“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Food Rights”: Shouldn’t We Decide What We Eat?, author David E. Gumpert discussed the US government battle against small farmers and consumers who bypass big agriculture and engage in direct commerce.In a recent interview with Truthout entitled,
As Gumpert’s publisher Chelsea Green notes:
Do Americans have the right to privately obtain the foods of our choice from farmers, neighbors, and local producers, in the same way our grandparents and great grandparents used to do?
Yes, say a growing number of people increasingly afraid that the mass-produced food sold at supermarkets is excessively processed, tainted with antibiotic residues and hormones, and lacking in important nutrients. These people, a million or more, are seeking foods outside the regulatory system, like raw milk, custom-slaughtered beef, and pastured eggs from chickens raised without soy, purchased directly from private membership-only food clubs that contract with Amish and other farmers.
Public-health and agriculture regulators, however, say no: Americans have no inherent right to eat what they want. In today’s ever-more-dangerous food-safety environment, they argue, all food, no matter the source, must be closely regulated, and even barred, if it fails to meet certain standards. These regulators, headed up by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with help from state agriculture departments, police, and district-attorney detectives, are mounting intense and sophisticated investigative campaigns against farms and food clubs supplying privately exchanged food—even handcuffing and hauling off to jail, under threat of lengthy prison terms, those deemed in violation of food laws.
Gumpert explains the stakes of this conflict in the introduction to his book, which follows:
Sometime late in the evening of Sunday, June 17, 2012, enforcement agents at a northern Florida weigh station operated by the state’s department of agriculture pulled over a large refrigerated truck barreling down I-95. It had just crossed from Georgia into Florida, carrying a substantial load of goods, including about $45,000 worth of food from two Pennsylvania farms destined for several hundred members of three private food clubs in the Miami–Fort Lauderdale area. The agents asked the driver for his bills of lading, which are the legal documents between the shippers and trucker detailing what is being delivered and to whom.
The enforcement agents didn’t like what they saw—apparently they considered the bills of lading too terse—so the agents told the driver they needed to look inside. As one agent began opening boxes, he noticed some bottles containing brown liquid, labeled kombucha. He called for agents from the Florida Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
“Moonshine,” said an agent. “That can’t be moonshine,” said the driver. “Shut up!” the agent told the driver, slapping handcuffs on the man. Next into the truck were agents from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Food Safety Division. They opened more boxes and didn’t like what they saw either. Boxes of beef, chicken, and pork—all missing United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stamps, indicating they came from custom slaughterhouses and not facilities regularly monitored by the USDA. Fermented vegetables and cheeses labeled in black magic marker with the most basic descriptions—sauerkraut and goat cheese.
The driver was thrown into a Jacksonville-area jail, charged with a third-degree felony for illegally shipping alcoholic beverages into the state. The cargo, the hundreds of pounds of farm-fresh food, was ordered taken to a landfill. Under Florida law, food that is confiscated because of concerns about its origins and safety is usually set aside pending a court hearing. But if the inspectors judge it to be “poisonous,” it can be dumped immediately. And so that Monday morning, within hours of being seized, hundreds of pounds of fresh meat, dairy products, eggs, fermented vegetables, and other foods were trucked over to a local landfill, dumped, and buried. The farmers who shipped the food, and the members of the food club receiving it, didn’t have insurance covering it, so together they were out the $45,000. In addition, the trucking company was assessed a dumping fee of nearly $2,000, which was charged to the farmers.
That wasn’t the end of the incident. Before the week was out, Pennsylvania state police were visiting the trucking company, inquiring into the circumstances of the shipment. An agent from the USDA was visiting with the managers of one of the Florida food clubs, warning them that it was against the law to ship meat not inspected by the USDA across state lines. One of the Pennsylvania farmers whose food was on the truck was noticing strange cars cruising back and forth and parking outside his farm.
I heard about the incident a few days after it occurred, via an e-mail from a friend of one of the farmers whose food was on the truck. “Breaking News!” was the subject line of his e-mail. He figured I’d want to broadcast on my blog this troubling incident of government authorities interfering in people’s access to food.
He was partially correct. As a journalist, my first instinct was to confirm what happened, and then publish an account of this seemingly outrageous incident exclusively on my blog, The Complete Patient (www.thecomplete patient.com). But my second instinct, as an advocate journalist—one who has covered for five years the emergence of the food rights movement and sympathizes with its concerns about attempts to limit access to certain food—was to hesitate while mulling over some questions.
Was this food seizure and disposal a setup, possibly arranged by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and/or the USDA, to ensnare the farmers in a legal morass aimed at shutting them down? There had been any number of “stings” and undercover investigations of small farms around the country over the previous five years. If it was a setup, how much did the authorities know? For example, did they know about only one farmer, or both?
If it was an isolated incident, then publicizing it might give the federal authorities information that they didn’t have and encourage them to go after the farmers. My particular fear was of the FDA, since it had become especially aggressive in enforcing food laws—especially concerning the distribution of raw milk—against farmers. I didn’t know for sure if raw milk was even on the truck, though I assumed it was. In any event, I didn’t want to be responsible via my blog for putting one or another farmer in danger of a protracted and expensive legal tangle with the FDA.
If it was a setup, a sting operation of some kind, then I would want to report on it—but only after I felt comfortable about what the authorities knew and didn’t know. I had long made it a professional rule to try my best to avoid endangering farmers and food clubs by releasing information that could become intelligence for the food police.
Over the next few weeks, it became increasingly apparent that the seizure was an isolated incident. A local prosecutor decided not to file charges against the driver. The strange cars stopped cruising by one of the farms. There were no official actions against the farmers or the Florida food clubs whose members had ordered the food. The main hassle, aside from the financial loss on the confiscated food, appeared to be that the farmers had to shift to a different trucker, since the original one decided it didn’t want to risk any more such problems.
Still, the event stayed with me long after it had seemingly blown over (and I felt enough time had elapsed to discuss it here, without naming names). For one thing, I couldn’t easily get over the fact that the Florida officials had so quickly condemned, and then disposed of, so much perfectly good food. Couldn’t they have checked a little further to find out who was getting the food? If there was a violation of labeling requirements, couldn’t there have been a warning—or even a fine—and a commitment to straightening out the labeling problem in the future? I spoke with officials in the Florida agencies, and they basically said the decision was made by the agents on the scene, and that they had followed “policy.”
Had our national concerns about food safety become so obsessive that agriculture agents would, within hours, send to a landfill $45,000 worth of food that they could tell was fresh and wholesome from a simple taste and smell? If they had concerns about pathogens, couldn’t they have quickly tested samples?
I was bothered as well by the fact that the farmers and food club members I consulted about the situation felt reluctant to complain about what had happened. There had been many other similarly sad and upsetting events concerning the distribution of fresh-from-the-farm food, especially dairy and meat; everyone felt intimidated about making a fuss, and possibly bringing down even greater penalties than the confiscation and disposal of $45,000 worth of good food. The attitude didn’t seem that far removed from that of women who are sexually harassed on the job or in the military and feel intimidated about complaining, knowing there could be reprisals.
I was also unnerved personally that I had felt compelled to compromise my journalistic instincts and recommend to the farmers and food club members that we pull back from reporting on a questionable exercise of authority. Questionable on so many levels—to dispose of so much good food during a time when people are going hungry, to dump that food in a landfill when we are all needing to rethink the amount of waste we produce on a finite planet, and to confiscate a significant amount of private property from people without even a hint of due process of law.
Complicating my own concerns about my journalistic instincts was the knowledge that, outrageous as the incident seemed to me, it likely wouldn’t seem that way to other journalists. They would be inclined to accept the explanation of Florida authorities that the food had been judged unsafe, and thus required immediate disposal—if they were even interested in the event at all. In my experience covering this sort of story over the previous five years, more often than not few or no members of the media question regulatory judgment about food safety, whether at the state or federal level. What the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), FDA, and state public health and agriculture authorities determine is “safe” or “dangerous” is typically accepted; the few individuals like me who question them are seen as reckless and unconcerned about public health.
Finally, I was unnerved by a larger issue: the huge and expanding amount of authority we have entrusted to geographically remote and seemingly arbitrary government officials to regulate our food. This applied not just to the mass-produced food sold in supermarkets, big box stores, convenience stores, and other retail outlets, but increasingly to food exchanges that have traditionally been out of their view and authority—church suppers, bake sales, neighborhood lemonade stands, and agreements between farmers and their neighbors for the sale of food direct from a farm.
This extension of regulation has happened to coincide with the growing popularity among Americans to obtain more and more of their foods directly from farmers and other producers, including some people who go to extraordinary lengths to access food they consider healthy and wholesome. The result is a tension between regulators attempting to impose the rules of the marketplace and individuals who consider themselves to be operating privately, outside of the marketplace and beyond the purview of government.
The fear and powerlessness underlying the Florida food confiscation was representative as well of a Wild West atmosphere that now prevails around the issue of “private food,” so that it’s not always clear who the enemy is. To Americans determined to choose what foods to put into their bodies without the government getting in the way, the regulators and agents who are interfering with those choices have taken on the role of the Wild West’s outlaws and renegades. Yet to the regulators and agents, these farmers and consumers are the outlaws and renegades.
The struggle has been cast by regulators as one in which food safety must take precedence over “food rights.” For those targeted by the authorities, the struggle is more fundamental; it’s about expanding government control into ever more areas of our lives versus individual freedoms promised by the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution that grew out of it.
This struggle over private food rights appears to be unique to America (and its cousin to the north, Canada, on a smaller scale). In no other countries that I am aware of is such a struggle—pitting government authorities against groups of ordinary citizens trying to access farm-fresh food—presently going on, aside from countries like North Korea and Cuba where control of the food supply is part of the totalitarian effort to control the population.
All of which raises some fundamental questions: When did we lose our right to buy whatever food we want directly from farmers and assorted food producers, outside of the regulatory system of permits and inspections? Or stated more fundamentally, when did the custom of people exchanging food—a natural and essential part of community-based life and commerce since nearly the beginning of humankind—become transformed into such an intense source of conflict that it now is being cast as a “right”?
Was it in 1788 when the U.S. Constitution was ratified without making a single mention of the word “food”?
Was it in 1906 when Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the first regulators were hired to watch over our food system?
Was it immediately after World War II, when the memories of the Great Depression and rationing caused by wartime shortages were still fresh in people’s minds, and we committed to modernizing and improving our agriculture sector’s productivity?
Was it in the 1950s and 1960s, when many states outlawed unpasteurized milk, and in the process outlawed the sale of raw dairy products or confined such sales to farms that obtained special permits?
Was it in the 1970s, when Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz repeatedly urged farmers to “get big or get out”?
Was it in 1987, when the FDA, in response to a federal court order, enacted a regulation outlawing the interstate shipment of unpasteurized dairy products?
Was it in 1995, when a Seattle product liability lawyer earned $15.6 million in a settlement of a food-borne illness case caused by a fast-food chain’s tainted hamburgers, the largest settlement at that time for damages associated with such illness?
Was it in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, when food security and bioterrorism became big concerns?
Was it in spring 2011, when public health inspectors issued cease-anddesist orders to shut down ForageSF, an underground food market in San Francisco that gathered monthly for producers of everything from kimchi to chocolate cupcakes, selling to members who paid $5 to join each event? A few months later when San Francisco public health officials shut down a nursery school bake sale? Or the Friday night a couple months after that when a Nevada public health inspector tried to halt a farm’s private fork-toplate event just as dozens of guests were preparing to sit down to an elegant dinner of lamb meatballs and fresh vegetables?
Or was it in September 2011, when a judge in Wisconsin, the nation’s “Dairy State,” in ruling on a case involving the distribution of raw milk by two farmers there, declared that they “do not have a fundamental right to own and use a dairy cow” and “do not have a fundamental right to consume the milk from their own cow”?
Surely it wasn’t any single event, but by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the quickening pace of legal and enforcement challenges demonstrated that the once universally accepted custom of farmers, friends, and neighbors exchanging food without regulatory oversight had been so reduced in consciousness that it was actually under official attack—and that the right to privately obtain the foods of one’s choice was in jeopardy across the United States and Canada. In the process of simultaneously promoting cheap food and fomenting fear around the dangers of pathogens in food, something strange has occurred. Traditional avenues of private food acquisition have gradually disappeared.
I can remember seemingly endless farm stands as I traveled across the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. I can also recall various produce trucks with vegetables, meats, and eggs that traversed our neighborhood in Chicago during that time. Even after I became a homeowner in suburban Boston in the late 1970s, we had a milk man and a chicken-egg man who came around with farm-fresh food.
Over the last few years, with the growing interest in fresh locally grown food and fears about commercially available food and the presence of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and processed ingredients, more people have begun trying to re-create these traditional sources of privately obtained food via members-only food clubs and communal ownership of cows and goats. Many of these efforts were originally begun to secure sources of the increasingly popular unpasteurized milk and then expanded to include beef, chicken, eggs, honey, fermented vegetables, and other so-called nutrient-dense foods.
Unfortunately, when groups of ordinary people began organizing themselves to obtain food directly from farms on a private basis, they ran into trouble. Such foods weren’t properly labeled, they were told. Such foods weren’t safe. The producers required retail licenses. Such foods needed to be inspected by public health and agriculture regulators. The stories of the farmers and organizers entangled in the enforcement crackdown are the basis of this book.
In the big picture of history, the conflict is sadly ironic, since these battles aren’t happening in a time of food scarcity or widespread outbreaks of animal or human illness, but rather during a period of seeming abundance and plenty.
Throughout history, food has often had a political tinge. Food shortages fomented the French Revolution and a number of riots in nineteenth-century America. As recently as the 1930s and 1940s, food availability was a major problem for members of my family. My aunt, Inge Joseph, spent her teen years hiding from the Nazis in the French countryside with one hundred other children; sometimes they had to make do eating plants and herbs scavenged from the woods. My mother, who was lucky enough to escape the Holocaust by being sent to the United States in the years just before World War II, often went to bed hungry while living with foster families in Chicago, who themselves were so financially strapped by the difficulties associated with the Great Depression and World War II that they couldn’t afford enough food for a growing teenager.
Food shortages have been nearly unknown to members of the baby boomer generation that began sprouting in the years after World War II. In those years of readjustment, America’s political and industrial leaders came up with a uniquely modern capitalist solution to chronic worries about food supplies and prices: use the principles of automation and economies of scale learned from manufacturing automobiles, radios, textiles, and shoes to mass-produce food. The key mass-production tools would be newly developed fertilizers, powerful pesticides, and huge tractors, combines, and balers. The results would be the same as with manufactured goods—we’d lower unit costs and increase production, creating such vast quantities that there would be abundant cheap food. Politicians wouldn’t have to worry about the populace having empty stomachs and could focus instead on getting people to spend all the money saved on food for other things, like homes, cars, furniture, and televisions—thereby growing the economy.
The strategy seemed to work in important ways. It reduced the burden of food as a component of living expenses for all Americans. Since World War II, the percentage of income the average American family spends on food has declined by nearly half, from 22 percent in 19512 to 15 percent in 1980, and from there to 12 percent in 2008. Macro-economically it seemed to work as well, in the sense that the American economy exploded after World War II, and other countries around the world have adopted at least some of our cheap-food technologies to grow their economies as well. Thus, even though baby boomers like me have lived through five wars since the end of World War II (Korea, Vietnam, Iraq I, Afghanistan, Iraq II), not one of them has led to even a hint of food shortages.
Unfortunately, the industrialization of food has had a number of serious consequences: environmental pollution (from all the manure the mass-produced pigs, cattle, and chickens generate); poisoning of our food with pesticides; excessive processing and reliance on sugar, which may play a role in exploding obesity and diabetes rates; the overuse of antibiotics, which has likely encouraged the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria; and the introduction of previously unknown pathogens into our food. But while the pollution, poisoning, and processing have likely led to huge increases in chronic disease, it’s the pathogens that our public health establishment has identified as the most serious public health risk at hand. Indeed, it has used a few highly publicized outbreaks of illness to convince legislators, judges, and consumers that we have been lax in protecting the public from food-borne illness, and that we must do more to stamp out pathogens. Even though the CDC counts only 13,000 to 27,000 cases of food-borne illness each year, the agency argues (using complex and, frankly, convoluted mathematical modeling) that the real number is nearly 50 million, since it assumes huge numbers of cases aren’t reported.
From a business perspective, there is almost no way food quality couldn’t suffer from industrialization. The overriding incentive for producers under the “get-big-or-get-out” philosophy is to continually lower costs so as to increase profit margins. That means (without some kind of technological magic of the sort that has lowered the cost of computers and other digital technologies) lowering the quality of food inputs—cheaper animal feed, more crowding of farm animals, greater use of antibiotics to counter disease threats from the crowding, reliance on hormones or other artificial agents to speed animal growth, and adding cheap fillers and flavorings.
It’s one thing to cheapen the inputs on furniture and refrigerators (we all know those things generally don’t last like they used to), but quite another to cheapen stuff we are putting into our bodies. Gradually we have learned some of the effects. For example, much of the meat sold in American supermarkets and other retail outlets like Wal-Mart contains residues of antibiotics, which may be contributing to the expansion of antibiotic-resistant bacterial illnesses, and possibly three-fourths or more of chicken contains the pathogens campylobacter or salmonella.
Corporate food producers, of course, don’t want to tell customers that the quality of mass-produced food has been declining. So they have fostered the notion, backed up by the public health and medical communities, that all food is the same nutritionally, whether conventional or organic, CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) beef or beef raised on a small local farm, mass-produced eggs or eggs produced from chickens that spend time on pasture and searching out bugs. This is despite research suggesting that eggs, for instance, can differ in the amount of nutrients and cholesterol they contain depending on what the chickens are fed, or that unpasteurized milk helps counter asthma and allergies in children. Most of the emphasis from the medical and public health communities is on steering clear of disease by avoiding “bad” foods like excessive fats and sugar, as opposed to ingesting naturally produced nutrient-dense foods like fermented and locally produced vegetables or even acknowledging that there are “good” animal fats.
The cheap-food push fosters the perception that price is the prime differentiator among foods—cheaper is better, and cheapest is best. I know any number of health-conscious people who diligently exercise and eat low-fat, low-sugar foods and yet seek out the cheapest supermarket chicken, eggs, and milk—paying no heed to the likelihood that the animals that produced the food were raised in dirty and unbelievably crowded conditions, and that their products likely contain antibiotic residues to counter disease from the filth. They try not to think about the possibility that they could join the rapidly growing number of, for example, women experiencing chronic urinary tract infections that antibiotics can’t help. These same people will turn away from chickens raised on small farms and pasture that cost two dollars a pound more as “too expensive.”
Finally, the focus on safety has led to confusion between “bacteria” and “pathogens.” Bacteria, of course, come in both friendly and unfriendly forms, and there is growing appreciation that the friendly forms are ever more essential to building up our immune systems. But our growing obsession with “safety” has led regulators to push ever harder to sanitize our food system by enforcing standards and processes that eliminate all bacteria.
What happens when a lot of people begin to demand food devoid of the problems that industrialization has fostered? When they begin demanding real food, raised the old-fashioned way? For starters, we begin to see new forms of “community” take shape as people organize privately to obtain food they think will be more healthful—for example, uncommon alliances among suburban soccer moms and Amish farmers, involved arrangements between urban professionals and small farms miles outside the city to coordinate food purchases and group deliveries, and efforts by city folks to pool their funds to launch community-based farms.
All of which means there is a second question that needs to be asked in addition to the one I posed about when we lost the right to obtain the foods of our choice directly from farmers and other producers: How do we get that right back? That is the focus of this book.
Copyright 2013 by David E. Gumpert. Not to be reprinted without permission of the author or the publisher, Cheslea Green.