Beltway Confidential

How to turn an urban progressive into a libertarian? Regulate the kohlrabi from his CSA

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Beltway Confidential,Food and Drink,Timothy P. Carney,Agriculture,Libertarian Populism

The conventional myth about regulation is this: Government tries to intervene to protect consumers, while big business fights for laissez-faire.

But, like most regulation, food-safety regulation often ends up protecting the biggest players in the industry, crushing small and local businesses, sometimes undermining the goal of food safety.

Liberal writer Tom Philpott at Mother Jones pens a piece critical of federal food safety regulations as "a significant and possibly devastating burden to small and mid-sized players."

Has Philpott been co-opted by Kellogg or the Kochs? Has he been reading too much Ayn Rand or hanging around Cato too many nights?

No. He's been palling around at Community Supported Agriculture co-ops and noshing on organic carrots.

Citing the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Philpott writes:

[M]ore than 30,000 "small" and "very small" farms would be subject to regulation. The cost of compliance for these farms, NSAC shows, will be 4 percent to 6 percent of total gross sales — enough to knock out half or more of a small operation's profits, and turn an operation that's scraping by into one that fails. ...

[B]ecause the current proposal doesn’t narrowly define "manufacturing facilities," CSAs and other "direct farmer-to-consumer farms that do light processing activities or include produce from another farm in their boxes will be subject to inappropriate, excessive regulations designed for industrial food facilities."

When this law was passed back in 2009, my reporting led me to predict exactly what Philpott describes: Big business controlled the regulatory rulemaking:

[T]he dagger will be the law’s implementation — the drawing up of the regulations.

“The regulations will be the real law,” one lobbyist told produce industry publication The Packer. On the regulatory level, everything depends on who has the best lobbyists, the best connections and the most lawyers. It’s on the regulatory level that having Monsanto’s former top lobbyist, Michael Taylor, as the Department of Health and Human Services’ top food safety adviser will be important (Monsanto says they have no position on the bill and have not lobbied on it). The bill gives the Food and Drug Administration (an agency of HHS) authority to “regulate agricultural production practices, effectively telling farmers how to farm,” as one Republican bill summary put it.

When the Grocery Manufacturers of America are drawing up the regulations, expect that chemicals, sterility and largeness will be endorsed, while diversity, smallness and organic efforts will be assailed.

At AEI we hosted a discussion on this matter, involving organic farms and food trucks.

Related flashback: "How do you turn a D.C. liberal into a libertarian for a day? Threaten to regulate his limousine service."

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