-grown food and smaller farms. Symbolically, Ag Secretary Vilsack has become a key proponent of the People’s Garden, a vegetable garden that grows outside the department’s huge Washington headquarters building. In dedicating the garden last year, Vilsack said, “It started off as a relatively small project and now it’s expanding rather dramatically and we think we’re going to get a lot of attention over the course of the next couple of years as this spreads.”The agency is also pushing a rule to encourage providers of school lunch programs to young children to use locally-grown food.

It has backed up its trumpeted “Know Your Food, Know Your Farmer” campaign with hard dollars directed toward promoters of locally-grown food. In recent months, it has begun promoting a grant program to encourage farmers markets–$5 million will be awarded this year, and $10 million each in fiscal 2011 and 2012.

“Farmers markets are an integral part of the urban/farm linkage and have continued to rise in popularity, mostly due to the growing consumer interest in obtaining fresh products directly from the farm,” USDA says on its web site.

Certainly USDA, with more than 100,000 employees, can hardly be said to be marginalized. But if recent developments are an indication, the policy emphasis is on giving the federal government ever-greater control over America’s food system, down to the smallest growers and producers, and the FDA, with its iron-fist approach, is the vehicle of choice to exert that control. Hard to believe, but in this good-cop-bad-cop routine, USDA is the good cop.