Sunday, November 07, 2010

Pry my turnip from my cold, dead hand

[This post got way out of hand.  It's sort of a stream of research - reporting what I find as I find it - that you just have to follow along.  Toward the end I sum up a bit - here's what I say:
This is billed as a food safety bill.  It gives the FDA more power to set and enforce regulations  to promote food safety.  Its supporters include consumer groups.  But also organizations that normally oppose regulation because they or their members are regulated.  So what have they been given in exchange for their support?  That is the big question. 

The opponent organizations say the regulations will continue the destruction of small farms by including them in the regulations when the real food safety problems come from the large industrial farms.  And then there are those who see this as far more ominous - a large scale conspiracy to capture the rights to control food and drugs by large corporations.  

It's Sunday, and even with an extra hour, I have other things to do.  So consider this a heads up on this issue. ]

A letter to the editor that caused me to pause and google this week.  I'm still uncertain about this.  There are aspects that resonate with me and parts that don't square with things as well:

Pry my turnip from my cold, dead hand
It reminds me of "The Gulag Archepelago," by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, when I hear about "The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010," wherein it will become illegal to buy, sell and trade home-grown produce.
I don't know about you, but I like to garden. I'd think, that in the great country of the United States of America, we'd be free to grow our own sustenance.
Our country was founded by can-do people, who took life into their own hands, and didn't wait for permission by some king.
I'd like to see who's going to stop me from growing a turnip or two.
Lillian K. Staats

OK, I understand that there are huge food and huge pharmaceutical companies that are working to corner the market so they can improve their profits.   Martin Khor at Thirdworldnetwork summarizes this:
There is growing worldwide opposition to the granting of patents on biological materials such as genes, plants, animals and humans. Farmers and indigenous peoples are outraged that plants that they developed are being 'hijacked' by companies. Groups as diverse as religious leaders, parliamentarians and environment NGOs are intensifying their campaign against corporate patenting of living things. . .
In Alaska we know about the conflicts between subsistence, even recreational fishing, and huge corporate fishing. And the fight over labeling genetically modified salmon. 

So I looked up the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010.  It turns out to be S510 and it's called "FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010."

GovTrac.US keeps tabs on federal legislation and gives us an overview, a summary, and the whole bill.  Here they post the Congressional Research Agency's  summary of the FIRST TWO SECTIONS of the bill:

12/18/2009--Reported to Senate amended. FDA Food Safety Modernization Act -
Title I - Improving Capacity to Prevent Food Safety Problems
Section 101 -
Amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) to expand the authority of the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to inspect records related to food, including to: (1) allow the inspection of records of food that the Secretary reasonably believes is likely to be affected in a similar manner as an adulterated food; and (2) require that each person (excluding farms and restaurants) who manufactures, processes, packs, distributes, receives, holds, or imports an article of food permit inspection of his or her records if the Secretary believes that there is a reasonable probability that the use of or exposure to such food will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.
Section 102 -
Authorizes the Secretary to suspend the registration of a food facility if the food manufactured, processed, packed, or held by a facility has a reasonable probability of causing serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals.
Then they list the bill's supporters and opponents:

Consumers Union
Center for Science in the Public Interest
Food Marketing Institute
Consumer Federation of America
National Restaurant Association
General Mills
National Association of Manufacturers
International Dairy Foods Association
American Public Health Association
Grocery Manufacturers Association
American Bakers Association
International Foodservice Distributors Association
National Consumers League
American Frozen Food Institute
National Confectioners Association
Snack Food Association
Trust for America's Health
Produce Marketing Association
United Fresh Produce Association
American Beverage Association
American Farm Bureau Federation
American Veterinary Medical Association
Kraft Foods North America
Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP)
Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention
National Fisheries Institute
Pew Charitable Trust
International Bottled Water Association
National Coffee Association
American Grassfed Association
National Family Farm Coalition
Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund
Weston A. Price Foundation
The John Birch Society
Raw Milk Association of Colorado
Farm Family Defenders
Small Farms Conservancy
National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association
Carolina Farm Stewardship Association

OK, there are some names among the supporters that, at first blush, one might think have the interests of the American public in mind.  Doesn't Consumers Union put out Consumer Reports?  Yup.  Here's what they say about the bill:

A half-billion recalled eggs? Let’s fix this already!

When we can’t even trust the eggs in our refrigerators, there’s an obvious problem with our food safety system. Yet a bill that would help prevent deadly outbreaks and hold producers of unsafe food accountable – rather than wasting time and money tracking down problems after the fact – remains stuck in the Senate.

Help us move this bill now! The House passed its food safety bill more than a year ago, and since then there have been 60 recalls – including a half-billion eggs! A new report on the companies that produced the recalled eggs found chickens living among rodents, maggots and 8-foot-high piles of manure.

Unless consumers speak out and demand better inspections, testing and oversight of food producers, we will continue to face costly and deadly recalls. 
Tell your Senators to pass the food safety bill and to support an amendment that bans the chemical BPA in childrens' food and drink containers. Safer food can’t wait!
So, they see this as a consumer protection bill that will improve food safety by beefing up [no pun intended, really] food regulation and inspection.   So does the Center for Science in the Public Interest:
S. 510, FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.  Senator Richard Durbin.  S. 510 requires food companies to implement food safety plans.  Food companies would be required to register every two years.  Food companies would be required to conduct a hazard analysis and implement preventive measures on their production lines to ensure the food they produce is safe and meets performance standards set by FDA for controlling hazards.  FDA would be required to inspect high risk food processors at least annually and all other food processors at least once every four years.  Food importers would be required to ensure their foreign suppliers comply with U.S. food safety laws.  FDA may require high risk foods to be certified as complying with U.S. requirements for safety.  Certifications would be performed under a program for accrediting third-party certifiers to audit foreign food companies for compliance.  FDA would set standards for the safe production of fresh fruits and produce.  The bill strengthens enforcement authority by allowing FDA to:
  • Order recalls;
  • Detain unsafe food when inspectors find it; and,
  • Set traceability requirements.

But then there are the other groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), General Foods,

NAM is against more federal regulation. 

Official Policy Position

The National Association of Manufacturers recommends more emphasis on creating a favorable business climate through decreasing unnecessary manufacturing regulation by the government. The benefits of appropriate regulations are clear and supported by the public. The issue is how to enable the regulatory system in America to provide for these concerns without unreasonably impeding innovation, research, development and product deployment.
Click Here for the NAM's Complete Official Policy Position on Regulation »

Why would they support a bill that increases regulation?  One reason may be that a federal bill would preempt state regulations.  It's easier to deal with one set of federal regulations than 50 different sets of state regulations.  But what's in the bill that this normally anti-regulation group supports?  I don't know, but it's a question to pursue.

Then there's the National Fisheries Institute, which is another industry organization.  It has a "Truth Squad:"

About the NFI Truth Squad

When working on a news story about the seafood industry it is important to understand that many of the prepackaged, ready-made tools that some sources provide are not always what they appear to be. Those staggering statistics and that convenient sound bite science often appear to fit perfectly into a narrative but is it, proverbially, too good to be true?

Many stories about preserving fish stocks and pollution in seafood seem like harmless "responsible" reports when in reality they are tales based on misinformation peddled by an array of environmental activists and lobbyists who go to great pains to obscure their strategies and ultimate agenda.

Known as environmental non-governmental organizations or ENGOs, often they promote ocean conservancy or lobby for environmental protections—and some do a responsible job of it. But others distort facts, twist science and compromise public health with campaigns that confuse consumers and most importantly they rely on the press to tell "their" story.

Welcome to the NFI Truth Squad, where we will introduce you to how these environmental organizations and activists masquerading as independent doctors and researchers frequently offer contradictory and unproven ideas about eating fish that are alarmist and bankrupt.  

In the end we will ask the tough questions but it is up to you to find the answer.

The Featured Environmental Groups and Activists:

Consumers Union [there are eight more on their list]

So, the National Fisheries Institute is supporting the same "Food Safety" legislation as The Consumers Union. Even though the first group on the National Fisheries Institute "Truth Squad" hit list is the Consumers Union.

Wow, this just gets weirder and weirder. Their "truth" about the Consumers Union is that a biologist who used to work for them and wrote unflattering reports about NFI turned around and asked NFI for a consulting job. That's it.  I thought a key tactic for dealing with people who oppose you was cooptation - to hire them yourselves for five times their current salary.

They even publish his letter to them, which you can judge for yourself. I think it's an attempt to get them to be less doctrinaire in denying the dangers of mercury and other fisheries problems so that, in fact, more people will eat fish. Why is NFI backing this? What carrot do they get? That genetically modified salmon won't be labeled as such?

And then there's the International Bottled Water Association.   If you want to know about them, one, not very flattering, place to start is the movie Tapped,  which played at the Anchorage International Film Festival last year.  Water is seen by many to be the biggest world-wide resource issue of the future, making oil seem minor.  And large corporations are already trying to lock up the world's water supplies so people have to buy this critical to life commodity from only them.  What are they getting from this bill?

The list of those opposed are the people you might expect - groups for local farming, small farms, etc.  In a letter to Senators, the National Family Farm Coalition tries to distinguish factory farms from small family farms:
All of the well-publicized incidents of contamination in recent years – whether in spinach, peppers, or peanuts – occurred in industrialized food supply chains that span national and even international boundaries. The food safety problems in this system can and should be addressed without harming the local food systems that provide an alternative for consumers.
The growing trend toward healthy, fresh, locally sourced vegetables, fruit, dairy, and value- added products improves food safety by providing the opportunity for consumers to know their farmers and processors, to choose products on the basis of that relationship, and to readily trace any problems should they occur. ]

The National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association emphasizes that the bill will speed the demise of small farms and increase industrial farming where the main food safety issues arise:
S-510 will have the unintended destructive consequence of eliminating small farms and consumer access to local food. The main threats to food safety – by the government’s own admission – are centralized production, centralized processing and long distance transportation. The food safety bills will increase these risk factors by further consolidating agriculture into fewer, larger industrial farms through enormous regulatory burdens that small farms cannot endure. Small farms and farmers markets are an important economic engine, environmental safeguard and national security asset. There is not a history of food borne illness from farmers’ markets or small farms.

Then there's the Weston A. Price Foundation.  Who?  I'd never hear of the them. But when I saw their mission statement, it makes sense they are opposed:
The Weston A. Price Foundation is a nonprofit, tax-exempt charity founded in 1999 to disseminate the research of nutrition pioneer Dr. Weston Price, whose studies of isolated nonindustrialized peoples established the parameters of human health and determined the optimum characteristics of human diets. Dr. Price's research demonstrated that humans achieve perfect physical form and perfect health generation after generation only when they consume nutrient-dense whole foods and the vital fat-soluble activators found exclusively in animal fats.

The Foundation is dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism. It supports a number of movements that contribute to this objective including accurate nutrition instruction, organic and biodynamic farming, pasture-feeding of livestock, community-supported farms, honest and informative labeling, prepared parenting and nurturing therapies. Specific goals include establishment of universal access to clean, certified raw milk and a ban on the use of soy formula for infants.

One glaring anomaly amongst this group that wouldn't normally be thought to associate with progressives is the John Birch Society - the far right group that was prominent in the 1960's but that doesn't not mean much to most people today.  It would make sense that they are against this because they are against government regulation.  Here's part of what the John Birch Society says on S 510:

Senate Bill 510 has already passed committee and is on the Senate calendar. It calls for enhanced expansion of FDA authority over small farms, ranches, and other food producers, establishes burdensome administrative requirements for large and small operations, and arbitrary legal authority to recall “unsafe medications,” the definition of which is not clearly established; if in line with the global standard set by Codex Alimentarius, “unsafe medications” could extend to dietary supplements and herbal products. There is language that currently exempts from heavy regulation dietary supplement manufacturers and packagers. However, the FDA and its agents are notorious for interpreting regulations their own way.
Okay, the basics are there.  This is billed as a food safety bill.  It gives the FDA more power to set and enforce regulations  to promote food safety.  Its supporters include consumer groups.  But also organizations that normally oppose regulation because they or their members are regulated.  So what have they been given in exchange for their support?  That is the big question.

The opponent organizations say the regulations will continue the destruction of small farms by including them in the regulations when the real food safety problems come from the large industrial farms.  And then there are those who see this is far more ominous - a large scale conspiracy to capture the rights to control food and drugs by large corporations. The opponents are those who are trying to be mainstream alternatives to what we have today.  Sort of like the solar energy and electric car folks 30 years ago.  

Food Freedom makes that last point somewhat dramatically:
S 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act,  may be the most dangerous bill in the history of the US.  It is to our food what the bailout was to our economy, only we can live without money. 
“If accepted [S 510] would preclude the public’s right to grow, own, trade, transport, share, feed and eat each and every food that nature makes.  It will become the most offensive authority against the cultivation, trade and consumption of food and agricultural products of one’s choice. It will be unconstitutional and contrary to natural law or, if you like, the will of God.”  ~Dr. Shiv Chopra, Canada Health whistleblower

The Sponsor - Sen. Richard Durbin

So, who is the sponsor and how did he get this coalition of supporters?  Sen. Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois is billed by Wikipedia as one of the most liberal Senators.    I know that Illinois is a farm state with lots of corn.  Presumably his big donors are industrial farm interests, right?  GovTrack says, in its Money and Donors section on Durbin,
The top campaign contribution to Durbin in 2007-2008 was $94,035 from employees of Simmons Cooper LLC.
 OK, we're getting close to figuring this all out.  We just have to look up Simmons Cooper.  And they are . . . no wait, the pieces don't fit neatly into the puzzle, look:
Today, the Simmons firm continues to work on the front lines of several groundbreaking pharmaceutical trials, including several on a national stage. We have represented thousands of pharmaceutical clients and recovered nearly $200 million in verdicts and settlements.*
The Simmons firm has experience in litigating complex medical matters. We have taken a leadership role in standing up for individuals who have been injured by dangerous or defective drugs
They go after the drug companies for consumers.  In the liberal ideology, they should be representing large pharmaceuticals.  What's in this for them?  Influenceexplorer says they gave $4.27 million to politicians from 2001-2010, all of it to Democrats, most at the federal level.   Another specialty area of theirs is Intellectual Property, which is a concern of some of the opponents of S510 who believe large food and pharmaceutical companies will have more freedom to patent foods products such as genetically modified foods.  But that's just speculation.

What I see at this stage:

1.  There's a bill that nominally strengthens the government's ability to regulate and implement food safety in the US.

2.  There may be negative side effects that hurt small farmers and others trying to offer healthy options to industrialized farming.  Such groups oppose the bill as it now stands. 

3.  Consumer protection groups are supporting this bill, presumably because they see those aspects of the bill and discount the negative aspects.

4.  Large industrial food corporations and their organizations (such as Kraft, Food Marketing Institute, General Mills, International Dairy Foods Association. Grocery Manufacturer) are supporting the bill along with the National Association of Manufacturers, which as part of its policy opposes government regulation.  Obviously, these folks are getting something in exchange for their support.  I think this is the key to understanding this bill and which gives credibility to those organizations which oppose the bill in such strong language.  

One last note.  Charles Lindblom, in his  classic "Science of Muddling Through," argued that rather than agree on goals, members of Congress, agree on ends.  If they had to agree on the goals first, nothing would get done.  Each player sticks his own interest onto a piece of legislation.  That's why legislation seems so disjointed and unfocused.  This legislation may be an example of that.  There's something in it for Consumers Union and for the National Fisheries Institute who it appears are usually adversaries.  Just a thought.  The question is which of the supporters is getting the better deal and who is buying into short term gains in exchange for long term losses?  And who is left out of the deal altogether? 

This was meant to be a short post, just calling attention to the original letter and saying I don't know much about it, but here's just a bit to peak your interest.  Consider it a rough first look.


  1. great title; and interesting discussion of who supports and who opposes S 510.

    Can I repost this at Food Freedom?

    drum4peace [at] gmail dotcom

  2. Consumers Union does indeed support S. 510 because it will increase the frequency with which FDA inspects food processsors, will require FDA to develop safety standards for crops like spinach that have caused illnesses and deaths in the past, and will give FDA authority to order (not just request) recalls of tainted food.

    The reason that some in the food industry also support this bill is obvious: it is in their economic self-interest. Supermarkets and companies like Kellogg are tired of losing millions of dollars on recalls of contaminated products that their suppliers sent to them. After Peanut Corporation of America shipped peanut paste contaminated with salmonella to Kellogg, which Kellogg used in Keebler peanut butter crackers, it cost Kellogg a reported $70 million to completely clean out and sanitize their contaminated production facilities. Kellogg now also faces liability for the contaminated products. It has finally occurred to these companies that a few irresponsible and sloppy operators in their midst can seriously cut into their profits. So they are supporting more enforcement and higher standards.
    Jean Halloran
    Director, Food Policy Initiatives, Consumers Union

  3. @Jean,

    You are either *amazingly* ill-suited to your position or putting a ridiculous spin on this for reasons I couldn't possibly know.

    What a blatant fiction:
    "The reason that some in the food industry also support this bill is obvious: it is in their economic self-interest."

    So Kellogg is excited about this bill because it would force them to do something they're not willing to do themselves - that sounds completely logical and exactly like the corporate mentality. Seriously.

    My wife and I *finally* subscribed to Consumer Reports a couple of months ago, but we won't be renewing, based solely on your stance on this.

    Cole Skinner


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