Food politics: quick hits

I haven’t written much on food/ag policy in a while. Partly we’ve been busy, partly I’m tired of feeling angry about it all the time, and haven’t had the energy to sit down and develop a series of good posts. The one I did write was rejected by my editor as too angry and snide for its own good, and she was right. So in true blog fashion, I’m going to try offering a series of shorter notes about various issues that have me steamed.

Wisconsin, South Dakota, and Georgia cracking down on raw milk sales. FDA trying to ban raw oysters. The USDA requiring raw almonds to be “sanitized”. In a supposedly free-market country, we have governments actively trying to prevent willing consumers and producers from completing economically beneficial transactions, while allowing far more dangerous and damaging transactions. Our tax dollars are being squandered on this crap, by state and federal agencies, while allowing far more egregious threats to public health to pass by.
The raw milk thing especially gets to me. I don’t hold with the fringier elements insisting that it’s a miracle health food; we don’t even drink our own raw milk. But in a country where raw meat is sold in every grocery, you can order a nearly raw steak at any restaurant, and sushi/sashimi is popping up everywhere, it’s asinine that raw milk is considered a threat on the scale of marijuana or worse. Is it the government’s business whether you take that steak home and cook it thoroughly? This is especially true given that raw milk does not have to be drunk; it is also an ingredient for home cheese or yogurt making. Should we ban hops and malt because someone might home-brew beer and then drive drunk? If someone ever reminds the Feds that corn can be home-brewed into bourbon, the Midwestern economy could collapse.
I don’t have any one link, because there’s too much out there. We’ve somewhat stopped paying attention, because the bills coming through Congress are so frightening in their draconian and expensive attempts to sterilize food production that we can’t handle following it anymore. We’re just going to keep running our farm and let the Feds show up at our gate with whatever demands for produce chlorine baths and terrorism-prevention plans Congress comes up with. Then we’ll thank the nice people, lock the gate, turn in our business license, and hope our former customers like their imported food while we go back to feeding ourselves with illicit home-grown substances.
It’s worth noting that many folks are claiming that small farms would somehow be exempt from much of these bills. Even if that’s true, the reality doesn’t work that way. For example, let’s say there’s a new Federal inspection program for food producers, but you don’t have to take part if you only sell to final consumers or you only make under a certain amount. But most small-farm business models are diverse; lots of sales to farmers markets, but maybe some to groceries or restaurants, and this is what’s going to happen: Pressure from above is going to start making groceries, restaurants, and other purchasers require proof of compliance with these laws, or perhaps their insurers will force them to require it. So I may still have the freedom to sell at the farmers market, but the second I contact a restaurant, I have to come into line with industrial producers. The effect, if unintended, will still be to seriously constrain the business models of small/local farms and effectively, if not legally, force them to take part in the regulations or go out of business.
One of the smartest arguments I’ve seen against the current trend of food safety crackdowns points out that it’s likely to increase the importation of food, as domestic producers are unable to economically comply, and the Feds generally accept foreign assurances of compliance with US law. (This analysis from the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund is recommended reading.) For example, with the USDA’s requirement for the “sanitation of almonds with a toxic fumigant or treatment with high-temperature heat”, organic-minded retailers like Whole Foods are dropping their domestic purchases of almonds in favor of imported almonds not subject to the law (source: Cornucopia Institute director Mark Kastel’s talk at last week’s Small Farm Show in Columbia). Plus, any time you increase regulation on food, you drive up the price, naturally meaning cheaper foreign imports become more viable for retailers. Does anyone besides the FDA and USDA really trust China’s food safety inspection system?
When I look at the massive regulatory efforts now underway to “fix” our food system, and the attempts by various state agriculture & health departments to crack down on things like raw milk and farmers markets, I want to introduce these people to the concept of cost/benefit. Yes, raw milk/oysters/almonds make people sick sometimes. Centralized industrial food makes lots of people sick sometimes. But what percentage of our actual national health issues do these problems represent, and what percentage of our tax dollars are being spent to “solve” these issues?
If we divided up our regulatory dollars and time in realistic proportion to the processes/products/issues that actually make people sick/injured/in need of care, we’d be spending a lot more time cracking down on bad driving and unhealthy food. Instead, we spend disproportionate amounts of resources chasing our own tails around the issue of food safety instead of food health.
And we only regulate certain aspects of the system. I’d bet that home food handling sickens far more people than commercial food handling, yet we don’t see inspectors out there sticking thermometers into potato salads on the 4th of July or checking the chest freezers of deer hunters. Strangely for a capitalist country, we focus the most regulatory energy on anyone trying to make a living, while ignoring anyone else. I can make my cheese, butcher my meat, and give it away all year long with no problems. But the second I take a dime for it, I’m a criminal. Some entrepreneurial culture we’ve got here.
All these new regulations, and most of the existing ones that affect small farms, really aren’t very effective. There are lots of farms in most states selling raw milk, fresh cheese, farm-butchered meat, and so on. Plenty of people recognize that the law is stupid, and so ignore it. A few get caught, most of them sneak by. The results are two-fold: not only do you create criminals from well-meaning people, but you reward the cheaters and punish the honest. We have never taken a dime for our dairy products, and have never sold meat. We’ve had plenty of requests and demand for both, but we take the law seriously whether or not we agree with it. And so our diversified farm’s business model is permanently hobbled due to our honesty, while others make money on the black market. And neither of us generate any taxes, though plenty of tax dollars are squandered on over-regulation of small farms.
Glad to get that off my chest. Maybe next time I’ll tackle issues like well-meaning agencies and non-profits who try to “help” farmers but either waste money or actively undermine them.

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