Is the Obama Administration Speaking Out of Both Sides of its Mouth About Food?

These are heady times for foodies-you know, the people who love farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs), and hate Big Ag. They've turned the documentary movies "Food Inc." and "Fresh!" into big hits. And they've turned "Slow...

January 8, 2010 | Source: Grist | by Is the Obama administration about to eat the foodies' lunch?

These are heady times for foodies-you know, the people who love farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs), and hate Big Ag. They’ve turned the documentary movies “Food Inc.” and “Fresh!” into big hits. And they’ve turned “Slow food” into a generic term (there actually is an organization by that name that boasts more than 100,000 members in 132 countries).

A seeming army of foodie bloggers (of which I am one) sees the hand of Big Ag’s pesticides and feedlot practices (Monsanto, Con Ag, Tyson, etc.) in the explosive growth of chronic disease, and genetically modified food. It’s a neat good-guy/bad-guy scenario, with only one wild card: Is the U.S. government with or against the foodies?

The movement is about more than symbolism. After years of decline during the last century, the number of small farms (those with less than $250,000 annual sales) increased about one percent between 2002 and 2007. Many of these farms have adopted innovations in farming practices popularized by farmers like Eliot Coleman and Joel Salatin-using compost and seaweed rather than commercial fertilizers to build up soil, putting chickens onto pasture so they eat bugs and grass, using pigs as low-maintenance rototillers, and substituting mineralization and homeopathic programs for antibiotics and vaccinations to improve animal health.

Increasingly, the heroes in this ongoing food drama are President and Michelle Obama, along with the president’s appointees at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Michelle Obama has received much acclaim for planting an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn. A popular blog, Obama Foodorama, even chronicles the Obamas’ food and eating experiences, including menus at state dinners, and Michelle Obama’s guest appearance on Sesame Street, promoting fresh vegetables.

Subordinates are trying to get with the program. Over the summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture set up a farmers market in a parking lot outside its massive Washington headquarters. And to the accolades of foodie bloggers everywhere, it launched an initiative, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” to encourage expansion of the local food boomlet.

It’s tempting to view all these developments as part of a shift in long-time official priorities, to encourage small farms practicing sustainability, at the expense of Big Ag. Unfortunately, this view is more mirage than reality.

In a classic example of the government speaking out of both sides of its mouth, the Obama administration is actively supporting another movement-one that really does favor Big Ag at the expense of the budding local food movement. It’s the Congressional push for sweeping food safety legislation, which has passed the U.S. House, and is pending a vote by the full Senate. It’s overlooked by the foodies because it’s endorsed by a wide range of consumer organizations, and besides, who wouldn’t want to counter the high profile cases of serious illness, and even a number of deaths, from contaminated spinach, hamburger, peppers, and peanut butter, among others, over the last three years?

But in their 119-page House and 133-page Senate versions, these bills do much more than increase the FDA’s army of food inspectors. They take a sledgehammer to a problem that may well benefit more from highly targeted, and less invasive approaches. Consider:

Both bills require all food producers, including even the smallest makers of specialized cheeses and jams, to put together highly detailed production plans (known as HACCP plans, for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), at a cost of many thousands of dollars requiring dozens and sometimes even hundreds of hours of specialized input designed to identify potential “hazards” in the food production process; this despite the fact that nearly all cases of food-borne illness have come from products made and distributed by mid-size and large concerns.

Moreover, it allows FDA inspectors complete discretion in approving or disapproving such plans. Working within such an arbitrary system isn’t a big problem for multimillion dollar corporations, which can afford fines of possibly $10,000 a day (under the House legislation) and expensive consultants to work through any problems.