A potential new legally enforced system of regulating how food is produced and processed currently before the U.S. Congress has profound and worrying implications for everyone who eats – and all those seeking to work towards sustainability. Significantly, the Bills before Congress may give a new ‘Food Safety Authority’ enormous powers of control – despite not specifically detailing exactly what this new authority intends to do with this power…. This post needs to be read, considered and acted upon by all.
I have a dream.
I dream of an age where governments stop pandering to big business lobbyists, and start incentivising a sensible, transitional shift to small-scale, localised food systems. This dream has our current dependence on (rapidly diminishing) supplies of oil – with its extreme cost in human life and economic and environmental destruction – effectively short-circuited. With current industrialised agriculture consuming ten calories of fossil fuels to create a single calorie of food, I see that this dream, if it doesn’t crystalise into reality, and soon, could quickly become a nightmare.
I dream of a day when local communities take back control over their own destinies, and work together – not for quarterly profits for faceless couldn’t-care-less-coz-I-don’t-know-you shareholders, but for the health of their families, their communities, and thus their aggregated national populace; a day when the fruits of their labours are converted into meaningful social inputs, rather than just currency that continually funnels upwards to ever-more-greedy corporations.
I dream of a day when terms such as ‘acceptable levels’ and ‘maximum recommended doses’ of pesticides and other contaminants are history. A day when we don’t have to play the odds anymore; a day when the only ‘acceptable level’ is zero.
I dream of a day when people realise you can’t take care of the land, or get the most productivity from it, if you’re not walking and working on it – if you’re not intimately familiar with its unique characteristics – and where we become thoughtful stewards of our own patch, recognising the converging impacts of soil loss, soil and water contamination, soil carbon/fertility/nutrient loss, biodiversity loss, climate change, etc.; a day where we’ve learned instead how to sustainably maximise production, observing and working with biological synergies to realise nature’s full potential.
Will this dream ever be realised?
Over the last decade, in particular, there has been a growing public awareness that our centralised, industrial factory food system is becoming increasingly dangerous, and cruel – even deadly. This has seen Farmers’ Markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes soar in popularity, and more farmers have thus been encouraged to go organic. These are fantastic positive steps that tempt me to believe my dreams could become reality.
To ramp up the rate of change requires the world’s governments to get behind it – to see this new consumer trend as a citizen demand, and to enact policy changes that would encourage healthy changes in this direction.
President Barack Obama has said the US food safety system is a "public health hazard" and in need of an overhaul.
He sounded the warning during his weekly radio and video address, as he appointed a new head of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). – BBC
There are good reasons Obama is thinking this way.
The announcement followed a slew of food safety emergencies that have shaken US consumers in recent years.
In 2006, tons of spinach were removed from restaurants and supermarket shelves after the discovery of samples contaminated with deadly bacteria.
Last year, a similar recall prompted by a salmonella scare affected peppers and tomatoes.
… Overall, the average number of outbreaks from contaminated produce and other foods has grown to nearly 350 a year, up from 100 a year in the early 1990s, according to the White House. – GoogleNews
A recent peanut debacle is another case in point, and clearly shows yet again the failure of unbridled free-market capitalism:
Virginia-based Peanut Corp. of America shut down its processing plant outside Blakely, in southwest Georgia, after government officials traced a deadly salmonella outbreak to that facility…..
Food and Drug Administration inspectors say plant managers found evidence of salmonella in its peanut butter products but still sold them, in violation of the law. Plant executives had a very simple reason for hesitating to destroy the products — it would have cost the company money.
Instead, they bought the services of an outside lab, which declared the peanut butter safe. (That sounds suspiciously like Wall Street, which paid ratings agencies that declared exotic financial instruments to be nearly risk-free. Those financial instruments have since wrecked the world banking system.)
Since then, salmonella traced to the facility has sickened more than 500 people in 43 states and may be linked to the deaths of several others. – AJC.com
And from a recent NY Times article:
Each year, about 76 million people in the United States are sickened by contaminated food, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized and about 5,000 die, public health experts estimate. – NY Times
As the financial crisis deepens, we can expect cost-cutting exercises the world over to only increase the likelihood of such incidents.
But where, exactly, will the need to clamp down on an all too common profits-before-people mentality take us? A worthy question considering the proposed Bills currently before congress….
The internet is buzzing with news on Bills HR 875 and S 425. The above clip concerning these Bills has recently been embedded on the pages of dozens of blogs – blogs that are receiving a flood of concerned comments from agitated, hand-wringing citizens about their textual content and the potential outcome if they are approved. The perceived implications, as voiced by many bloggers, are that these Bills could see, wait for it… organic farms and any other "Food Production Facility" or "Food Establishment" (these terms are defined in Section 3 of HR 875) that don’t abide by heavily enforced guidelines determined/dictated by the newly formed Food Safety Authority (FSA) effectively outlawed (by having their right to operate rescinded, by mega-fines and expensive, onerous record-keeping requirements).
Feel free to read that last sentence again….
I haven’t actually been able to verify many of the statements made in the clip above (like forcing farmers to use pesticides, etc.). This almost caused me to relax my concerns as mere fearmongery. However, after looking into these documents and the people involved, and analysing the potential of both, this concern has since returned with a vengeance.
What I can state is that the Bill would grant the right for the FSA to "set good practice standards" (which could, potentially, be whatever the agency believes is the right way to produce and process food) and gives them the power to "conduct monitoring and surveillance of animals, plants, products, or the environment" and to "collect and maintain information relevant to public health and farm practices". Food Production/Processing Facilities would be forced to register with the agency and would have to grant the agency "access to and ability to copy all records maintained by or on behalf of such food production establishment" so the agency can "determine whether the food is contaminated, adulterated, or otherwise not in compliance with the food safety law".
Bills HR 875 (also known as the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009) and S 425 may well be a grave threat to the noble and growing efforts of many to reverse the damage caused by decades of corporate greed and reductionist industry-sponsored science, or, it could be a worthy attempt to stamp out what is effectively criminal negligence by Big Agribusiness.
In reading through the Bills, I find the wording very broad, and very vague. Some of our more legal-minded readers may be able to help or offer some insight here?
The big issue, in my mind, is exactly what is the ‘food safety law’ that would be enforced? Something other bloggers don’t seem to be picking up on is that the specifics would not be spelled out until after the agency has secured its draconian powers:
Not later than 1 year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Administrator, in consultation with the Secretary of Agriculture and representatives of State departments of agriculture, shall promulgate regulations to establish science-based minimum standards for the safe production of food by food production facilities. – Bill HR 875, Section 206
The Tangled Web of Vested Interests
The major food giants – Monsanto, Cargill, Tysons, Archer Daniels Midland – are all said to be not only behind these Bills, but major proponents of them. These industries already have a virtual monopoly over the world’s food supply, and are of course seeking to widen their sphere of influence and further increase their market share.
Bill HR 875 has been put forward by congresswoman Rosa DeLauro – who has received significant funding from Big Agribusiness; currently showing as US$186,750 on her profile on OpenCongress.org. What’s more, her husband, Stanley Greenburg, has Monsanto amongst his list of clients….
And, to top my concerns, Michael Taylor – who was on Obama’s transition team (I say ‘was’ because this team has now been finalised) – is said to be heading into a top spot on the new FSA. Given his history, I can’t imagine a more inappropriate choice. He has previously moved seamlessly through the revolving door of Monsanto, the FDA and the USDA.
Former Monsanto employees currently hold positions in US government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Environmental Protection Agency? (EPA) and the Supreme Court. These include Clarence Thomas, Michael Taylor, Ann Veneman, Linda Fisher, Michael Friedman, William D. Ruckelshaus, and Mickey Kantor…. – Wikipedia (emphasis ours)
He is credited with having rewritten the laws for Genetically Modified foods – adding the "substantial equivalence" term which ensured GMOs do not have to be labelled, stating they are essentially the same as non-GMOs (even though they’re different enough to be discovered on farmer’s fields – so they can be sued unless they pay fines if they don’t purchase seed and pay annual technology fees….). He was also responsible for exploding the incidence of cancer by ensuring consumers could have no way to tell if the dairy products they were consuming contained Monsanto’s dangerous rBGH milk or not.
The FDA’s pro-rBGH activities make more sense in light of conflicts of interest between the FDA and the Monsanto corporation. Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy cGommissioner for policy, wrote the FDA’s rBGH labelling guidelines. The guidelines, announced in February 1994, virtually prohibited dairy corporations from making any real distinction between products produced with and without rBGH. To keep rBGH-milk from being "stigmatized" in the marketplace, the FDA announced that labels on non-rBGH products must state that there is no difference between rBGH and the naturally occurring hormone. In March 1994, Taylor was publicly exposed as a former lawyer for the Monsanto corporation for seven years. While working for Monsanto, Taylor had prepared a memo for the company as to whether or not it would be constitutional for states to erect labelling laws concerning rBGH dairy products. In other words Taylor helped Monsanto figure out whether or not the corporation could sue states or companies that wanted to tell the public that their products were free of Monsanto’s drug" . Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News adds a few details, "It is no accident that the FDA and Monsanto are speaking with one voice on this issue. The FDA official responsible for the agency’s labeling policy, Michael R. Taylor, is a former partner of King & Spaulding, the Washington, D.C. law firm that has brought the lawsuits on behalf of Monsanto…. In 1984 he joined King & Spaulding and remained there until 1991; during that time the law firm represented Monsanto while the company was seeking FDA approval of rBGH…. Taylor signed the FEDERAL REGISTER notice warning grocery stores not to label milk as free of rBGH, thus giving Monsanto a powerful boost in its fight to prevent consumers from knowing whether rBGH produced their milk" .
"Taylor did not simply fill a vacant position at the agency", says Jeffrey M. Smith in his book Seeds of Deception, "In 1991 the FDA created a new position for him: Deputy Commissioner for Policy. He instantly became the FDA official with the greatest influence on GM food regulation, overseeing the development of government policy. According to public interest attorney Steven Druker, who has studied the FDA’s internal files, ‘During Mr. Taylor’s tenure as Deputy Commissioner, references to the unintended negative effects of bioengineering were progressively deleted from drafts of the policy statement (over the protests of agency scientists (1)), and a final statement was issued claiming (a) that [GM] foods are no riskier than others and (b) that the agency has no information to the contrary"  . After his stint at the FDA Taylor went back to work as Monsanto’s vice-president for public policy. – SourceWatch.org (emphasis ours)
One thing is clear, the Bills seek to give a few suits at the newly formed FSA the power to enforce top-down, centralised restrictions on how people produce and process food in the U.S., and to stop imports of food from other countries that don’t abide by their self-determined guidelines.
And how does this come about?
Necessity is the Mother of Invention
From HR 875:
…recent ongoing events demonstrate that the food safety program at the Food and Drug Administration is not effective in controlling hazards in food coming from farms and factories in the United States and food and food ingredients coming from foreign countries, and these events have adversely affected consumer confidence….
Consumer confidence in the industrial food machine has been adversely affected. This is of grave concern to… er… the industrial food machine. There is a very real risk that a growing trend may continue – local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes, Farmers’ Markets, etc., may continue to attract more and more customers – or worse, individual families may invest in heirloom seeds and gardening implements so they can begin to provide for themselves.
In case the irony is not clear with this situation, I’ll spell it out.
We’ve had terror threats magnified beyond reason, and used to not only take many of our blood-bought freedoms from us, but to entice us to willingly surrender them. This has also played directly into the hands of the most costly and destructive industry of all – the war machine. This business is making a killing in more ways than one.
We’ve seen scares like the Bird Flu – likely originating in large scaled factory farms – become a boon to those same factory farms as families and small scale farmers either have their flocks culled, or are so burdened with expensive regulatory demands they give up of their own accord. Companies like Tyson and ConAgra – already possessing a huge market share in poultry, etc. – are seeing their profits soar as a result of their own unhealthy practices.
We’ve seen the American taxpayer (wait, not only the taxpayer, but every man women and child) burdened with thousands of dollars of debt, each, to bail out a few banks – the same banks that brought the current financial crisis upon those very citizens.
Essentially, powerful centralised control ensures that those culpable for creating major problems are also in a position to turn every situation to their advantage.
Now, as predictable health scares from the industrial food machine begin to multiply, we’re faced with as-yet-unknown new regulations and enforcement laws from a centralised industry-influenced government branch. This agency would force all food production and processing facilities to register their business, then oversee their activities, and enforce penalties, or suspend their registration (and thus their activities) for breaching their guidelines:
…a civil penalty by the Administrator of not more than $1,000,000 for each such act. – HR 875, Section 405
This can translate to up to one million dollars per day:
…and each day during which that act continues shall be considered a separate offense. – HR 875, Section 405
This fine can be enforced, it seems, even if no one has been adversely affected by the actions of the food producer or processor (people who are implicated thus can be subject to the above fine, plus imprisonment).
As it stands, as far as I can determine (again, would welcome input from knowledgeable readers on this), the breadth of scope of these Bills is aimed at ensuring:
- A new food regulatory body with sweeping powers is formed.
- That body would (after already gaining the above powers!) set about determining how people should grow food – covering aspects of fertilisation, water use, and much more.
- A regime of registrations, monitoring, inspections and enforcement is set up – subsequently prosecuting and shutting down anyone that manages their food systems in a way that conflicts with how this agency believes food should be produced/processed.
- The regulations would extend beyond U.S. borders. The agency would block all imports into the U.S. that don’t abide by their laws, and their powers would extend to inspecting international food production/processing facilities.
Do we want a few wealthy elites dictating how we can grow food? Do we want GMOs made standard fare on our tables? Do we want to see organic and Permaculture farms shut down, bought out, and converted into large scale monocrop systems that further destroy our topsoils, our biodiversity and pollute our water? Even roadside stalls could fall under the scope of these Bills – along with your own garden and chicken coop if you attempt to sell any produce from them.
What Can You Do?
I would plead that you look into this issue, and get active on it. I’m sure when the U.S. citizenry voted for change, this wasn’t the kind of change they were looking for.
The Bills are before Congress, but have not been voted upon as yet. Keep in mind that many of these votes go forward from politicians who have had no time or inclination to actually read the Bills. Contact both the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the House Committee on Agriculture to voice your opposition to a Federal takeover of the food supply. You can also contact your particular representatives.
In the words of Robert Plant – "there’s still time to change the road we’re on".
If we want true food safety, then aiming at relocalising and rebuilding a community spirit is the best way to achieve this. People selling and trading products with neighbours they have to live and work with (and receive other goods from) will always ensure their products are safe and produced with care. As opposed to our current globalised long-distance trade model, where malpractice is easily hidden by distance, in a community a good reputation in quality products and a socially beneficial work ethic is key to success. We will never achieve food security, or long term sustainability, if we leave these responsibilities to a team of pencil-weilding beaurocrats who know nothing of biology and whose pockets are lined with funds from Big Agribusiness.