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Why the Food Safety Bills Are Marketing Strategy in Disguise

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Creative Commons License photo credit: Ryan Somma

Farming Association Founder Blasts Food Safety Legislation

by Tom Maurer

In October 2001 I participated in forming the Lebanon Valley Food and Farming Association (LVFFA), which started the Palmyra Producer-Only Farmers’ Market the following spring. The Market is in its 8th season and we are working to start a year round market this fall.

My local newspaper, which is very supportive our our farmers’ market, recently spoke enthusiastically about the Food Safety bill the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed [HR 2749].  I wish I could share their enthusiasm. Soon a similar bill will be considered by the Senate [S510]. Unfortunately, the bill is another piece of fast-track, feel-good legislation that does not address the real problems but will have a significant negative impact on the local/regional food system. Why do I say this?

First, we have an existing food inspection and regulation bureaucracy that has this responsibility and authority. The problem is that it’s not doing its job, either because of lack of funding or lack of interest. This new legislation would not make food safer. It will only make a draconian bureaucracy bigger and do nothing more than increase the cost to the taxpayer.

Second, the special interests to be “regulated” write all regulations. The line between the regulator and the regulated is blurry at best. The connection between them is like a revolving door. The people at the upper levels of the agencies doing the regulating usually come from the ranks of the industry they are charged with regulating. Then, often they return to that industry once their term of “service” is over. And it’s not limited to agriculture. The same practices occur in the agencies dealing with health services, banking, insurance, pharmaceuticals, automobile manufacturing, you name it. Furthermore, government “regulators” often leave government to become highly paid lobbyists for the industries they “regulated”.

Third, in spite of this, we still have less than 5,000 food-related deaths annually. That’s probably fewer than the number of people dying from injuries resulting from falls down the stairs. Using the logic of the food safety bill, the solution would be a piece of legislation, passed in the dark of night, that prohibits all buildings from having basements or second floors, thus eliminating the need for stairs. I think not! Government cannot, and more importantly does not have the constitutional authority to, protect us from all life’s potential problems or from our duty to assume responsibility for our decisions and actions.

Fourth, the real reason for this bill was stated in the newspaper article, which stated, “Seeing the business value of having a safe food supply, Kellogg Co., the world’s largest cereal maker, commended the vote.” This bill is about marketing, not food safety. It’s no different from, and in fact it’s a companion to, the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) being advocated by the USDA.  It was originally proposed by the meat industry as an international marketing strategy. When the meat industry realized the costs, they repackaged it as a food safety issue and with government support, have attempted to shift the cost to the taxpayer and the small farmer. The “Food Safety” bill is no different as Kellogg’s comment demonstrates.

Fifth, if the government was really serious about upgrading food safety, it would look at who produces our food and the real reason for the problem. There are four companies that slaughter and process 80% of our beef. Six companies account for a similar percentage of pork and chicken.  So why not write legislation that targets the large producers, and those importing food, whether it be meat, produce or processed foods. This has been where the problems have occurred so why not focus on them. The newspaper article seemed to imply that the $500 annual fee “to help pay for the additional security” is modest. It may be to Kellogg, but what about to the local farmer we give so much lip service to wanting to help. Furthermore, it unconstitutionally inserts the government in a very personal, private transaction between a farmer and his or her customer – the purchase of the food those people feed their families three times a day.

Finally, our food is a sacred trust. I heard an interview with a man who was going around the country collecting regional recipes. He remarked that every culture has its unique food. In thinking about that I realized that our culture does not define our foods. It’s just the opposite. Food and how we view it defines our culture. It defines who we are and I for one don’t want the government meddling or interfering with my choice of what I eat and feed my family or from whom I may buy it.

The government can and should regulate the corporations instead of getting in bed with them and, for all intents and purposes, letting them write legislation. But when it comes to private transactions between private people for lawful products, the government has no lawful place in that process. Anything, especially intrusions like this bill, will ultimately result in the death of our local food system. We can not allow that for any reason.

Tom Maurer is one of the founders of the Lebanon Valley Food and Farming Association and now serves as Chairman. He is a life member of Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and Secretary of Communities for Responsible Eco-Farming. When he was farming, he raised beef cattle, meat goats, hogs and chickens. Tom is a former civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers and served in the U.S. mililtary. He currently is an agricultural soil consultant.

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Comments

  1. Point of nitpick: When it comes to taking responsibility for our own decisions and actions, that only goes so far. Most of us are not supplied with the requisite laboratory equipment to test the food we buy to ensure that it does not contain pathogens. And even if there are pathogens and you kill them through the usual cooking methods, they leave toxins in the food. (This is why re-heating food that’s been sitting out for three days to a germ-killing temperature does not make it safe.) So yes, sometimes we do need government as a referee, if we’re going to specialize food production so far that most of us aren’t producing it anymore.

    But you’re right, this bill isn’t the ticket. You’re also right about the USDA not doing enough. I’m going to say it’s a lack of funding, though, because I used to be friends with a USDA inspector and she used to rant about this. There simply aren’t enough inspectors to go around and Uncle Sam bends over backwards to make sure our food inspection regulations have no teeth. That’s what happens when people decide that money equals speech and that corporations are persons, I’m afraid.

  2. Kathryn Russell says:

    If funding is the problem, why not simply increase the funding for the current regs that exist? AHA! that does not increase power and control over more facets of the food supply and make bureaucracy grow! The govt has stomped on plenty of folks w/out the money and power to make a lot of noise, and let slide problems they know exist. Money is the issue only in so far it is not distributed where it would be most effective. Well, kind of like the problems w/ politically based famines.

  3. Jim Fiedler says:

    The USDA inspectors were cut back in the George W. Bush administration. Michael Pollan and others have written much about it. Eric Schlosser talked about it in Fast Food Nation so it probably goes back longer the Dubya but he was a advocate of more ‘self-inspections’. All of our Presidents and Congress are part of the problem because of Agri-Industrial lobby. Many programs (especially in the farm bill are passed with great noise and never funded or under funded. Only the Cash for Clunkers got enough funding!!!!!

  4. This is one of the best commentaries on our food system that I have read and really gets to the heart of the problem. Bravo!

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