NOBULL: Food Freedom movement grows with help from left

Food Freedom movement grows with help from left

By: Tarini Parti and Helena Bottemiller Evich

April 22, 2014 01:00 PM EDT

Farmers should have the right to milk a cow and sell a gallon of that milk to their neighbors, argue libertarian supporters of the “food freedom” movement. They should be able to slaughter and sell the meat of the livestock they raised directly to consumers.

Consumer advocates and Big Ag have fought successfully for years to keep strong federal and state regulations on the books to block such allowances, citing serious food safety concerns. But as buying local has become all the rage and concerns about industrialized agriculture more widespread, the right-leaning food freedom cause is gaining steam and increasingly finding allies on the left.

House legislation to legalize the interstate shipment of unpasteurized milk, which is illegal to sell in about half of the country, recently attracted more Democratic co-sponsors, including Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.). In years past, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) had few allies stand with him on the same issue.

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In another example of food freedom bipartisanship, Democratic Reps. Pingree and Peter Welch of Vermont teamed up with Republicans Steve Womack of Arkansas and Cory Gardner of Colorado to take on a regulation the FDA proposed under a 2011 food safety law that would impose new safety standards on spent grain, which brewers often donate or sell to livestock farms.

Small-scale producers have also had the support of Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who gained major exemptions for them when the sweeping food safety overhaul was being considered in the Senate.

However, as the movement gains support inside and outside the Beltway, consumer advocates hope the trend to support small producers doesn’t outweigh efforts to make food safer.

“When you talk about food freedom and public health, you want food to be free of pathogens,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America. “You have to be very careful in how you look at this and craft those proposals because it could mean putting consumers at risk in order to alleviate some regulatory burdens for local farmers.”

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But supporters of the movement, including Rep. Thomas Massie, the Kentucky Republican who sponsored the two raw milk-related bills and is looking to take a leadership role in the food freedom movement, insist the food safety argument is moot because industrialized agriculture is causing more problems.

“The food or farm freedom movement is really bipartisan,” Massie said. “Many consumers care not only about the safety of their food but also how it was raised. Neither party has a monopoly on healthiness, if you will, and in general this food is healthier.”

The freshman congressman, who manages his own farm where he and his wife produce grass-fed beef, grow and can fruits and vegetables and raise chickens and ducks, plans to introduce more food freedom bills in the coming months. He hopes Democrats are willing to go along for the ride.

“I sit two or three seats from the aisle in the House of Representatives because I’m always looking for Democratic co-sponsors,” he quipped.

Massie and one of his Kentucky Republican compadres, Sen. Rand Paul — an especially popular figure within the food freedom movement — have expressed interest in introducing legislation to allow all meat producers the same exemption from USDA inspections provided to poultry farmers who raise less than 20,000 birds a year.

Just before Massie was elected to office in 2012, he and Paul visited the Virginia farm of Joel Salatin where they discussed potential bills that could ease regulatory burdens on small farmers.

Salatin, who runs a diverse farming operation that includes raising chickens for slaughter, is a celebrity in the food freedom movement, having been prominently featured in Michael Pollan’s bestseller, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals,” and the Oscar-nominated film “Food, Inc.” Salatin’s own 2007 book, one of nine he’s written, “Everything I want to do is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front,” has helped galvanize support for the cause.

Salatin said he first discovered the impact regulations had on small farms when he graduated from high school and decided to become a farmer himself.

“I realized that any time the government tries to get in between your lips and throat — that was a pretty drastic invasion of privacy and freedom,” he said.

“The Bill of Rights grants us many, many rights, but we do not have a right to food because the framers could not have imagined the day where you couldn’t milk your cow and sell it to your neighbors,” he said. “This is fundamentally about freedom. What Big Ag will say is that it’s high-risk. But the diseases we have now are a result of Big Ag …

“… When Teddy Roosevelt started the Food Safety and Inspection Service, that was done at the behest of the food industry,” Salatin said. “He was glad to start an agency to give the industry a stamp of approval. The industry has been hiding under the skirts of bureaucrats ever since.”

Salatin said it’s been fascinating to see “urban foodies” and environmentalists become part of the movement.

“It does make for some very strange bed fellows. When I give speeches now, the room is half full of libertarians and half full of very liberal Democrats. The bridge is food.”

Pollan agrees that the food freedom movement is not strictly defined by politics or geography.

“For many on the right, creating a space for a local food market beyond the reach of both large corporations and the government is a high priority — a right, in their view, best secured by libertarian politics,” Pollan said.

“There are evangelicals behind the move to make animal agriculture more humane. There are plenty of dyed-in-the-wood conservative ranchers practicing holistic management and producing pastured animals for local markets. The media like to depict the food movement as an elite coastal phenomenon, but you find manifestations of it wherever you go.”

Claire Benjamin, executive director of Food Policy Action, a nonprofit that supports local food, strong federal nutrition assistance and mandatory GMO-labeling, said her group tracks multiple policies where lawmakers buck party lines, from the reform of crop insurance subsidies to farm-to-school food support programs.

“We don’t see these as partisan issues,” Benjamin said. “Knowing where your food comes from, knowing your food producer … these are ideas that are not partisan.”

Democrats in Congress might still be hesitant to embrace the food freedom movement fully and peel back regulations, but they are more willing to sign on to certain pieces of legislation supporting small farmers, as a growing number of consumers show their support with their wallets.

“As you know, Congress usually follows behind the citizen and consumers,” Pingree said in an interview in her Washington, D.C., home. “We’re trying to catch up, I’d say, to what consumers are already doing. … I’m amazed how often something will come up, or something will be on the floor, and someone will come up to me and say, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got so many farmers markets in my district,’ or, ‘I get my food from a [community-supported agriculture membership].’”

Judith McGeary, spokeswoman for Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, which advocates for small farmers, said members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have become more engaged in food freedom issues after hearing from their constituents who are passionate about locally produced food.

Her group seeks to impress upon lawmakers that they should take into account the disproportionately negative impact that costly regulations can have on smaller producers — and to dispel any misconceptions about the movement.

“Food freedom doesn’t necessarily mean a complete free-for-all,” McGeary said. “You can have a food freedom movement, and you can address food safety.”

McGeary and others still face an uphill battle selling their argument to public health, food safety and consumer advocates — especially when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to increasing outbreaks of foodborne illness from drinking raw milk.

“The issue of food safety should be non-negotiable,” said Mark Dopp, senior vice president for regulatory affairs for the American Meat Institute — which represents the biggest meat packers and processors along with some small producers. “Our large members think that way and our small members think that way. The bacteria in meat that can kill you don’t know the size of the company.”