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Balancing the Scales: Food ‘Sovereignty’ and Food Safety

The movement to shift control of food systems to local governments and local communities, sometimes referred to as “food sovereignty,” has gained increased notoriety with the recent lawsuit filed against raw milk producer Dan Brown in Blue Hill, Maine.  “Food sovereignty,” as a concept and movement, is not new nor is it defined by local food movements such as the ones in Maine.

La Via Campesina’s “Food Sovereignty” Movement

La Via Campesina first defined the notion of food sovereignty at the World Food Summit in 1996.  La Via Campesina is “an international movement which brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-sized farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world.  It defends small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity.  It strongly opposes corporate driven agriculture and transnational companies that are destroying people and nature.”

La Via Campesina’s model of food sovereignty focuses on empowering the poor and other socially disadvantaged peoples to regain and maintain control over food systems.  Food sovereignty is a matter of food security and of fairness.  In 2003, La Via Campesina described food sovereignty as:

 

” … the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture; to protect and regulate domestic agricultural production and trade in order to achieve sustainable development objectives; to determine the extent to which they want to be self reliant; to restrict the dumping of products in their markets … Food sovereignty does not negate trade, but rather, it promotes the formulation of trade policies and practices that serve the rights of peoples to safe, healthy and ecologically sustainable production.”

The document further asserts that it is the role of government to “uphold the rights of all peoples to food sovereignty and security, and adopt and implement policies that promote sustainable, family-based production rather than industry-led, high-input and export oriented production.”  In order to accomplish those goals, governments must address a number of issues, including food safety.

Food Safety as Part of Food Sovereignty

The food safety element of La Via Campesina’s food sovereignty declaration includes controlling pests and disease, protecting against environmental pollution, prohibiting the use of antibiotics and hormones in aquacultures, and banning irradiation of food.  Governments must establish food quality standards that reflect the culture and values of its people and establish quality control measures to comply with environmental, social and health quality standards.

Further, the declaration maintains that governments must “ensure that all food inspection functions are performed by appropriate and independent government bodies, and not by private corporations or contractors.”  La Via Campesina envisions governments having an active role in protecting and promoting food safety, and therefore food sovereignty.  

The Expansion of Food Sovereignty

The underlying problem La Via Campesina seeks to change is the degree of power and control that corporate interests have over food systems.  The focus is on localizing trade and providing local producers with access to their own markets.  In 2003, Peter Rosset, former Co-director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, wrote:

“… [w]hat Via Campesina and others say is that we face a clash of economic development models for the rural world.  The contrasts between the dominant model, based on agroexports, neoliberal economic policies, and free trade, versus the food sovereignty model, could not be more stark.  Where one model sees family farmers as an inefficient anachronism that should disappear with development, the other sees them as the basis of local economies and of national economic development.”

In 2011, in the face of continued corporate control and increasingly visible injustices within the food system, people around the world are taking action to regain control of their own food systems.  The original driving issues – land reform, ending harmful international trade agreements, removing corporate control of food systems, etc. – have remained the same.

How the food sovereignty movement manifests itself is shaped in large part by issues like the 2008 food riots and the Occupy Wall Street movement (called Occupy the Food System).  In the United States, this movement includes increased participation in urban gardening, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, and school gardens, and through the promotion of sustainable, local economic development.

Maine’s “Food Sovereignty” Movement

The five towns in Maine that passed Local Food Ordinances in the past year are considered part of the food sovereignty movement in the United States.  These ordinances reject any state or federal involvement in the town’s local food production.  The ordinances are a response to allegedly over-burdensome regulations and a desire for the community to sell food to one another like they did one hundred years ago – without government interference.

One of the concerns driving these local food ordinances is fear that FDA will shut down things like church suppers and bake sales.  This is based on a misunderstanding of the law.  Setting aside the practicality of such action for FDA, the Food Safety Modernization Act exempts small local producers, farmers, and direct-to-consumer transactions from most federal regulations.  The FDA is not going to interfere with church suppers and bake sales.

However, what makes this lawsuit and the legality of these local food ordinances more complicated is that Dan Brown was selling raw milk.  Raw milk is a hot-button issue with passions running high on both sides.  Raw milk cannot be sold interstate, as per FDA rules, but each state has the authority to decide whether raw milk can be sold within its borders and how to regulate its production and sale.

Maine allows the sale of raw milk as long as certain licensing and inspection procedures are followed.  According to the State, Brown did not comply with those procedures and a sample of raw milk tested from his dairy was found to have levels of bacteria high above the state’s standards.  This is not only an issue of government involvement i
n food but of food safety.

Reconciling “Food Sovereignty” with Maine’s Local Food Ordinances

The desire to place control over local food systems and transactions in the hands of local people is an important one.  The part of the Maine movement to empower, support, and grow local producers is something that should be pursued.  It is also something that falls squarely within the goals of the food sovereignty movement.

However, advocating for no government oversight of the food system is less aligned with food sovereignty and more aligned with something like a Libertarian perspective.  It is ok for these Maine towns to take that stance, but to call it “food sovereignty” is misleading.  

The food sovereignty movement as envisioned by La Via Campesina does not reject government involvement – especially in food safety.  It seeks thoughtful, smart, and necessary regulation that will not harm the development of local markets.  Ensuring a safe food supply – for example, by testing each batch of raw milk to ensure its safety – is something that La Via Campesina would likely support.

Whether you call the local food ordinances “food sovereignty” or something else, the issue of food safety must be taken into account.  The supporters of the local food ordinances need to identify the specific regulations that are too burdensome and come up with ways to lessen the burden, rather than reject outright all government involvement.  If what the supporters in Maine are seeking truly is no government regulation or no oversight of the food system, they need look no further than China to see the potential consequences.

——————–

Alli Condra is pursuing her LL.M. in Agricultural and Food Law at the University of Arkansas. She is the 2011-12 recipient of the Marler Clark Graduate Assistantship.

© Food Safety News
  • charles scamman

    To try to equate “food sovereignty” to conditions in China in your closing statement is just a half step short of ludicrous.
    The founding principles for this great nation were based upon the concept that “rights” resided at the ‘individual’ level. The Constitution of the United States was formulated, not to “give” people rights, but rather to “limit” federat authority.
    These townships do not claim that the states have NO authority, but that the state’s authority only applies when a product is transported beyond the boundires of such town. Slightly different than what you try to infer. Food “safety” is of concern to each and every farmer and gardener. However, “regulations” do not provide safety in and of themselves, as numerous recalls listed on this site can testify. Problems of late have NOT been with the small, family farmer, but with the mammoth food processing industry. China however may be a good place to look to see where the several states and USDA are getting their ideas for new regulations.

  • Can you please explain how what you wrote in your last sentence…
    “If what the supporters in Maine are seeking truly is no government regulation or no oversight of the food system, they need look no further than China to see the potential consequences.”
    …is supported by the text in the LA Times article you linked to in that same sentence? The LAT article states:
    “Since 2008… the Chinese government has enacted ever-more-strict policies to ensure food safety, including a directive last month from the Supreme Court calling for the death penalty in cases where people die as a result of tainted foods.”
    Do you really equate “no government regulation or no oversight of the food system” with “ever-more-strict policies… [including] the death penalty in cases where people die as a result of tainted foods”? If so, how?
    Also, go Hogs!

  • Pathogens aren’t interested in the local vs global debate; they will freely adulterate whatever is opportunistic be it local, organic, mega farm or processed. Indeed, all pathogens are local.
    The purpose of regulations is to protect public health. Choosing to ingest potentially adulterated or dangerous foods is not an essential expression of democracy any more than drinking alcohol or smoking is.

  • mrothschild

    The numerous recalls listed on this site might actually argue for the need for government oversight because most of the recalls are not linked to outbreaks of foodborne disease, but are the result of routine sampling by regulators that turned up pathogens and presumably worked to get potentially contaminated food off the market or to advise consumers that they might have tainted products at home before anyone became sick.
    Outbreaks involving widely distributed food products make national headlines, but that doesn’t mean that local growers, producers and restaurants don’t have food-safety issues or are even relatively safer. People who eat a local baker’s Salmonella-contaminated pastries, or a farmer’s E. coli-tainted strawberries, or a small dairy’s Listeria-contaminated milk and cheese — to name just a few of the multitude of outbreaks this past year caused by small producers — get just as sick as people who eat poisoned food sold by a conglomerate, so is it really any better that an unsafe local food product simply doesn’t make as many people ill?
    As strong supporters of the local food movement and of food safety, we think the food sovereignty issue is an interesting and legitimate debate. We frequently hear that some local communities want to challenge state and federal laws regulating food production, but even when we ask we don’t get too many specifics about which regulations are burdensome, and likely should be changed or eliminated if they don’t result in safer food. We welcome more information about which food-safety rules food-sovereignty advocates think are unnecessary.
    The courts will eventually tell us if we have any more right to produce and sell local food without license or regulation than we do to build a local house or other structure without regulation and inspection.
    As for China, here’s what the New York Times reported about China’s small, entrepreneurial food producers:
    ” … a stomach-turning string of food-safety scandals this spring, from recycled buns to contaminated pork, makes it clear that official efforts are falling short. Despite efforts to create a modern food-safety regimen, oversight remains utterly haphazard, in the hands of ill-trained, ill-equipped and outnumbered enforcers whose quick fixes are even more quickly undone …
    ” … producers operate in a cutthroat environment in which illegal additives are everywhere and cost-effective. Manufacturers calculate correctly that the odds of profiting from unsafe practices far exceed the odds of getting caught, experts say. China’s explosive growth has spawned nearly half a million food producers, the authorities say, and four-fifths of them employ 10 or fewer workers, making oversight difficult …
    ” … Some food is simply unregulated. Pork accounts for two-thirds of the meat eaten by Chinese consumers, but only half of it goes through slaughterhouses that are subject to inspection, he said. The rest comes from pigs slaughtered in backyards, villages or markets and is essentially untested … ”
    Go here for the full story:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/world/asia/08food.html?pagewanted=all

  • Quill’s End Farm

    The “food sovereignty” ordinances in Maine were NOT written or implemented as a backlash against “burdensome regulations”, but rather as a response by the people to the way that regulations are written and interpreted. Here is the way it is supposed to be. People elect legislators, legislators enact laws reflecting the will of the people, beaurocrats enforce those laws. The way it actually works is backwards. People elect legislators, legislators enact laws after consulting beaurocrats on how the people ought to be regulated, and then beaurocrats enforce as they see fit. The people being regulated need to be at the table and give the public servants permission on how to regulate them. When the system at the state level failed (because of federal pressure), the local control option (local gov’t is supposed to be a check on state and federal power)was the option left.
    Phil

  • mrothschild

    OK, apparently none of the regulations is burdensome but the problem is bureaucrats. So what failed at the state level because of what federal pressure?
    We’re simply trying, from a public health standpoint, to understand the implications of ordinances giving citizens the right “to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods of their own choosing.”
    To continue my analogy, should the citizens of a township have the right to design, construct, wire and plumb houses or other buildings without regard for uniform building or fire codes? How is food different? Which state and federal regulations that control food are unnecessary and don’t make food safer?

  • Can you please explain how what you wrote in your last sentence…
    “If what the supporters in Maine are seeking truly is no government regulation or no oversight of the food system, they need look no further than China to see the potential consequences.”
    …is supported by the text in the LA Times article you linked to in that same sentence? The LAT article states:
    “Since 2008… the Chinese government has enacted ever-more-strict policies to ensure food safety, including a directive last month from the Supreme Court calling for the death penalty in cases where people die as a result of tainted foods.”
    Do you really equate “no government regulation or no oversight of the food system” with “ever-more-strict policies… [including] the death penalty in cases where people die as a result of tainted foods”? If so, how?
    Also, go Hogs!

  • Mary Rothschild

    The numerous recalls listed on this site might actually argue for the need for government oversight because most of the recalls are not linked to outbreaks of foodborne disease, but are the result of routine sampling by regulators that turned up pathogens and presumably worked to get potentially contaminated food off the market or to advise consumers that they might have tainted products at home before anyone became sick.
    Outbreaks involving widely distributed food products make national headlines, but that doesn’t mean that local growers, producers and restaurants don’t have food-safety issues or are even relatively safer. People who eat a local baker’s Salmonella-contaminated pastries, or a farmer’s E. coli-tainted strawberries, or a small dairy’s Listeria-contaminated milk and cheese — to name just a few of the multitude of outbreaks this past year caused by small producers — get just as sick as people who eat poisoned food sold by a conglomerate, so is it really any better that an unsafe local food product simply doesn’t make as many people ill?
    As strong supporters of the local food movement and of food safety, we think the food sovereignty issue is an interesting and legitimate debate. We frequently hear that some local communities want to challenge state and federal laws regulating food production, but even when we ask we don’t get too many specifics about which regulations are burdensome, and likely should be changed or eliminated if they don’t result in safer food. We welcome more information about which food-safety rules food-sovereignty advocates think are unnecessary.
    The courts will eventually tell us if we have any more right to produce and sell local food without license or regulation than we do to build a local house or other structure without regulation and inspection.
    As for China, here’s what the New York Times reported about China’s small, entrepreneurial food producers:
    ” … a stomach-turning string of food-safety scandals this spring, from recycled buns to contaminated pork, makes it clear that official efforts are falling short. Despite efforts to create a modern food-safety regimen, oversight remains utterly haphazard, in the hands of ill-trained, ill-equipped and outnumbered enforcers whose quick fixes are even more quickly undone …
    ” … producers operate in a cutthroat environment in which illegal additives are everywhere and cost-effective. Manufacturers calculate correctly that the odds of profiting from unsafe practices far exceed the odds of getting caught, experts say. China’s explosive growth has spawned nearly half a million food producers, the authorities say, and four-fifths of them employ 10 or fewer workers, making oversight difficult …
    ” … Some food is simply unregulated. Pork accounts for two-thirds of the meat eaten by Chinese consumers, but only half of it goes through slaughterhouses that are subject to inspection, he said. The rest comes from pigs slaughtered in backyards, villages or markets and is essentially untested … ”
    Go here for the full story:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/world/asia/08food.html?pagewanted=all

  • Mary Rothschild

    OK, apparently none of the regulations is burdensome but the problem is bureaucrats. So what failed at the state level because of what federal pressure?
    We’re simply trying, from a public health standpoint, to understand the implications of ordinances giving citizens the right “to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods of their own choosing.”
    To continue my analogy, should the citizens of a township have the right to design, construct, wire and plumb houses or other buildings without regard for uniform building or fire codes? How is food different? Which state and federal regulations that control food are unnecessary and don’t make food safer?

  • Quill’s End Farm

    So what failed at the state level because of what federal pressure?
    When farmers called the state, for decades, they were told that, according to statute, farmers could sell milk from the farm without licensing and inspection. Many micro-dairies set up that way, feeding friends and neighbors. FDA pressure, and a change in leadership at dairy inspection services, re-interpreted law. No changes by legislature, no outbreaks, and no complaints registered. Now farmers are told the state requires license and inspection to continue. The regs come with 87 pgs, including facilities requirements. If a farm wants to produce one thing only, and distribute it widely, facilities are a convenience and necessity. When a farm wants to diversify, and now needs two rooms for dairy, two rooms for poultry, a commercial kitchen for value adding, etc…it cannot be supported by the income generated.
    Food safety is about procedure, education, and integrity. Regulation and facilities are appropriate at a certain scale. Processing, chains of distribution, and faceless transactions allow sloppiness and must be scrutinized. Direct, face to face transactions carry their own “regulation” and “inspection”, and have, built in, the scrutiny that has existed for centuries. Those are the transaction that are protected by this ordinance. If the FDA, USDA, and the states’ depts of ag returned to their original charters, they would be helping small producers, there would be many more of us, and food safety and traceability would be infinately easier.
    I’ve been a farmer and a builder for years, and can assure, with many examples, that regulation and inspection do not assure safety. You cannot legislate integrity.

  • Steve

    As the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rule is yet to be released — with a further comment period and a Final Rule, it’s still wayy too soon to say anything about the existence of burdensome regulations…
    However, looking at the existing regs passed in a flurry in the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 (which FSMA was partly in relation to) — shows plenty of inappropriate and burdensome regulations such as those that automatically reclassify standard farm harvesting operations (cutting, trimming, etc.) as processing operations. This moves farms into a “facility” category with long lists of compliances, many of which are not appropriate to farms at all.
    And while yes, ALL food in the marketplace needs to be safe — burdensome rules and regs and paperwork don’t have a very good track record in actually making that so. It’s also a good way to economically hamsting smaller scale farmers who can’t afford to comply with expensive, high-tech “solutions” that the Big Boys employ.
    The real solution was laid out in FSMA via the Stabenow Amendment which sets up funding for training farmers in food safety practices. Already, the Produce Safety Alliance — a co-initiative from the Land Grants (led by Cornell), USDA and FDA is in the process of creating a framework outlining the best models/best practices to train farmers in safe food production. For instance, you don’t need stainless steel cleaning tables when linoleum-coverd plywood is just as cleanable. And for real food safety these ounces of (training) preventions are worth pounds of regulatory “oversight” any day.
    Meanwhile, attention needs to be intensified on the hugely risky industrialized production products that continually falls through the cracks, despite their dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s”– due to lack of real scrutiny and inherently risky production (including pesticides and GMOs) and wide-scale distribution practices where one outbreak can infect thousands of people.
    The bottom line is that citizens very definitely have a right to purchase and consume foods of their own choosing — whether that be buying DeCoster eggs (gag) hidden by scores of brand names in the supermarket — or the real thing from the small producer you can visit down the road.

  • Hi Alli,
    There is definitely a lot of balancing that had to go on–I appreciate your article and it’s arguments. BTW, Im a friend of Rachel Bennett. I work at Sustainable Food Center in Austin.
    best,
    Joy

  • mrothschild

    Yes, it is all about balance, as Alli’s commentary pointed out, and also about how one frames the debate. In fact, we are free to consume food of our choosing – regulations don’t govern consumption. It’s those who profit from selling products, whether they’re large or small producers, who should provide safe and healthful workplaces, protect the environment and not injure their customers. Ideally, we shouldn’t need health and safety regulations, and there should be no need to enforce them. But while I agree that we can’t legislate integrity, the question is whether we can rely on integrity in the absence of legislation.

  • Mary Rothschild

    Yes, it is all about balance, as Alli’s commentary pointed out, and also about how one frames the debate. In fact, we are free to consume food of our choosing – regulations don’t govern consumption. It’s those who profit from selling products, whether they’re large or small producers, who should provide safe and healthful workplaces, protect the environment and not injure their customers. Ideally, we shouldn’t need health and safety regulations, and there should be no need to enforce them. But while I agree that we can’t legislate integrity, the question is whether we can rely on integrity in the absence of legislation.

  • Tom

    Where regulations are lacking, liability law can fill the gap. I’ve billed time to JAck in the Box in child E.Coli litigation, and lawyers will make money defending raw milk claims. For those who advocate less regulation, I suggest more insurance — but insurance audits often impose more constraints than regulation. It is costly to cause the death of a child. Excerpt pasted below from
    http://www.pritzkerlaw.com/campylobacter/pasture-maid-creamery-campylobacter.html
    Raw milk is milk that has not been pasteurized. Pasteurization, a “kill step,” destroys pathogens like Campylobacter. Raw milk is an important vehicle in the transmission of Campylobacter and other foodborne pathogens including:
    Enterotoxigenic Staphylococcus aureus
    Campylobacter jejuni
    Salmonella species
    E. coli (EHEC) (ETEC)
    Listeria monocytogenes
    Mycobacterium tuberculosis
    Mycobacterium bovis
    Brucella species (abortus –cattle) (melitensis- goats)
    Coxiella burnetii
    Yersinia enterocolitica
    Even after an initial outbreak of Campylobacter and the temporary suspension of milk sales in early 2009, both Dean Farms, DBA Pasture Maid Creamery, LLC and McGinnis Sisters Special Foods Store continued to sell and promote raw milk as a healthy food option.
    “A summons and complaint brought on behalf of the Orchard family will be served and filed on Dean Farms DBA Pasture Maid Creamery, LLC and McGinnis Food Center, Inc. DBA McGinnis Sisters Special Food Stores in the next few days,” Pritzker said. “Companies that sell unsafe products have to be held accountable for the harms and losses they cause.”

  • Reliance on liability law and insurance practices to make our food safe only further widens the band of ignorance between producer and consumer.
    Your statement about Pasture Maid Creamery and McGinnis Sisters stores is a bit misleading. Both Creamery and store have been in full compliance with proper labeling about the risks of raw milk and have not solicited consumption as a “healthy food option”. They are both respected and responsible businesses in this area.
    The presence of campylobacter in Pasture Maid’s milk is not undisputed – there are lab results demonstrating the milk was safe which I never see mentioned.
    Everyone is so quick to scapegoat raw milk, they fail to investigate the many other suspects like public wells, private water sources, or a medium rare burger…
    Pathogens will and always will be a gray area and making absolute and confident statements about them invites trouble. You can’t litigate or legislate a risk free world, and it’s irresponsible to encourage people to believe in one.