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Timothy P. Carney: Big government gets in your food, hurts small farmers

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Congress passed a strict “food safety” bill Thursday, to the joy of big food processors and the dismay of small, local farmers. President Barack Obama supports the legislation, continuing his pattern of backing big-government solutions that favor the very big businesses he claims to be curbing.

Kellogg and the Grocery Manufacturers of America lobbied for this burdensome bill, while organic food advocates and fresh food enthusiasts — the folks most intimately concerned with food quality — have opposed it.

This matches the history of food safety regulation.

“We are now and always have been in favor of the extension of the inspection, also to the adoption of the sanitary regulations that will ensure the very best possible conditions.” That was Thomas E. Wilson, of the American Meat Institute, speaking before Congress in 1906, on behalf of the large meatpackers.

When Teddy Roosevelt instituted federal meat inspection, muckraker Upton Sinclair, whose book “The Jungle” spurred the push for meat regulation, wrote, “The Federal inspection of meat was, historically established at the packers’ request ... for the benefit of the packers.” The regulations “primarily affected their innumerable small competitors,” historian Gabriel Kolko wrote, and gave the big guys a virtual “government certificate on their goods,” as Sen. George Perkins described it.

Today, giant food producers (whose poor practices caused the scares of 2007 and 2008) again lead the push for food regulation, and many elements on the Left again see that the big guys are shaping the laws.

The big food processors, such as Kellogg, have lobbied for this bill, which would treat farms as “food production facilities,” subject them to inspections, and saddle them with reporting and record-keeping requirements.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., bragged Wednesday that “we have brought in industry, which supports this bill.”

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, however, opposed the measure as disproportionately burdening smaller farms while favoring industrial farming — a common trait in safety regulations, from Roosevelt’s meatpacking rules to Obama’s cigarette regulations.

The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund says the bill would “break the backs of small farmers.”

But the 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.
Consider this anecdote from the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Dick Peixoto planted hedges of fennel and flowering cilantro around his organic vegetable fields in the Pajaro Valley near Watsonville to harbor beneficial insects, an alternative to pesticides. He has since ripped out such plants in the name of food safety, because his big customers demand sterile buffers around his crops. No vegetation. No water. No wildlife of any kind.”
Food writer Michael Pollan, whose work Obama has praised, says, “Sanitizing American agriculture, aside from being impossible, is foolhardy.” But these regulations will try to do just that, and in the process, they will further centralize and industrialize our farming. The Centers for Disease Control finds: “An increasingly centralized food supply means that a food contaminated in production can be rapidly shipped to many states causing a widespread outbreak.”

Here’s another telling episode, from a different Chronicle article:

“Drew McDonald, head of quality systems for Taylor Farms in Salinas, the world’s largest salad processor, said he favors FDA regulation as a way to fight the proliferation of private, often unscientific, food safety rules imposed by large buyers.”
In other words, big guys don’t like free-market safety checks on their practices — they want only government calling the shots and telling the people, “This food is safe, you don’t have to worry.”

So, more regulation benefits the big producers, diminishes free-market regulation and thus could compromise our food safety.
This is big government: It trashes traditional ways and local, small business in favor of one-size-fits-all rules that prop up the big guys. Despite his lip service toward the Michael Pollans of the world, Obama’s legislative agenda really serves the companies with the best lobbyists.

Editor's note: Due to a production error, an earlier version of this column was posted in this space which stated that Monsanto had lobbied in favor of the Food Safety Enhancement Act. That is incorrect.

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