So Right and So Wrong All At Once

Glenn Beck tackled the issue of food safety on his new FoxNews television broadcast this week, and featured a farmer from Ohio in the story. Tim Wightman, an Ohio dairyman involved in a self-described herd-share arrangement with six cows and an undisclosed number of shareholder “customers,” joined a representative of the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (NICFA), an organization created to “promote and preserve unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade that fosters availability of locally grown or home-produced food products.” More on NICFA in a minute.



The segment in question tackles a bill sponsored by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) called HR875, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which DeLauro and company proposed in the wake of the Georgia peanut situation. This is apparently one of many bills pushed in response to the food safety “crisis” our country is allegedly facing amid calls for the creation of some manner of food safety “super agency” akin to the Department of Homeland Security.



There are a number of problems with the segment, but a few nuggets of truth. The NICFA representative shares a maxim of the truth about federal government’s involvement in commerce: “If it’s not expressly EXCLUDED, it’s implicitly INCLUDED.” This maxim applies to the “intent” of Congress in writing a bill, and why the legislative branch occasionally has to amend statute to correct regulatory action taken by the executive branch in writing the rules implementing a given law.



Case in point: so-called Superfund laws written nearly 30 years ago to “protect people, families, communities and others from heavily contaminated toxic waste sites that have been abandoned,” but which the EPA and environmental activists continue to cite in repeated attempts to regulate livestock manure as “toxic waste.” The intent of Congress was never to regulate animal agriculture under this law, but as the law did not exclude the industry in specific, the regulators of the executive branch have assumed that it was well within their authority to target farms in such manner.



On the issue of NICFA, I’ve not spent much time covering or reporting on this organization, but it appears their formation centered on opposition to the National Animal ID program. NAIS, as it’s called generically by its critics, is alleged to be an over-reaching invasion of privacy by a Big Brother government, and that’s where NICFA gets its dander up on the DeLauro bill: they’re concerned that reporting requirements in HR875 will cause mandatory animal identification, or worse yet, mandatory tracking of all agriculture products sold off the farm.



Naturally, the slippery slope argument is that if HR875 or similar legislation can regulate agricultural produce from “farms,” the law could also be used to regulate small hobby farms and produce sold in farmer’s markets, and most egregiously, regulate your backyard garden’s produce. Naturally the legislators backing the bill dismiss this argument out of hand saying it is not their “intent” to regulate produce grown in the home garden or sold to local individuals at farmers’ markets. NICFA, however, argues that since those entities aren’t specifically excluded, they could very well be regulated by overzealous bureaucrats. That isn’t necessarily an incorrect argument.



On the other hand, the opposition to NAIS relies on the scare-tactic talking point that the program is designed to benefit evil corporate megafarms and run the “little guy” out of business. Naturally, this theory is nonsensical; there is no agency or office at USDA that is conspiring with these evil “factory farms” to end the livelihood of small-time producers like myself. This assertion is the worst-type of “black helicopter” conspiracy theory as it continues to impede our nation’s ability to protect the livestock industry from animal disease epidemics like avian flu or foot and mouth disease.



In analyzing the reality of the opposition to NAIS, I’m convinced that there is, at least in part, a concern that the IRS will collude with USDA on data relating the number of animals marketed from a given premise. That isn’t all that far-fetched in that USDA chief Tom Vilsack announced earlier this year that the IRS will provide income data for farm program payment verification purposes. In that situation, the IRS data will be used to preclude higher-income producers from receiving payments outlined in the Farm Bill.



What if, however, that partnership worked in the reverse: USDA provided animal numbers to IRS number crunchers or auditors? I’m convinced this is a significant, if unspoken, concern behind these “independent farmers'” (aren’t most farmers by nature independent, by the way?) vehement opposition to NAIS. If they are required at some point (NAIS is only focused on registering Premise ID’s at this point, not individual animal ID’s) to identify each individual animal and its movement from premise to premise, it would be much more concerning to sell an animal for cash “under the table,” particularly if one held concerns that tracking data would be provided to the IRS.



Furthermore, the argument that this program unfairly targets the small producer and is designed to run him out of business doesn’t hold water for two main reasons: first, that the costs associated with NAIS should be negligible, and secondly, that even small producers have a responsibility to play by the rules. To explain, I am a small beef cattle producer, a group typically more likely to oppose NAIS. I own a handful of cows, and market calves as purebred seedstock. As NAIS unfolds, I know at some point I will identify each of those animals by a NAIS-compliant number and choose a NAIS-compliant ID tag. I will spend a small amount of money to acquire the tag, and apply that tag during routine veterinary or breeding work. I will use an online database to report these numbers and the premise on which they are housed, and thereby be in compliance with the NAIS program.



Wow, that sounds easy… Well, it is.



I’ve read “sky is falling” articles and blog posts on this issue attempting to convince a producer like myself that the reporting requirements of this program are onerous enough that the costs will be over $10,000 per year and thereby run me out of business. There is, unfortunately for the critics, no basis in reality for these figures. A tag will cost what any ear tag costs relative to other USDA animal disease programs; I remember years ago showing heifers and having a “Bangs” tag inserted as part of the brucellosis vaccination program. This tag cost was negligible, and is but one example in USDA’s livestock portfolio.



To my second argument, that of playing “by the rules,” farmers regardless of size have an obligation to follow the same standards of animal care, food safety, and regulatory compliance. This notion that I should only have to comply with certain protocols if I own a large number of livestock is silly. If I want to raise a food product and market it to the consuming public, my responsibility to produce a safe, wholesome product is no less significant than the responsibility of a Tyson or Smithfield Foods-type producer. In the same way, if the Congress of the United States or the USDA deem an animal tracking system to be necessary for food or animal safety, that program should be “size neutral,” which is exactly how I read NAIS.



So how does this relate back to HR875? I brought this whole argument to your attention to say that we should be very wary of attempts by big-government proponents to create another bureaucracy for food safety when USDA does an acceptable job of monitoring the safety of meat, milk, and egg products. FDA should either achieve that same standard, or perhaps their role in the non-livestock areas of food safety should become the responsibility of USDA. Secondly, we should be very wary of Chicken Little type activists using issues like these to spread conspiracy theory and their own negative food marketing agendas.



By “negative food marketing,” I mean the desire of some niche food marketers to promote their product at the expense of every other product not like their own. Take the organic zealots who’ve convinced certain groups of consumers that comparable “commodity” products raised with modern farming practices are somehow adulterated with chemicals and contaminants that will either cause physical harm, or at the very least be nutritionally inferior. Take Mr. Wightman’s involvement in the concept of a herd-share to market “raw” milk. The raw milk activists convince their customers that unpasteurized milk has additional health benefits like – and I’m not making this up – the ability to cure cancer. Clearly there is no body of evidence to support these claims, but customers in these arrangements are zealous in their support for these products.



The rBST situation last year was another prime example of this trend. Because a small number of milk marketers chose to make rBST the bogeyman, a vocal segment of the consuming public became convinced that milk from rBST treated cows would cause all manner of ills, and began demanding not only the opportunity to buy “rBST-Free Milk,” but moreover that their retailer carry ONLY milk from cows not treated with the synthetic production-enhancing hormone. The milk was scientifically no different from cows treated with the product as those untreated. With no basis in science or reality, a small group of food marketers took the increased production afforded by rBST out of the Ohio dairyman’s toolbox.



So, to bring this all home, I have very real concerns about bills like HR875 because they both expand the role of the federal government and convince consumers of a mythical “food safety crisis” fostered by “big food” and their evil corporate mega-farm conspirators. At the same time, Glenn Beck’s reactions in this segment illustrate the opportunity these debates provide activists for advancing an agenda that weakens the overall consumer perception of our food supply as the safest, most nutritious, most affordable in the history of man.