Food is not always something that you put in your mouth and eat!

Posts tagged ‘USDA’

Tyson grants contract chicken grower’s a “Bill of Rights”. Really?

A friend sent me a news article from Watt Ag Net over the weekend about Tyson Foods launching a contract grower’s Bill of Rights and I had to laugh, uproariously.  My first thought was that it’s very presumptuous of the chicken company to imply that American citizens Bill of Rights and its guarantees come from Tyson.   Wow, how much kinder can one get?

The bill of rights that Tyson is granting to the farmers the company contracts with to grow chickens is supposed to be an eight-point promise for its farmers.  Supposedly other initiatives are included which are “aimed at promoting a more transparent growing process and better communication” between the company and roughly 3,600 independent contract growers.

If you’ve noticed that I emboldened the word “independent” it’s for a reason.  Many don’t know that the farms that contract with companies, such as Tyson, don’t belong to the company, they belong to the individual holding the mortgage payments and they are NOT employees of the company.  That single fact invalidates any claim to granting a “bill of rights” to individual persons who just happen to have a contract to grow the company chickens.  The relationship between those people and the chicken company is for the purpose of raising company owned chickens to a marketable age. Period!

Changing the wording from “bill of rights” to “pledge” the company goes on to say that a full copy of the “pledge” is available on the Tyson website.

Graciously, Tyson is pledging the following:

  1. The right to a written contract
  2. The right to information detailing how much they are paid
  3. The right to discuss their contract with outside parties
  4. The right to a fixed-length contract that can only be terminated for cause
  5. The right for the poultry farmer to terminate the contract with Tyson Foods for any reason or no reason at all by giving a 90-day prior written notice for broilers and turkeys, and a 60-day written notice prior to scheduled removal of poultry from farmers housing for hens and pullets.
  6. The right to join an association of contract poultry farmers
  7. The right to poultry welfare standards and training on poultry welfare standards
  8. The right to tell Tyson first, or freely contact the company with concerns

Sorry to burst your bubble folks, but the so called “pledge” is a nothing burger.  Most of the above is anyone’s rights under the law and it’s not up to Tyson or any other company to decided that it will pledge these rights to the people it contracts with.

Number 4 is a tricky one and as I always say, it’s all in the words, folks!  Fixed length contracts have been around for a while and can be terminated for “cause”.  There’s the word that makes it the company’s decision, anytime.  It’s already been decided by the courts that for a contract grower to show harm (wrongful termination of contract, etc.) that person must show overall harm to the entire industry.  Secondly, a fixed-length contract is not a guarantee of receiving chickens to raise from the company.

Number 5 should say that the grower can terminate the contract only for cause.  Just like the company clause for contract termination.  Instead there are a number of requirements for the contact grower to terminate the contract for the reason of allowing the company to make advanced preparations to place their chickens elsewhere.

The right to join an association of contract poultry farmers, number 6, is the one that I found to be so funny.  For years contract growers have claimed retaliation by chicken companies for participating in “grower associations”.  Some have reported threats made by company personnel for even thinking about joining grower associations.  Of course, chicken companies have vehemently denied retaliatory actions, but I have to wonder if this new pledge by Tyson is saying that they will NOW allow contract growers to join grower associations and no longer retaliate.  For those of you not familiar how this subject works, bluntly said, historically contract growers have been bullied, threatened (sometimes not so nicely), intimidated, and had contracts terminated for being a member of any unapproved by the company, grower association.  Especially if you’re a vocal member.  It’s really, really, REALLY, benevolent of Tyson to say it’s okay for contract growers to join any association they want to.  Under the U.S. Bill of Rights, the First Amendment gives people the right to peaceably assemble, sorry Tyson,  it’s the law!

Poultry welfare standards are a CYA by the company.  In order for the company to be exonerated from any allegations of animal abuse they must say that they have a poultry welfare policy.  This statement in the company pledge gives Tyson an out for any wrongdoing.  The company can now claim that it’s the contract grower at fault because the company has a pledge of providing welfare standards and training.  Most chicken companies already do this.

Number 8 is the killer of it all.  The right to tell Tyson first, or freely contact the company with concerns.

There go those words again, folks!  Carefully read the clause again.  It means that if you have any concerns with company behavior, treatment, animal welfare, environmental and public health, or even if you have a tooth ache, etc., you tell the company first.  Don’t call USDA Packers and Stockyards Administration for violations of the law, don‘t tell the press, don’t allow any camera’s on the farm, don’t call any environmental, public health, or animal welfare organizations, and for lord’s sake don’t tell your dog.

If the company makes contract growers sign this pledge, or any document related to this pledge, that contract grower will be bound by it.  The pledge will be an addendum to the contract or called company policy.  If the contract grower violates any of the signed pledge it will be “cause” for contract termination.  However, it might be questionable as to whether this pledge or any related documents can be forcibly imposed upon a person.

Lastly, who in the hell does Tyson and its Einstein’s think that they are?  Telling people what their rights are and saying that the company will grant those rights.  Really?  Another ploy to rope people in so they will think that they are investing millions of dollars into chicken house developments so they can raise chickens for such a kindhearted chicken company.

Eggs and Philosophy

Undercover Video reveals a not so pretty picture

A recent undercover video taken by Direct Action Everywhere and released on the Now This facebook page shows the worst of the worst about hens involved in egg laying.

The video made me sick and I’ve a message for industrial agriculture – “clean up your act”.  The conditions of the hens and the environment they are living in are horrific.  It’s actors such as this that make it hard for those of us who don’t even think about animal husbandry being such as what is revealed in the video.  Animal agriculture is going to have to start standing up and condemning these types of practices and behaviors.  Don’t make excuses, own it, and fix it!

The hard truth and what makes the point of rubber stamping for humane practices an armed weapon for those opposed to animal agriculture is that this particular farm is “Certified Humane”, a project of Humane Farm Animal Care.  According to the organizations website, the program certifies products from farm animals that meet program standards related to practices required in the raising of the animals. Farms and ranches are monitored annually and may use the Certified Humane Raised and Handled® logo. Charges levied are to cover inspections and program costs which include promotional materials which help promote the products of the producers that are Certified Humane®.  Trust me folks, the fees applied aren’t cheap and certification predominately include large numbers of animals produced.

The organization has a “Humane Farm Animal Care Scientific Committee”, presumably who develop the standards that farmers and ranchers must meet for certification.  The Committee has some heavy hitters participating on it and I must wonder, what in the world they were thinking when they lent their names to something that doesn’t even come close to the definition of “humane practices”.

I can’t continue without describing the organization responsible for the undercover video, Direct Action Everywhere, is a network of animal rights activists claiming chapters in 160 cities in over 30 countries.  The organization, developed in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2013.  It operates on the theory of “speciesism”.

Getting Educated about Speciesism

I’m not big on giving out labels or definitive categories so I had to do some research on this one.  The term delves deeply into the realm of philosophy.    According to Wikipedia speciesism is a prejudice similar to racism or sexism, in that the treatment of individuals is predicated on group membership and morally irrelevant physical differences.  Broadly speaking in the world of animal activism it means the exclusion of all nonhuman animals from the rights, freedoms, and protections afforded to humans.  June 5 is considered to be World Day Against Speciesism.  Who knew?

Without delving too deep into the topic of speciesism, it appears to me that it means every living thing is equal and has equal rights, no matter human or non-human.  I’m assuming if you don’t believe in this equality or you behave against the principal theory you are akin to a racist or sexist. I dunno, sounds good!

Of course agenda motivation is the driving force behind the video, why else would it be undercover?  Was it for the purpose of exposing Humane Farm Animal Care and name lending to a rubber stamping of the “Certified Humane” label?  Was it to expose the bad behavior of industrial agriculture?  Or was it a push toward the public to support veganism and animal rights? I think it’s all of the above.

On the other hand, what can be the excuses from industrial agriculture.  Historically industry will repeat all of the things listed above and describe the people taking the video as terrorists. They’ll say that the particular farm and the conditions revealed wasn’t like that when it was audited for humane standards and certification. My question would be, what changed in the farming practices between the standards audit and everyday practices?  Is it business as usual except when the humane farm animal standards audit is conducted?

No matter what your belief about what you eat, what is revealed in the undercover video is just plain wrong.  It doesn’t take a room full of philosophers or theorizers to figure it out.  You decide!

Are Words the Gospel Truth?

Last week, Tyson Foods made the announcement that it’s “striving to eliminate the use of human antibiotics from its US broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017”. I snickered to myself after reading this and thought, what’s the catch?

Researching this big announcement took me firstly to Tyson’s website for the official announcement and found that the company does indeed say that “it is “”striving”” to eliminate the use of “”human antibiotics from its U.S. broiler chicken flocks by the end of September 2017″”. The company will report annually on its progress, beginning with its fiscal 2015 Sustainability Report.  Tyson Foods has already stopped using all antibiotics in its 35 broiler hatcheries, requires a veterinary prescription for antibiotics used on broiler farms and “”has reduced human antibiotics”” used to treat broiler chickens by more than 80 percent since 2011.”

So why the snicker, wondering about what’s the catch, and double quotes in the last paragraph?

Back around 2007, Tyson began a huge advertising and labeling campaign of “raised without antibiotics” on its chicken products and was enthusiastically applauded for it by many.  I can remember hearing from some acquaintances about the “big” news and I can also remember me saying that I didn’t believe it for a second.

In June 2008, The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved Tyson’s use of the raised without antibiotics label.   USDA reversed that approval and ordered Tyson to remove the label after finding out that Tyson injected its chickens with antibiotics while still in the egg, before hatching, warning that it could no longer consider the raised without antibiotics label “truthful and accurate”.  Tyson admitted that the company used gentamicin which had been used for more than 30 years in the U.S. to treat infections in humans interjecting the belief that rules on labeling describing how chickens are raised typically begin from the second day of life.

According to an AP report, a U.S. District Court Judge had ordered Tyson to stop running any advertisements, setting a May 15, 2008 deadline after Perdue and Sanderson Farms sued, claiming Tysons advertising campaign was misleading.  Sanderson Farms claimed a loss of $4 million in and Perdue claimed it lost about $10 million in revenue.

A consumer lawsuit against Tyson followed accusing the company of falsely claiming that its chickens were raised without antibiotics.  Tyson settled the lawsuit in 2010.  The settlement was capped at $5 million.  The consumer payout was based on proof of purchase (a receipt) which would award $50 dollars, those who didn’t have proof of purchase but provided a sworn statement detailing the poultry they bought would receive $10 dollars.  Any residual funds after paying consumer claims that were left over the company would donate its products to food banks in lieu of the dollar amount.

“While we believe our company acted appropriately, we also believe it makes sense for us to resolve this legal matter and move on,” Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said.

While researching this ongoing saga, I found some fairly strong words being used to describe Tyson’s actions.  Statements such as “no longer consider the raised without antibiotics label truthful and accurate”, false and misleading, and getting to the heart of the issue – “It is quite clear to this court that it was in Tyson’s financial interest to delay the phase-out period as long as possible,” Judge Richard D. Bennett of the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland written opinion referring to Tyson delaying further use of its advertising campaign.

Take the time to go back and read the bold print above and what I’ve double quoted.  Tyson’s announcement does not say that the company no longer uses antibiotics.

It’s all in the words folks!  It’s the twisting and turning of what the words actually mean and the assumption that consumers read the words and believe them as the gospel truth.  Is it any wonder that I snicker and wonder, what’s the catch over Tyson’s newest BIG announcement concerning the use of antibiotics?

Furthermore, $14 million was claimed to have been lost by Tyson’s competitors, just in 1 year.  Settling for $5 million with consumers is peanuts.  Were any fines levied for not being truthful and accurate, false and misleading, or delaying being so for financial gain?  Does anyone keep their household food purchase receipts for 3 years or bother with a sworn statement to a court for $10 dollars?  Was Tyson able to write off the value of products donated to Food Banks?

Chinese Chicken, A Global Recipe!

An interesting tidbit of information crossed my desk which, after reading, I filed away as another one of those “head spinners” that I occasionally have. Yessiree folks, I closed my eyes, shook my head, and asked myself – for real?

According to a report from Politico and confirmed by the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service China was notified last week that four of its poultry processing plants have been given the green light to begin processing chicken of U.S. origin and selling it back to the American public.

Processed heat-treated/cooked poultry products, typically known as “further processed” chicken, such as nuggets, patties, or even the pieces of chicken in your canned soup may now be processed in China and sent to American consumers for consumption. Raw chicken processed in China may come from the U.S., Canada, or Chile the only three countries currently approved by USDA.

Concerns expressed by food safety advocates abound given China’s record on food safety and deadly bird flu (avian influenza) outbreaks. However this issue appears to go much further. In a press release issued by Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, Executive Director, Wenonah Hauter says “it has been no secret that China has wanted to export chicken to the U.S. in exchange for reopening its market for beef from the U.S. that has been closed since 2003 due to diagnosis of a cow in Washington State with spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease……”. The U.S., in turn, banned poultry imports from China in 2004 after a bird flu outbreak.

Although the main focus of concerns on this issue has rightly so centered on China’s not so great food safety record, me in my infinite wisdom, focused further on the statement made by Food & Water Watch. My simplistic common sense manner summed it up as trading chicken for beef thereby resolving a “tit for tat” trade dispute.

I then tried to understand why in the world we would send raw chicken all the way to China to have it processed and then have China send it back to us for consumption. I wondered how many miles it was from my closet seaport, Norfolk, VA, to China. Suffice it to say that it’s roughly 6,757 miles! Furthering my need to know, I realized that the one of the major U.S. chicken companies has a processing plant 15 miles away from me. I’m sorry, but this makes no sense in so far as reducing the carbon footprint that we all are supposed to be mindful of!

Back to the heat treated/cooked poultry products. Every major chicken company in the U.S. has “further processing” facilities in America. While I in no way agree with industrial chicken production, I have to wonder why chickens raised and slaughtered in the U.S. would go to China for further processing and travel back to buyers in America to sell as cooked chicken products. In essence that chicken has traveled nearly twice around the world. Not to mention the American jobs that traveled out of the country with it. What does this say for boosting OUR economy?

Adding insult to injury the cooked chicken products coming from China will only have country of origin labeling for the buyer not for the consumer, the end user. This makes it impossible for consumers to choose supporting local or American made.

I understand, and have been told many times, that I need to think globally. Selling raw chicken to China of course will increase chicken production in the U.S. which is destined for export. The next step has China selling that same chicken back to U.S. buyers as a cooked product. I, by no stretch of the imagination, am a wheeler dealer of global trade however the only benefit I see in this global scheme is corporations increasing imports and exports. I see no trickling down effect of profits!

Many predict the approval of cooked chicken products from China as being a precursor to allowing raw chicken from China into the U.S. and that will have me wondering why we would buy chicken from China when we produce more than enough in our own country. Interested consumers will need to ask, which country did this chicken come from?

Increased trade is a good thing, so I’m told!

Big Chicken Worming Its Way In To Organics

The big boys, industrial animal production that is, have slowly been worming their way into organics.  I’ve often called it the bastardization of organics which is no criticism of true organic producers only those who want to take over organics and make it just like the mainstream industrial food system they already control.

The latest comes from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).   A 60 day comment period on the Final Rule, Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) in Shell Eggs during Production, Storage, and Transportation (Layers with Outdoors Access).  What to comment on is a draft guidance document to clarify how egg producers can comply with the original rule”.  The document that I printed out from the FDA website was a questions and answers type deal and interestingly enough it starts out – Draft Guidance for Industry!

While the Final Rule for prevention of SE in shell Eggs (the Egg Rule) became effective in September 2009 we now have to have more comments allowed to regulations that went into effect 4 years ago.  Talk about waste of taxpayer dollars, this might be a good place to cut spending to balance the budget.

I’ve no heartburn with ensuring food safety or preventing SE, it’s a must in today’s food system.  As a matter of fact we have testing done on our farm for SE and Whole Foods who we sell our eggs to requires it of all egg producers they purchase from.  What I do have heartburn with is that FDA is taking aim at those who allow real and true outdoor access for their laying hens and more specifically  certified organic which outdoor access is required in the National Organic Standards.

Since 2009, USDA has been allowing certified “organic” industrial sized farms that reportedly confine as many as 100,000 hens in a building to sneak around the organic requirement of outdoor access with screened in porches which allow a small percentage of the confined hen’s outdoor access.  The screened in porches can have flooring of concrete, dirt, or grass.  I can guarantee that there is no grass available for hens to naturally forage on in a screened in porch that provides outdoor access for 100,000 hens however USDA has been seeing it differently, allowing the porches to be claimed as legal structures.  Before you know it this will become the new “free range”!

FDA’s new guidance document includes covered porches as one of the four types of outdoor access systems for organic being used.  This has many of the real organic producers who implement real outdoor access in an uproar.  Decidedly, USDA and FDA have legitimized and paved the way for industrial organic production.  Before long, the National Organic Standards for eggs will be so eroded that the only difference between an industrial and industrial organic egg will be the type of feed fed to the hens.  That my friends will also become debatable as more often than not the organic feed supply will be compromised.

Back to FDA’s food safety “guidance document”!  Recommendations are that SE can be prevented through avoiding contact with wild birds.  Theory is that wild birds are a carrier of SE.  Oh please!  I’ve heard this same old song and dance with avian influenza in recommendations for biosecurity.  It’s an industry line that is supposed to legitimize confinement.  Nothing more and nothing less!

FDA is recommending to organic egg producers noise cannons, temporary confinement, netting to cover outdoor area, or structures with roofs (meaning porches) to avoid contact with wild birds.  I’ve many arguments against this.

First and foremost – Remember the giant egg recall for SE contamination?  The eggs recalled were from industrial farms raising tens-of-thousands confinement hens not from hens outdoors on pasture. What wild birds were flying around in the confinement houses?  Research abounds indicating that the threat from SE contamination comes from large scale industrial operations not from small scale pastured poultry.  It couldn’t be coming from the filthy conditions inside of confinement houses, could it?

Getting down to the nitty gritty, porches or structures with roofs is not outdoor access.  Let’s get real about this. When consumers think of organic certified that picture includes animals freely roaming outdoors on pasture.  FDA’s new guidance document misleads consumers as well as confuses them as to what organic is allowed to be.

Having a noise cannon to play with might be fun!  I wonder if you need a permit to own one and if there is a background check before you can buy one.  Are they expensive?  While you’re blasting away to scare wild birds off your hens will be taking shelter and shaking in their boots.  I imagine you will have some mortality in your flock as your noise cannon scare your hens to death.  I don’t think that using a noise cannon would be in the best interest to the welfare of your hens.

Utilizing “temporary” confinement until the threat of wild birds goes away might become permanent confinement as some wild birds don’t really go away.  Netting to cover the outdoor access area would be an unrealistic approach.  True organic includes maintaining soil health and is accomplished in part through pasture rotation.  It would be way too costly  and impossible for a real organic farmer to cover all pastures with netting.  Maybe that is the aim of the recommendations – make it too costly to allow hens on pasture and they will switch to confinement!

It appears that nothing is sacred anymore.  Ironically but not surprising is that the organic movement was scoffed at by industrial ag not so long ago dubbing it as coming from “left over hippies”.  Now that organic has become a huge market it is something the big boys want into and to take over.  It’s all about money and industrial ag knows that organic is big bucks these days as more consumers question where their food is coming from and how it’s raised.

This is not something new for industrial ag.  Takeover is what they do best.  Going back in history the same scenario can be seen when vertical integration and contract farming was ushered in and independent farmers were ushered out.  History is repeating itself and the deck is being stacked in favor of industrial ag.  Independent farmers had the choice of jumping aboard the train or get out of the business before the train runs you over.  Will the same be said for the future of organics?

Smithfield Deal a Question of National Security!

The Smithfield deal has gotten the attention of our illustrious politicians and depending on how one views the deal it could be a good thing or it could be a bad thing for the U.S. farming sector.  The most recent twist in the saga – a question of “National Security”.

China’s Shuanghui International’s proposed acquisition of U.S. pork giant Smithfield Foods valued at approximately 7.1 billion (yes folks, that is 7.1 BILLION) which includes assumption of Smithfield’s net debt would bail out a failing industrial ag giant.  The deal would include a huge cash infusion from Shuanghui as well as debt financing committed by Morgan Stanley Senior Funding Inc.

Since the announcement of the proposed acquisition at the end of May 2013, I’ve remained quiet in my opinions as everyone along with their brothers and sisters have weighed in on the subject.  My quietness stemmed from the fact that firstly, I don’t know anyone who has 7.1 billion dollars, and secondly, I’ve pondered in my mind as to how we have a domineering corporate giant leading the U.S. pork market in sales considered as a farm entity.  I’ve also wondered how the Smithfield model of raising hogs could be failing when all I’ve ever heard from the “powers that be” is that the Smithfield model is great for American farmers and the animals they raise.  This deal makes it crystal clear that the corporate ag model  isn’t sustainable. – I’m still pondering!

U.S. senators haven’t wasted time pondering they’ve jumped into the fray asking that both USDA and FDA be included in the review of the Smithfield deal.  Since the proposed acquisition will undergo a national security review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States and the Treasury Secretary has the authority to add agencies at will, the senators got what they asked for.  Moving rapidly, the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry held a hearing yesterday, July 11 2013, to hear testimony from opposing sides of the issue.

Smithfield’s president and CEO, Larry Pope, said the merger represents a major opportunity for U.S farmers to access the growing Chinese market, in which pork is the leading protein.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for the U.S. to do what it does best,” Pope said. “To produce agricultural products and ship those around the world. This creates jobs. This creates opportunities for American commerce to grow. This is all of the good things American business is trying to do.”

Well of course, what did anyone expect the man to say?  We might as well say that Pope is now China’s emissary on the subject.  It’s a good thing that I wasn’t at this hearing I would have spoken up and told Pope he was mouthing all of the right words of an expertly crafted message from spin doctors and policy wonkers!   A major opportunity for U.S. farmers to access the growing Chinese market?  I’ll be polite here and say BALONEY!  Farmers don’t reckon into the deal.  Since when does Smithfield give a hoot about farmer’s opinion on anything?  Farmers to Smithfield are numbers of things that fulfill a contract to crank out hogs for a corporate ag giant at an unbelievable pace and are paid poverty level wages.  Farmer’s don’t sell their product in the global market place they produce for industrial ag.  They have no say about sales or what markets they gain access to!

If we’re to swallow what Pope is saying, such as, – “a wonderful opportunity for the U.S to do what is does best producing agricultural products around the world” – it proves the case for those who say that we mass produce food and animals as fast as possible without thought to the consequences of our methods to be a player in the global market.  It’s all about money and nothing else short of that!  It surely doesn’t say much for what the U.S. does best.  Throwing in the highly emotional subjects of creating jobs and growing American commerce in his statement is a good lever to use but its hogwash.  We can look to China to know who benefits from big business and working conditions.

On the flip side of the debate we have those who question believing that the Smithfield deal isn’t just one acquisition.  Usha Haley, director of the Robbins Center for Global Business and Strategy at West Virginia University and Daniel Slane, commissioner of the U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission of the U.S. Chamber of Congress views the Smithfield deal as a small part of a larger plan for more investment of U.S. business.  Haley said that “it has government support and they (China) see it as a foot in the door; there are other companies waiting in the wings to buy more U.S. companies”.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman, Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) says “Smithfield might be the first acquisition of a major food and agricultural company, but I doubt it will be the last”. She went on to say “We need to be having this conversation and evaluating what is in the best interest of American families and our American economy because of the importance of our food supply, security, and safety.”  You go girl!

For a very long time I’ve said that if you can control the world through its stomach you can write your own ticket.  Becoming the “super power” of food, which we all need to survive, will enable control of the world.  Personally, I don’t want to have to look any further than the good ole U.S. of A. to feel secure about my food supply, security, and safety.  If China has a shortage of protein supply to feed its people then let them buy it on the global market.  I thought this was the purpose of global trade.  You know, one country says I need this and the other says I need that so they make a deal and trade!

The saga will continue and in the end the Smithfield deal will more than likely go through.  I see it as an American giant corporation selling out to a foreign entity and a sellout to the American people who’ve supported the company for a very long time.  It is clearly a deal of take the money and run no matter who is handing out the cash without any thought to the consequences.  Smithfield’s claim of “this is all of the good things American business is trying to do” is an embarrassment.  If this is the route our country will be taking to grow our economy then it’s anyone’s guess who will conquer us in the end.

Land of Confusion – Part III Is It Organic?

The summer has been busy on the farm and has kept me from my favorite pastime – writing! As I’ve been outside working I’ve conjured up all kinds of topics of discussion in our land of confusion called farming. I know, I keep intending to bring the subject of genetics into my next discussion but there are things that keep leading me astray.

A recent article in the New York Times, “Has Organic’ Been Oversized” written by Stephanie Strom on July 7th captured my attention and I’ve been thinking of little else.

What disturbed me the most was the admission by Alexis Baden-Mayer, political director at the Organic Consumers Association saying “I understand that there are very few 100 percent organic businesses left…”. If a consumers association readily admits what has been whispered among us farmers out here trying to the right thing I have to ask myself what’s the point in trying to produce under a label that has been bastardized like the rest of our food system. Is it any wonder that farmers and consumers are confused?

Becoming organic certified is an expensive and time consuming prospect for a farmer. In doing so, farmer’s intention is to produce food for consumers that is free of GMO’s, additives, chemicals, and the list goes on. Traditionally organic has had the implied meaning of food in its purist form.

In 1990 our government set into motion the Organics Food Production Act requiring the U.S Department of Agriculture to develop national standards for organically produced products and to assure consumers that agricultural products sold as organic meet consistent, uniform standards. A National Organic Standards Board was created to make recommendations in the development of organic standards and certification. The 15 member board was to be representative of interested parties: farmer/grower; handler/processor; retailer; consumer/public interest; environmentalist; scientist; and certifying agent. Okay, that sounds easy enough!

At the time organic products were a niche market being produced by farmers labeled as left over hippies and the production and sales didn’t put a dent into the mainstream food market. I distinctly remember in the mid 90’s meeting many of these so called “hippie farmers”. Being part of the industrialized food production world my mindset was not in the same mode as theirs and I wondered why in the world they would create so much more work for their selves on the farm when chemicals could take care of most of the work.

The organic markets began to develop and grow. By 2011 organic products demanded premium prices, consumers had become more aware of where their food was coming from and how it was being produced, and organic food was a $30 billion dollar industry. Consumers wanted better food without all of the junk.

Enter the “big boys” and let the bastardization party begin! Like Mr. Potter in the NY Times article I believe that the “so called organic food” needs to be challenged. I want to know where the protection is for the farmers who are doing all of the right things to be truly organic and where the protection is for the consumer to be totally assured that they are getting the real deal. According to the NY Times story – “Pure, locally produced ingredients from small family farms? Not so much anymore.”

Some believe that the organic standards are being watered down; green washed, and corrupted by corporate agribusiness giants who have entered the organic markets and are industrializing it. When I hear comments from the big boys saying that the demand is greater than the supply and that the demand requires the scale that only they can provide I say “look out”! Faux organics are here and confusion abounds.

This past year, I had reason to question organic and its relationship to raising chickens. I became aware of the fact that if I were to put 10,000 chickens into one of my chicken houses, feed certified organic feed, and allow them access to the outdoors, I could have an organic farm. I didn’t need to worry about the land around the chicken houses because no chemicals had been used over the past 3 years and I could easily fence in a “sun porch” for outside allowance and nothing said that the chickens actually had to go out.

In my mind organic was about much more than just what was fed to the chickens. 10,000 chickens crammed into a confinement house conjured up memories of the days of industrial production. What type of product would I be producing from animals living a miserable existence having only a look at the outdoors but never really experiencing it? The waste created from that many chickens would have to go somewhere.

A friend laughed at my irate comments over this and told me to go to the meeting of the National Organics Standards Board and express my thoughts. Then told me “come back and tell me if they heard you or if they even cared”. Something like – let me know how far you get. I knew it would be a waste of time. After reading the NY Times article and Mr. Potter saying he had done exactly as my friend suggested I do and got nothing but being allowed to speak for 3 minutes and then a “thank you”, I realize that this issue is much bigger. Assuring the integrity of organic food won’t come through government process it will only come from consumers knowing their farmer and seeing how their food is produced.