Agriculture Labels Policy Supermarkets USDA

Farm and Food Session 3

Lots of policy talk in this session. Patty Lovera from Food and Water Watch presented on the state of US food policy focusing primarily on the Farm Bill and food safety legislation. She covered lots of ground on an incredible number of topics. I won’t try to even summarize it. Here’s the highlights of what I found interesting.

It seems like the biggest problem in developing regulations for food safety is coming up with good definitions. There are many ways that this is really really difficult. First, the labeling regulations and the new labels the FDA and USDA come up with are ill-defined and complicated. Patty’s example was the most recent changes and addition of the label “natural” or “naturally-raised.”

The label “natural” is only used for meat and falls under the jurisdiction of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The standards are only that the animal be minimally modified. Basically they can’t have hormones or antibiotics and should eat organic feed. So, a cow could spend it’s entire life in a concrete facility and never see a blade of grass and be called “natural” meat. The label “naturally-raised” has to do with the life of the animal and is regulated by a different government organization. So, you can see how labels are confusing, not informative and not regulated by the same organization. Doesn’t it make sense to have a definition of natural that both makes sense and cuts across all regulatory bodies?

The other big definition problem is size. Who is a facility? Who is a food processor? When does a farm become a processor? There is language in legislation concerning “small” farms. For example, recent changes in rules concerning egg production and sales exempts “small” producers defined as those who direct market 50% or more of their eggs and/or have less than 3,000 layers. This is a good start, but the problem is that “small” producers in Vermont would not fit the same definition as “small” farms in Texas or California. It looks like more language is being included that at least recognizes that size of producers is an important issue to include in legislation.

The other interesting thing I learned in this session was about what drives the practices of some industrial agriculture. The example was concerning producers of leafy greens. There is not much government regulation concerning this sector of food production. However, all of the supermarkets that these companies sell their leafy greens to have regulations concerning the farms they buy their produce from. So, you have a situation in which the supermarkets are driving agriculture practices. It begs a couple questions… Why have regulatory bodies? (some would like to get rid of them I guess) and What are the effects of for-profit supermarkets driving the agricultural practices? They are certainly concerned with a bare minimum of food safety, but they are more concerned with the bottom line. The most problematic aspect is that the supermarkets will not even release what their standards are, because it is proprietary.

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