Saturday, September 18, 2010

Food Fight in the US Senate - S-510 Stalls - to Conservative Oppostion ?

Lots of notes on this follow up to my last posting.


US politics has fragmented in to left/right black/white mudslinging on far too many issues.  And my considered opinion is that Canadian Conservatives are trying their wings with US style Conservative flapdoodle on the "Long Gun Registry".  When something this minor consumes all the air in the room...hold on to your wallet.
It's a diversion used to provide cover for bigger issues. And there's nothing bigger than food on the daily menu of families across the globe.

Meanwhile, so many of the conversations I have with farmers here on PEI focus on distribution.  How do we get our small farm  products into the market? Now we have to wonder, will we all have to do whatever global markets require for traceability of  local products?  

US Senate Bill S- 510

This legislative issue was first brought to my attention by the farmer pirates at "The Small Farmer's Journal".
Independent small farmers have been struggling along only to become more suspicious of the motives of big government and big business.  And the warning was dire - a direct threat to small farming.

I read the bill summary and comment and concluded that indeed there are questions unanswered in a political process too often steered toward big business and away from family farm interests. In the US, Ag. policy has been consistently bad for small farms. So let's say I am suspicious.  Who stands to gain?

Comments On the Blog:

Stephen  Jannise of  Software Advice writes for "The Distribution Blog".Stephen contacted me after reading this blog to invite me to read his post on tracking food recalls.  I did and added my comment.  I encourage you to visit this link for a fascinating look at software and supply chain management of a food recall in the big picture of industrial management.  

Friday - S 510 Comes Up For Discussion.  Google Gives a Tell?

As I mentioned to Stephen, our political world has been polarized into paralysis.  To get a clue I often look into who supports or sponsors a bill.  Who sponsors or participates in the debate?  In this case,  I found the  the water getting murky pretty fast.  This important legislation isn't as easy as guns, gays and God.

The bill was was proposed by senior Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat) of Illinois. Co-Sponsors include respected senior Democrats and Republicans Including "Liberal Lion" Ted Kennedy and Liberal leader Tom Harkin plus Conservative leaders Orrin Hatch and Michael Enzi. Weirdly enough in our political climate, this is a bi-partisan bill.  But when the bill came up for discussion Friday - it was faced with Conservative opposition including Tom Coburn of Oklahoma as reported by "PCT Media ".  PCT stands for "Pest Control Technology" and is a website sponsored by,  "Dow Agro Services, Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, DuPont and Univar".  All are big pesticide makers. Univar is the largest chemical distributor in the US. I found this report through Google.  

Supporters and Opponents

Follow the "money trail" and you find that supporters of the bill include:
  • Grocery Manufacturers Association
  • National Fisheries Institute
  • General Mills
  • National Restaurant Association
  • Produce Marketing Association
  • Kraft Foods North America
  • Consumers Union
  • American Frozen Food Institute
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest
  • Food Marketing Institute
  • American Public Health Association
  • Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention
  • Consumer Federation of America
  • International Bottled Water Association
  • United Fresh Produce Association
  • National Association of Manufacturers
  • National Confectioners Association
  • National Consumers League
  • Pew Charitable Trust
  • Trust for America's Health
  • Snack Food Association
  • Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP)
  • American Bakers Association
  • American Beverage Association
  • International Dairy Foods Association
  • International Foodservice Distributors Association
  • National Coffee Association
  • American Farm Bureau

Specific Organizations Opposing S.510

  • Weston A. Price Foundation
  • Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund
  • National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association
  • Raw Milk Association of Colorado
  • Farm Family Defenders
  • American Grassfed Association
  • Small Farms Conservancy
  • National Family Farm Coalition
  • Carolina Farm Stewardship Association
 (Information provided by Open Congress)

 So...why would conservatives line up in opposition, with such groups as, The Raw Milk Association of Colorado?  And why would liberals join in support of General Mills and Kraft Foods?

Senator Coburn Presents His Objections

In his detailed objection the Senator outlines the overlap over Federal agencies tasked with food safety and his belief that this bill is not "deficit neutral" -  It will cost tax payers more to implement than it takes in. All play to his Conservative principles. But there is little or nothing in his objection that addresses regulation to protect public health and safety.  Presumably these would fall under his objection to "burdensome regulations".
This comes even in the face of broad support from liberals, conservatives and business.  Opposition comes from independent farmers, small special interests and...chemical manufacturers?

Frankly, I am at a loss to explain the position of either side.


Objectivity suggests this excerpt from Sen .Coburn should be included here:  

Burdensome New Regulations
There are 225 pages of new regulations, many of which are problematic. While some regulations are potentially onerous, but perhaps reasonable – such as requiring every facility to have a scientifically-based, but very flexible, food safety plan—others give FDA sweeping authority with potentially significant consequences.
While it is hard to pull out just 1 or 2 regulations in the bill that make the entire thing unpalatable, on the whole this bill represents a weighty new regulatory structure on the food industry that will be particularly difficult for small producers and farms to comply with (with little evidence it will make food safer).

I hope we're seeing here from Dr. Coburn a realization that regulation of flawed production models such as factory farming chicken, won't make the product safer or better.   

And Finally, Why This Debate Is Not The Real Issue

CBC Radio's, "Quirks and Quarks", the national science radio program in Canada, aired a segment today entitled,  "Empires of Food".

"... what caused the downfall of great empires throughout history, from the Mayans to Mesopotamia to Rome. Warfare? Invasions? Political infighting? Well, according to a new book by a Canadian researcher, it was famine. Dr. Evan Fraser makes the case that we are what we eat; and when the crops fail, the fields erode, or the temperature changes, that's when great civilizations fall.  He also thinks we just might be headed for such a fall ourselves."

Listen to the segment at 30:35 into the show...

What if the issues and the stakes are much bigger than big politics or big business? What if the question evolves into, "Where does food come from in an era of collapse"?

If this becomes the question,  then the answer is to make friends with your farmer.

Monday, September 13, 2010

US Senate Bill S 510 - Food. Safety For Whom?

We have an old family recipe that directs the cook to use a "slow fire" when preparing the ingredients.

I can only picture my great grandmother starting her work by taking a stick of kindling and warming the back-end of the reluctant child who didn't fetch enough fire wood for her to make her recipe on the wood stove.

I can now take the same recipe to my electric stove and have perfect control over heat, time, sanitation and preparation while my reluctant child watches TV and asks for Kraft Dinner. And I can do both at the same time.

It was just a few generations ago that most of my family farmed in New England and the Mid Western States. Food was the center of farm life.  Knowing how to grow, prepare and preserve the bounty of the farm was the business of each family - not the government or private enterprise.

Now we live in a world where huge farms in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Alberta, Uruguay and Brazil can contribute their produce to the same pound of ground beef processed and packaged for sale by a nameless group of sub-contracting slaughter houses, processors, packagers and shippers. Our food passes from hand to hand in country after country under conditions we hope are safe at each step.

But we don't really know.

And that's what makes it so disturbing when one company can sell and distribute a problem to 20 million people and then say, "Sorry".  Meanwhile, hundreds of small local producers and packers are forced out.      

When so much of our food comes from people and places we can't see and don't know on a scale we can't comprehend we need increased regulations, inspection and safety standards to keep our global food supply safe. Or we need more local alternatives, supported by our communities that must answer directly to neighborhood  consumers, their farmers and their concerns. But clearly there are forces opposed to this. 

So the question is, where does your concern about food safety really center? Is it your concern to regulate the nameless and invisible stops on the international food chain? Or should new regulations be made to equate your neighbors and individual local producers, with an international giant?

That is what is up for debate in US Senate Bill S 510.  And you can read all about it here:

I am not one to rail against conventional farms.  We need all of our farmers in North America to have healthy, successful businesses. I simply believe we have to be able to decide for ourselves what food choices we want.  All of us have a human right, based on 10,000 years of human agriculture, to grow and consume natural food.  But a recent FDA decision in the US declared that manufacturers using Genetically Modified Organisms would not be required to identify their contents. And now a company here in Canada is trying to market a genetically modified fish clone as food.  That might be fine, but I want my community to have an open, organic choice. Policy that would make it legal to sell unlabeled clones as food, but illegal to sell heirloom tomatoes threatens more than the integrity of a single species.       

It seems to me that the food safety issue and the proposed regulation as presented here is designed to provide safety for the industrial food marketer/manufacturers at the expense of independent farmers across North America.  And before you suspect my motivations, please consider that I already pay more and produce more documentation for the organic certification of my farm than would be required of small producers under the proposed US law.  
The time may come when the producers of synthetic food products will demand restrictions on the producers of natural food.  Conventional growers need to see this for the threat it is and join in support of independent and organic farmers in opposition to this legislation.  The time is now.