Why I'm not Panicking About HR 875

Sharon March 14th, 2009

I’ve gotten a lot of emails about HR 875, recently, asking me to weigh in,  which meant that I actually had to go find the text of HR 875, and read it.  This falls in the category of top 10 things I hate about writing – having to read anything created by committee, but I soldiered through it for y’all. 

And I admit, there are some reasons to be a little troubled by this bill (and one not to be – from what I see, its chances of passing are very, very slim) – for example, some state laws about on-farm slaughter may be overridden by this.  The national trackback capacity seems to reinforce the worst excesses of NAIS.  However, it isn’t up there on the “signs of the apocalypse countdown” either.

The rhetoric has been overblown to a destructive degree.  As Tom Philpott points out at Grist:

“I’ve been reading hysterical missives about H.R. 875 for weeks. I could never square them with the text of the bill, which is admittedly vague. For example, the bill seeks to regulate any “food production facility” which it defines as “any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation.”

But then again, the USDA already regulates farms. And “24 hours GPS tracking of … animals”? Not in there. “Warrentless government entry” to farms? Can’t find it.

More recently, reading around the web, I found more reasoned takes on H.R. 875. The bill may not be worth supporting — and from what I hear, it has little chance of passing. But it hardly represents the “end of farming,” much less the end of organic farming. The Organic Consumers Association, an energetic food-industry watchdog, recently called the paranoia around H.R. 875 the “Internet rumor of the week.”

The Organic Consumers Association has this to say:

The Organic Consumers Association is not taking a position for or against this bill, but encouraging its members to write to Congress to urge it to enact food safety legislation that addresses the inherent dangers of our industrialized food system without burdening certified organic and farm-to-consumer operations.

Quite sensibly, the OCA wants Congress to avoid “one-size-fits-all legislation.” Regulations that make sense for a 1000-acre spinach farm could push a diversified operation that includes spinach in its crop mix out of business. Sustainable-food advocates should oppose H.R. 875 until it adds scale-appropriate language.

But effective opposition does not mean indulging in fictional rants about it. There’s no evidence that the bill aims to end farming; insisting that it does destroys credibility.”

Tom has this just right.  Overstatement does not help our cause – this is one of the reasons I avoided writing much about the Manna Storehouse raid – because the internet version of this, in which a wild eyed SWAT team attacked innocent coop owners was, ummm…exaggerated.  The best evidence I can find suggest that a Sherriff’s deputy did prevent the family (who had openly engaged in civil disobedience by refusing to conform to existing regulation for food sales – last I checked, when you flout laws you consider unjust, you probably will get a visit from said enforcers) from going anywhere while their facilities were being examined, but the SWAT team waving uzis around was no where to be found.

Now I am not happy about the way our existing laws favor industrial agriculture.  I am not happy about the ways that government regulation has regulated small farmers out of existence.  I don’t like HR 875, and am glad it doesn’t stand much of a chance of passing. I don’t like the assumptions that underlie HR 875, which implies that all agriculture should be regulated uniformly, and that the risk from small farms is equivalent to the risk from massive industrial farms, neither of which are true.

But I think the best way to defeat things like HR 875 are not by exaggerating their danger, but by addressing their limitations in a balanced way.  So much of the job of small farming advocates is undermining the lies told by industrial agriculture – and they tell a lot of lies.  We can’t afford to tell lies – they’ve got the money and resources to magnify any mistake, any falsehood, any mis-statement.  We can’t afford, even honestly, to not make our case on the right grounds.

 Sharon

31 Responses to “Why I'm not Panicking About HR 875”

  1. Ellen says:

    Thanks for a good post. I’ve been looking for a rational discussion of this bill & you did a great job.

  2. Lydia says:

    Agreed. I read the bill. Not a great one, too vague, and not well written, however, I could find nothing in it to get all up in arms over.

  3. Susan says:

    I think it was deliberately designed to be vague, to allow for further enforcement of said provisions at some point in the future, when farming locally perhaps threatens the status quo in a real, financially relevant way. I can absolutely see that as a part of the process.

    That being said, I think a lot more farm to person sales are going to be by word of mouth, on an informal and unpublicized basis. It’s a lot harder to regulate something that officially isn’t going on, after all — just ask any drug dealer :) Although good healthy food shouldn’t be compared to drugs and I apologize for that.

  4. Soi says:

    I think we’ve seen an example over the past 8 years of what ‘vagueness’ in legislation is capable of doing.

    I’m not one to ‘panic’, either, but a number of cautious, careful and sober organic gardeners and growers of my acquaintance are troubled by the current form of these bills–and there are two identical bills, HR 875 and S425, introduced at the same time for (suspiciously?) speedy passage.

    I know it is fashionable in America to think that with the rebellious events of 1776, mainstream institutional tyranny (as opposed to the tyranny that minorities experience everyday even now–but I digress) simply isn’t possible; that “…it can’t happen here…” (in the words of Sinclair Lewis).

    I don’t buy that version of optimism, though still without panicking. Too many data points are too neatly lining up for me to think that there is simply nothing to worry about in proposed legislation as found in HR 875 and S425.

    If there is no perceived need for some of the more troubling parts of these bills, why are they there?

    Remember, Obama’s Chief of Staff, Emmanuel Rohm (spelling, I know), recently observed that it is best in these times “…not to waste a good crisis…” [Aside: Should this be called the new Rohm principle?]

    No, I have to disagree, Sharon. We have a little more to worry about than your post seems to suggest.

  5. Christina says:

    I don’t know that I agree it is unlikely to pass; there is a lot of momentum for food safety right now in the wake of the peanut butter fiasco.

    I do agree that most punditry about it has been leaning toward the hysterical. I wrote my congressional reps along the lines of what OCA recommends; I didn’t address scale, but rather paradigms of agriculture. IOW, food safety is promoted differently in various systems, and I want the bill to direct the new agency to implement rules that respect the different systems.

  6. SoapBoxTech says:

    Here is a link to a video statement by the Stowers, the owners of the Manna Storehouse:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdLxMKuxyr4

    Perhaps they were lying but their account details more than “a Sheriff’s deputy” taking part in the raid. Of course they should have been investigated for allegations of regulation infringements, but there is such a thing as appropriate scale of response, or whatever the legal term is. Maple Leaf Foods up here in Canada KILLED people with their products and there were no raids, no employees or managers detained while the premises were searched. Was it not the same for the peanut Salmonella problem that occurred in the US recently? Plants were shut down, investigations made, but I don’t think anyone was detained on-site during either process.

    As for the Food Bill, these things are purposely vague. It’s not like tyranny is born over night. Hopefully it will not pass, but no doubt such pro- big industrial legislation will end up tacked on to some other bill.

  7. Jen C. says:

    Thanks for this; I have run across several freak-out posts related to this topic but admittedly, haven’t read the proposed bill yet. It is easy to join the freak-out, as things like NAIS are scary and all-too-real in our post-Orwellian world. I appreciate your balanced viewpoint, but still wonder if I should be freaked out about *something*—it all still seems rather fishy to me.

  8. Greenpa says:

    joining in the chorus- many thanks for taking the time to dig on this. Yeah, I’d seen the scare posts; but didn’t have time to dig. My basic reaction was “this is too far over the top; something doesn’t smell right here”. I have a hard time believing it would pass in that kind of form.

    Sounds basically like stuff from the same people who are SURE Obama is “going to take all our guns away! we have proof!”

  9. dpm says:

    Wow, Good site and nice review on this bill. This bill, as writen, I think the bill doesn’t have enough support to pass. I could with all of the “safe food” people out there.
    I have a garden, sell some produce to the public, and farm several acers of corn, soybeans, and wheat.
    This bill would cut out the produce to the public part of what do and put so much regulation on the rest of my operation I don’t know that I would ever have time to plant a crop. When the Govermeent can tell a farmer, small or large, how and how much fertilizer, chemicals, or what ever we can use then the country will be at risk of food shortages. The back yard garden farms are great for local areas, but they will NEVER feed this country. The profit on the farm is so small per acer it takes a lot of acers to have enough PROFIT to cover the overhead not counting to make a living. Go anywhere on the web and look up farm machinery for sale and you will start to get the picture.
    The $500,000.oo limit in sells is a pipe dream! And to take this money and put it in more foodstamps and free school lunches!

  10. TH in SoC says:

    I think that a great deal of the concern over this bill is entirely justified. It has the potential to place a huge new burden on small farmers with no administrative staff and no extra time, due to its requirements for “food production facilities” to maintain records “…that enable the Administrator to retrieve the history, use, and location of an article of food through all stages of its production, processing, and distribution.” One of the purposes of this record-keeping is to track food in commerce – a rather different function than just protecting public health.

    There is also this: “In carrying out the duties of the Administrator and the purposes of this Act, the Administrator shall have the authority, with respect to food production facilities, to…conduct monitoring and surveillance of animals, plants, products, or the environment, as appropriate…” And there is the mandatory implementation of the NAIS. Those owners/operators of “food production facilities” who do not grant surveillance access may find themselves penalized. Lastly, the “Administrator” of this new law has power “…with respect to growing, harvesting, sorting, and storage operations, [to set] minimum standards related to fertilizer use, nutrients, hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animal encroachment, and water…” Such standards can be set up to favor one producer over another, or one class of producers over another.

    In other words, this bill places entirely too much power in the hands of the Administrator of this proposed “Food Safety Administration” without rigorously defining and limiting the scope of the Administrator’s power. This is a perfect set-up for abuse. I too would like to feel confident that the bill won’t pass. But then, that’s what I thought about the first $700 billion Wall Street bailout before it passed.

  11. Susan B says:

    Sharon,
    Thanks for bringing this out. How does this relate to the 2002 BioTerrorism Act?
    fda.gov/oc/bioterrorism/Bioact.html

  12. ilex says:

    Sharon, you’re a better woman than me- I tried to read the bill and it made me want to drink. Thanks for the voice of reason- it’s been darned hard to find commentary that isn’t hysterical. Even so, I sure hope the bill doesn’t pass.

  13. Here is the text of the letter I wrote to one of the members of the committee that has the house bill right now. I do think there’s reason to worry about this bill. Keep in mind various U.S. Supreme Court cases, such as the FDR era opinion which held that raising corn to feed one’s own hogs constituted engaging in interstate commerce, because the farmer who raised his own corn did not have to purchase corn on the market and therefore affected prices of corn that was transported from one state to another. I am also concerned about the record keeping requirements, which could be overly burdensome for small farmers who have to grow the food, market the food, do their own bookkeeping and record keeping.

    March 7, 2009

    Mr. Henry Cuellar
    336 Cannon HOB
    Washington DC 20515

    RE: HR 875 – The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009

    Dear Congressman Cuellar,

    I live in San Antonio, and have a country home in eastern Caldwell County. Thus, I barely miss being one of your constituents. However, I communicate on a regular basis with your constituents, some of whom are my clients, some of whom sell me goods and services.

    I am writing to you today, because you are a member of the House Committee on Agriculture, to which HR 875 has been referred. While government regulation of industrial scale agricultural producers and food processors may be a good thing, we do not need regulation of small farmers who sell their produce locally. In fact, this law as written could put small farmers and farmer’s markets out of business and destroy a valuable source of food at a time when many food producing regions of the world are experiencing severe drought and food shortage is of real concern.

    The bill as written is so broad that it could even be applied to backyard gardeners, and the definition of contaminant is so vague that the law could end up making organic farming illegal, since organic produce sometimes contains insects.

    This is NOT the time to put small farmers out of business! Please consider the implications of the bill as written, and insist on amending it to exempt small farmers who sell their produce locally.

    Sincerely,

    Barbara Lamar

  14. Mary says:

    Several parts of this bill need to be attended to carefully.

    Enforcement is at the discretion of an administrator. It is not subject to judicial review, correct?

    Everything is assumed to be part of interstate commerce, doesn’t it say that flat out?

    Enforcement can be $1,000,000 per day. If they find someone with valuable property, how long before they have it?

    For enforcement, they are going to recruit among interns (LOL), and anyone else they can find, right? Does that means Monsanto Ph.D.’s will get recruited? I can tell you it does under already passed legislation when they want to forcibly, at taxpayer expense, spray vulnerable populations, even close to schools.

    The corruption of some university agricultural departments is already worrisome.

    The last time I checked, Ocean Spray required its coop members to spray pesticides, and this is legal for them to do, notwithstanding research on the pesticides and illness.

    Just the length and tiresomeness of this legislation and its use of phrases like food production facility for a place where food might grow are corrosive.

    This is a clear set-up for discriminatory enforcement. That is why the stilted language and the vagueness. They know they can’t hurt people with friends in Hollywood and large law firms.

    That’s not what they are gunning for. They are gunning for the little guy growing high-value, rare seeds and animals. They want the seeds and animals, and they want the property.

    They will coordinate with other federal agencies, say, FERC, to get the properties.

    This legislation is as toxic as the Mississippi river bottom at New Orleans. I hope you are right that they are not going to get away with it.

  15. I think we do need to be concerned that our Congress even thinks like this is chilling. What is wrong with our government?

    I did find this article that I thought highlighted the major problems with the bill:

    http://blog.friendseat.com/rosa-delauro-hates-small-farms1/

    Notice the ties to Monsanto mentioned in the article. This is not benign and it is not going away.

    M

  16. Sharon says:

    Barbara, I love your letter – that’s excellent. And again, I have no objection (in fact, would encourage) to reasoned opposition to what I think is a bad bill. What I object to is over-the top hyperbole that makes us seem not like reasoned opponents, but unreasoned ones.

    Sharon

  17. ct says:

    The gov’t waited for a good crisis to come about, and it did..first spinach with e coli, now peanut butter. Now the gov’t can say “Well, you asked for it and we gave you a solution..here it is..” Expect this to be only the beginning of gov’t interference unless people take a stand. Nazi Germany didn’t happen overnight either. It came about because the people got complacent..just like the people are now in the United States.

  18. CR says:

    ANY steps to penalize/restrict gardening and TRUE organic farming MUST be opposed. Big Ag is way too big already.

    HR 875 was introduced by Rosa DeLauro whose husband works for Monsanto.

    That, alone, should be enough to oppose to HR 875.

  19. [...] at Two Frog Home, has read all 117 of HR 875 and sums the bill up nicely here.  I also follow Casaubon’s book and Sharon had an interesting view on the same [...]

  20. Dawn says:

    “Hoping” this bill won’t pass is ….. a little passive, in my opinion.

    We need to pay attention to this and we need to be encouraging a dialogue around it. We need to speak out — no, not hysterically — but reasonably, logically and constitutionally instead of crossing our fingers and hoping that our elected officials will actually work in the best interests of the people as opposed to the interests of the powerful corporations that line their pockets.

    And frankly, we should be hysterical. It is outrageous that our government would even propose such a detrimental piece of legislation, especially at a time when we really need to be supporting our small farms — not because baby lambs are cute, but because we will increasingly depend more and more on small farms for our survival.

    Don’t we all have better things to do than to spend endless hours advocating the obvious? Should we really have any confidence in a government that continues to pour billions of dollars into sinking ships like the bank bailouts and wars over greed and petroleum? When is enough going to be enough …… when we no longer have access to fresh, nutritious food and are forced to eat genetically modified, irradiated by-products of the petroleum industry? What is it going to take for us to take back our right to nutritious food?

    Remember everyone, the word “radical” means “getting to the root of”. It’s OK to be radical.

  21. TJ says:

    Sharon,
    I have all the respect in the world for you. BUT !!!

    Your comment on this is a prime example of what a true “intelligentsia” would think/write – we are very reasoned etc. we don’t want to seem hysterical etc.
    Somewhere a chess player vs. boxer match was mentioned – the chess player thinks intently, moves a pawn, the boxer punches him in the face etc.. etc..
    That’s similar to what the educated polite ppl during the russian revolution did – debated the pains of the working class, excused and rationalized the bolsheviks actions – after all they don’t really know… they are lacking the upbringing to behave respectfully. We all (I assume) know what happened to that educated “intelligentsia” class in Russia – the few lucky ones waited tables in Paris, but mostly exterminated.

    I agree with you – we want to be taken seriously, not like a bunch of “paranoid conspiracy nut cases” but to see something vaguely unpleasant as mostly benign is wrong. The first principle is
    “If something can go wrong it will” can (and should) be applied here to read “If some legislation can be used to do harm it will be”.

    Just my 2cents.

    TJ

  22. Sharon says:

    TJ, as I said, I don’t like the bill. I think we should oppose it. I don’t think we should go around saying “this will end farming for all of us.” I think that’s nonsense, and your russian revolution example is wrong – I could just as easily say that this is just like the Y2K deniers, who crazily said “Wait, Y2K could cause problems but isn’t the end of civilization – maybe we’d do better to offer a balanced approach.”

    My problem is that the distorting rhetoric floating around the net has got people in a panic – I have no problem with opposing this, and in fact, encourage that quite explicitly.

    Sharon

  23. jack sterett says:

    I think hr 875 is incomprehensible at it’s best.
    The bill will surely shut down Saturday Markets, and the ability for “Subscription” buying of local fresh vegetables.
    Crap knows what else.

    It is intimidating, and many farmers will be afraid they will inadvertently violate the letter of “bill”.
    (Now the worst, up to 1,000,000. bucks in fines, up to 10 years in jail are mentioned. ).
    Is that intimidating or what.

    If I grew too much in my garden, and gave some of the edibles away, would I fall in one of the categories of “controlled”, maybe?

    There will be a new Government agency the federal Food Safety Administration. Not really sure what will happen to the FDA.
    (Here’s what really pisses me off. The wording in the resolution describes the FDA’s proven inability to oversee such a grave danger to our citizens, stating the FDA’s program is 70 years old and ineffective). Nobody said anything about W Bush almost destroying the FDA in the last 8 years.
    So justification for a Giant new agency ta da the FSA.

    A solution looking for a problem, in spades. (I forgot, an attention getter “Big Brother).

    As Agent Molder said, “The Truth is out there Somewhere”‘

    There’s a paragraph, one of the sites uwrt “HR 875″.
    Here’s It is;
    House Resolution HR 875 was introduced by Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn, in February. DeLauro’s husband , Stanley Greenberg, conducted research for
    Monsanto-the world’s leading producer of herbicides and genetically seed. (Holy hell, the fox in the hen house again).
    I can’t verify this, it was submitted 2 days ago by “metaldogman”, I don’t know him.

    (Now Sharon, was that hysterical? I read hr 875, line by line, like you say you did. This is my take, sounds like the Patriot Farmer.
    If the paragraphs are vague, I am sure Monsanto, and big agro will have large staffs of Lawyers to explain them to you/us.
    No one so far has mentioned the cost of the new agency, so I will. I don’t know but it will be a very big bill.

  24. Scott M says:

    Facts: Rosa DeLauro is married to Stan Greenberg. Stan Greenberg is a political pollster and CEO of a PR firm. His firm has worked with Monsanto. His firm has also worked with Al Gore and NPR.

    I’m with you, Sharon–as long as the public sees us as full of paranoid bs (the Y2K comparison is right on the mark), we are not going to be able to promote a better alternative to corporate ag.

  25. Joe Rogo says:

    I was upset with the prospect of a “buy local” concept being put in jeapordy by HR875, that is, until I actually read the bill.

    Even Tom Phillpot gets it wrong in saying,

    “the bill seeks to regulate any ‘food production facility’ which it defines as ‘any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation.’”.

    What Tom refers to is actually part of a list of EXCLUSIONS from the bill’s registration regulation. It’s a bit odd, but the definitions section of the bill defines the facilities to be subject to the regulations as “food establishment”. What the bill then defines as “food production facilities” are the subjects of exclusions. From the exclusions section:

    “For the purposes of registration, the term ‘food establishment’ does not include a ‘food production facility’, as defined in paragraph 14, restaurant, other retail food establishment, nonprofit food establishment in which food is prepared for or served directly to the consumer, or fishing vessel …[not] engaged in processing”

    Paragraph 14 defines the list which Tom cites above, namely, “any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation”. All these are the EXCLUSIONS, which are not subject to registration under this bill!

    Further, I am encouraged by two other sections of the bill. First, comprehensive whistleblower protection for federal employees or their contractors’ employees, which includes the inspecters themselves, employees of any covered “food establishments” and even employees of the excluded facilities.

    Second, comprehensive provisions providing for citizen civil actions against both the administrator of the agency created by the bill and any person who violates the regulations.

  26. Sharon S. says:

    When one writes a bill with such sweeping language that does not specifically exclude small farmers, roadside veggies stands, and home gardens it causes confusion and apprehension.

    So here is the question:

    Wouldn’t this entire mess just be cleared up if simple language, you know the Keep It Simple Silly principle, was applied?

    How about:

    “No foodstuffs produced by American Citizens on their own property for their own consumption, sharing with neighbors or to supplement other hungry individuals during these Economically Challenging times shall be covered by HR 875.”

    I mean – we expect results – let us tell the legislators what we want.

    Maybe that is too simple – but look at the situation we are in now by writing thousand page Bills.

  27. DC says:

    I think the focus has too narrowly been focused on HR875, when there are quite a few “food safety” bills with important issues coming down the line.
    1) Have you researched how many acres of the US (and cropland around the earth) are currently being planted with genetically engineered crops, compared to the total landmass? It’s going to become more difficult to keep natural crops and seeds from being contaminated.
    2) Have you wondered exactly how many patents Monsanto, Dow, Sygenta etc. actually HAVE on genetically engineered plants? Do you know how many seed companies these giants have bought? Most of these big companies have made it illegal to save their seeds (Monsanto “leases” it’s seeds…farmers have to sign a contract).
    3) Have you researched farming issues on international trade agreements?
    Do any of these food safety bills look more closely into the flawed/skewed testing by genetic engineering companies? Do they propose to labeling all foods containing anything genetically engineered or cloned?

  28. NicoleJRamirez says:

    The last post was what I was waiting for. I have recently been researching GMO, Monsanto and the disgusting money, “Rockefeller” family behind all of this. It’s larger than you think. This is almost like playing a game of chess. These two bills are being played as less significant than they are. The media and “elite” behind the curtain are playing a lot of hysteria on the part of those that are very concerned about HR875 and the similar bills that are tyring to be passed, suspiciously at the same time. The vaguness of this bill is important. Those that say, “It’s so vague…it won’t be passed” are undermining the ramifications of vague legislation. Hello…The Patriot act was one of the most horrific vague legislation to be passed and we are still paying for it. Henry Kissenger was right on when he said “When you control the food supply you control the people.” We need to wake up. This is no time to sit back and cross our fingers. We have endured at least 8 years of this type of apathy and we are sure to endure more if we do not take a magnifiying glass to ANY bill that is directly associated to our future, our food.

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