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Libertarian Farmers Lobby Against S. 510

It is not every day you find Amish farmers serving raw milk in the U.S. Senate. But this week a group of libertarian, small, sustainable, organic farmers were serving up the unpasteurized milk–which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deems dangerous–to Senate staff and local food advocates as part of an effort to push back against pending federal food safety regulations.

raw milk in senate.jpgThe National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (NICFA), whose mission is to “promote and preserve unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade,” organized a lobby day Wednesday to rally opposition to the Senate FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), a bill that would increase FDA inspections of food facilities and give the agency mandatory recall authority.

It is unclear exactly how or where NICFA fits into the lobbying scene. Most food policy experts inside the beltway know very little about the organization, and many characterize NICFA as a fringe group. The National Sustainable Agriculture Association (NSAC), an active force for sustainable agriculture in DC, doesn’t work with NICFA.

“We’re not working with them on anything, including food safety,” NSAC spokeswoman Aimee Witteman told Food Safety News in an email.  “I don’t know much about them other than their opposition to National Animal ID.  My sense is that they’re fundamentally opposed to any new food safety legislation–aren’t interested in trying to improve the food safety regime while also making it more targeted on the riskiest practices.”

It is also unclear how any members NICFA has or who exactly funds the organization. Many food policy insiders suspect the Weston A. Price foundation, a non-profit proponent of raw milk and whole foods, gives the group financial support. A spokesperson for NICFA said the group is funded exclusively through private donations but declined to provide any details.

Curious as NICFA may be, their reception on Wednesday had some libertarian star power. Former presidential candidate and small government hero Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) kicked off the reception with his usual stump speech and Joel Salatin, a farmer-turned-celebrity, for his appearance in best-selling Omnivore’s Dilemma and Oscar-nominated Food, Inc., emceed the event.

Ron Paul and Joel Salatin.jpgSalatin, a self-described “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer,” fired off a number of clever sound bites to his audience, which appeared to be mostly NICFA members.  

“When the government gets between my lips and my food, I call that invasion of privacy,” said Salatin. “By what science is feeding your kids Twinkies, Ho-ho cakes, and Mountain Dew safe–but raw milk, homemade pickles, and compost-grown tomatoes are dangerous?”

“Our nation has the lowest per capita food expenditure, but the highest per capita health care expenditure of any developed nation,” he said. “Welcome to safe, deadly food.”

Though the event piqued the curiosity of many food policy wonks, no one seems concerned NICFA’s efforts could derail S. 510, a bill that enjoys broad, bipartisan support, but has yet to be scheduled for a vote.

David Gumpert, a health blogger and author of The Raw Milk Revolution who also spoke at the reception, indicated on his blog this week that the response to NICFA’s message was hard to gauge.

“My meetings with congressional aides were pleasant, but difficult to assess,” wrote Gumpert. “This seemed a fairly common reaction among other citizen lobbyists. Maybe the most encouraging thing about the aides I met was that they seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.”

“Most discouraging was that the aides seemed not to know very much about key problems in the food safety legislation–the absence of significant exemptions for the smallest food producers and farms, the huge financial burden imposed by the requirement for HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) plans, and the imposition of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards on farmers,” he added.

Consumer and public health advocates have been insisting for months that though they are open to “scale-appropriate” food safety regulations, no food grower or processor should be exempt from the food safety system.

“We do have issues with anything that provides any blanket exemptions,” Sandra Eskin, director of the food safety campaign with The Pew Charitable Trusts, recently told Food Safety News. Pew is a key member of the Make Our Food Safe coalition (MOFS), a broad coalition of consumer, public health, and industry groups pushing for the passage of S. 510.

“Food should be safe regardless of its source — big processor, small farm, conventional operation or organic grower,” said Eskin.

 

Pictured: Top: Raw Jersey Cow Milk from Amish Farms, Pennsylvania being served in the Dirksen Senate office building. Bottom: Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms (seated), and Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX). Photos by Helena Bottemiller.

© Food Safety News
  • http://www.nicfa.com Liz Reitzig

    Helena,
    Thank you for attending our event and for writing this article about it. It is great that you were able to bring it to an audience that would probably not have otherwise seen it.
    In your email to me after the event, you commented on how much you enjoyed the reception and how delicious the food was. I am so glad you enjoyed it and glad the food made an impression—after all, that is what it was all about. I, too, was very impressed with the 17 independent local restaurants and caterers who donated their time and talent for the reception. We had the areas finest restaurants and chefs participating in the food for the reception as well as some of the lobbying efforts beforehand. They understand that the unintended consequences of the food safety bill as it is written will have a destructive affect on the farms they rely on for their ingredients. In fact, many of the farmers were standing behind the tables because they contributed the food for the chefs to prepare! It was a true showcase of our farmers’ beauty, bounty and incredible generosity. And, also important to note is how urgent this issue is for so many millions of farmers. Unfortunately, many who wanted to be there simply could not.
    The staffers and legislators (as well as NICFA members) who attended all spoke very highly of the food we served them and many were in awe of the fresh milk they were served from loving Amish farmers. The centerpiece of the feast, a beautifully roasted pig supplied by Polyface farms, highlighted the amazing relationship between local foods producer, the chefs who covet and prepare such foods, and the consumers who delight in such a partnership. All in all, the reception was a win-win-win and again, I’m so happy you enjoyed yourself and found the food delicious. We certainly hope that S 510 does not pass, as you should also, since the passage of this bill would mean the end to such feasts as we had on March 10.
    Perhaps you are not aware of some of the language in the bill and need to reread (or perhaps read it for the first time?) so you can see that some of the requirements would effectively, without increasing food safety in any way, shut down small producers by allowing for the implementation of onerous regulatory requirements. (see our talking points for specific examples, http://www.nicfa.com)
    While your article really covers a lot about the event, here are some other perspectives that help flesh it out a bit http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/omkara/2010/mar/12/fight-small-farm-freedom/
    http://liberationwellnessblog.com/2010/03/11/a-day-well-spent/
    http://www.thecompletepatient.com/journal/2010/3/11/can-the-big-pushes-for-raw-milk-and-food-rights-in-wi-and-dc.html
    Again, thanks for the article and for bringing it to the attention of so many people. I am proud to stand with my heroes—the farmers who work hard every day so that we may eat—and will continue to work for access to safe, local foods from the producer of my choice.
    With love,
    Liz Reitzig, Secretary
    National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association

  • http://www.thecompletepatient.com dgumpert

    From your article:
    “Consumer and public health advocates have been insisting for months that though they are open to ‘scale-appropriate’ food safety regulations, no food grower or processor should be exempt from the food safety system.”
    In the world of regulation (environmental, worker safety, financing), small companies (those with fewer than, say, 20, 50, or 100 employees) have been exempted, or had less onerous requirements than larger companies. So this is not a new idea.
    I would like to know exactly what S 510′s proponents mean by “scale appropriate,” and why nothing has been done to implement whatever it is.
    David Gumpert
    author, The Raw Milk Revolution
    http://www.thecompletepatient.com

  • http://www.thecompletepatient.com David Gumpert

    From your article:
    “Consumer and public health advocates have been insisting for months that though they are open to ‘scale-appropriate’ food safety regulations, no food grower or processor should be exempt from the food safety system.”
    In the world of regulation (environmental, worker safety, financing), small companies (those with fewer than, say, 20, 50, or 100 employees) have been exempted, or had less onerous requirements than larger companies. So this is not a new idea.
    I would like to know exactly what S 510′s proponents mean by “scale appropriate,” and why nothing has been done to implement whatever it is.
    David Gumpert
    author, The Raw Milk Revolution
    http://www.thecompletepatient.com

  • Doc Mudd

    There is nothing in S.510 that would “shut down small producers”, so long as they are producing and marketing clean wholesome food products.
    NICFA opposes traceability of tainted foodstuffs back to the point of origin. At the same time NICFA members promote, even fawn over “access to safe, local foods from the producer of my choice” (something akin to USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan’s “know your farmer” schtick). NICFA is obviously talking out of both sides of its mouth. Which is it; know your farmer or hide your farmer?
    I support S.510 to standardize sensible guidelines and inspections that promote food safety. Even for the smallest producers…especially for the smallest producers who disingenuously complain that inexpensive record keeping is too costly, too onerous and threatens to bankrupt their businesses. What other food safety and hygiene corners are they habitually cutting to put an extra few grubby bucks in their pockets?
    Do producers and activists oppose traceability with the idea that anonymity will shield them from scrutiny for their various indiscretions? Otherwise, what’s the big deal?

  • http://liberationwellnessblog.com Maureen

    Doc Mudd, we at NICFA are not anti-traceability. In fact, there already is traceability. There are several systems in place for the industrial system. Problem is, there are so many possible sources with conventional food, it is hard to pin point.
    And how much easier could it be to track the origin of an outbreak than to go back quickly and easily to the farmer from whom one directly purchases their food? No processors, no middle men, no middle-middle men, no… When buying locally from small farmers it is quick and simple; if one gets sick from a farmer’s food, likely the farmer and his family, and other friends and neighbors purchasing from the same farm, will all have symptoms of illness. Not like when foods are coming into a processing plant from literally hundreds, if not *thousands* of producers! Who is it really that is hiding his farmer?!
    And obviously you have no idea of the burdens which would be placed upon the farmers/producers. Starting with the *annual $500/per facility* fee. The big guys can absorb that cost. It would be devastating to the the small farmers I deal with. And the record keeping, the emergency plan, … Again, the big guys have departments to handle that. The little guy is busy running his farm and keeping up with the records he is already keeping. This is not a small task.
    Also, much is left to interpretation. Things may be more or less difficult depending on the viewpoint of the enforcer.
    You know Doc, I just don’t get why some want to take away the most basic of rights of others. Please understand, we are not talking about protecting the public here. The business of the small farmer dealing directly with *private* citizens is nothing like a farmer/producer selling to a grocery store or food processing plant. There you have public, where as we are talking *private*. Vastly different, the two.
    I know my farmer. He puts the same food on his table that I put on mind. Isn’t that the ultimate in “food safety”?!

  • Susan Lawrence

    NICFA doesn’t oppose traceability or seek to keep the producer in the shadows. The rationale for the exemption is that when the person eating the food purchases directly from the person producing it, the traceback mechanism goes something like “where’d you get that food?” The food is fully traceable to its source.
    NAIS hits small producers harder than large ones. At best it will drive up the cost of food produced on small, diversified farms. At worst it will continue to shrink regional food systems until there are no options other than industrially-farmed and -produced food, and we all have to buy meat from animals that have been fed and injected with appalling substances. Sadly, S.510 does little to make food safer.

  • Eric

    As a diversified, organic farmer I see three fundamental problems with the pending legislation, (1) Diversity is seen as a threat: food safety is understood as keeping animals as far away from produce fields as possible. What that effectively means is large monocultures (where border issues are non-issues) and animals correspondingly confined to feedlots and confinement houses, whose manure then accumulates in tremendous quantities, far beyond the ability of the immediate ecosystem to safely absorb, and thus posing the most serious safety issues (as evidenced by the recent food safety scares, particularly the deadly spinach problems.) Well managed plant and animal diversity is the friend of food safety (as well as the friend of a lot of other good things), not the enemy. Do any of the food safety problems of the last 20 years give any reason to target diversified farms? (2) Manure is defined as inherently dangerous. But what’s the alternative? Conventional fertilizers synthesized from Middle East oil. Is there any sensible, scientific basis for defining organic products as inherently more risky/unsafe than conventional products? What about synthetic pesticides? Are we supposed to ignore all the risks they bring with them, both to food consumers as well as to water resources, rural communities, and ecosystems? These biases against traditional organic practice have no scientific basis. (3) Good agricultural practice cannot be defined in a one-size-fits-all format, and especially not by Washington. There is zero scientifically proven risk to allowing weeder geese into a sweet corn crop (i.e. letting domestic geese eat out the competing weeds out from under a sweet corn field), and no reason to even suspect food safety problems, but official GAP would outlaw the practice. Obviously, that’s a marginal issue, but there are 10,000 other such non-industrial solutions GAP would outlaw. The end effect of a one-size-fits-all definition of food safety is that innovative farm management will be outlawed, particularly on the kind of small farms that generate the least run-off and waste liabilities, rely the least on illegal laborers, depend least on foreign oil, provide the most viable, long-term alternative to low cost produce from China or Mexico, etc., etc.

  • Doc Mudd

    1) Diversity is not recognized by S.510 as a food safety practice…for the obvious reason that it is not a meaningful food safety practice.
    .
    2) Manure is identified by S.510 as a threat to food safety…for the obvious reason that is is a potent source of contamination by pathogenic organisms (the cause of most food poisonings). Manure, by definition, is likely to contain living organisms pathogenic to humans, modern synthetic fertilizers do not.
    .
    3) S.510 speaks to effective safety practices in food production and processing which, fortunately, can be distilled into universal size-neutral protocols (your “one size fits all”). It does not attempt to define “good agricultural practice” except to assure food safety and it makes no distinction between the relative microbiological safety of organic and conventional foods…for the simple reason that no meaningful distinction exists.
    .
    By the way, geese are notoriously profuse and indiscriminate defecators, legendary even. Ever hear the rural colloquialism “…like sh*t through a goose”? Geese rank right up there with seagulls. Ever stroll through a park frequented by flocks of geese? Ever hear of Salmonella?

  • Eric Brown

    (1) Although diversified farms aren’t a “food safety practice” (which, of course, I never said), they do mitigate food safety threats. The real world alternative to diversified farms, huge accumulations of manure beyond the ability of the immediate ecosystems to safely absorb, are a food safety threat. And the recent history of fecal pathogens entering the food supply is evidence. Mudd, are you aware of a single recent case of fecal pathogen contaminated produce coming from a small (i.e. small enough to face the kind of boundary issues that GAP definitions oppose), diversified farm? The counter-examples (i.e. large monocultures without GAP-targeted animal or boundary issues) are where the ugly produce headlines have come from. What a mixed up, backwards, unscientific response to the problem!
    (2) Manure happens. The sensible question isn’t how to reduce manure but how to best incorporate manure into our agricultural system. (We might also ask if ways of keeping and feeding and medicating animals make for less pathogenic manure.) Using petroleum-based fertilizers doesn’t mean we have any less manure to deal with; it only means more manure winds up in places where it’s a worthless waste liability, which is where the greatest food safety risks lie.
    You didn’t answer my question about pesticides (and the reality is that synthetic fertilizers and pesticides go together): why should the risks of chemical contamination of produce (and of drinking water and other indirect paths) warrant so little attention? The science certainly isn’t there to support the food safety of the hard push away from traditional uses of manure to chemical agriculture, and that’s precisely the trade-off. And again, no matter how hard we make it for farmers to use manure productively, the manure still has to go somewhere. When the risks of chemicals begin to get quantified (like with BPA, which, again, wasn’t an issue for the products of small, diversified farms), a reasonable person would conclude that we’ve grossly underestimated the risks of chemical use, but instead Congress is pushing farming toward more and more chemical use and dependency.
    (3) Does it matter that your objections to geese, as one good example of the problems of one-size-fits-all legislation, are completely unscientific? Must irrational, suburban fecophobia determine food safety law? What if some people would rather have a goose poop three feet under their corn before the corn even forms than to have the corn itself genetically modified and then sprayed directly with herbicides? Congress’s pending solution is to outlaw whole categories of risks, even if the alternative risks — of course, there are risks of one sort or another no matter what we do — are worse than what we’re outlawing.

  • Tony

    Does anybody have any IQ anymore? the amish farmers want raw milk, they aren’t into boilin it so it lasts longer.
    Aimee Witteman told Food Safety News in an email. “I don’t know much about them other than their opposition to National Animal ID. My sense is that they’re fundamentally opposed to any new food safety legislation–aren’t interested in trying to improve the food safety regime while also making it more targeted on the riskiest practices.”
    yes i picture the Amish have it in for ms whitteman

  • Steve

    I wonder who Doc Mudd works for?

  • Jim Shaw

    Doctor Mudd’s muddled reasoning brings to mind a great quote from Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America,” about Big Ag’s approach to the manure issue versus that of small farmers, who have always treated manure as a valued resource:
    “The genius of America’s farm experts is well demonstrated here – they can take a solution and neatly divide it into two problems.”