Was It the Good-Cop-Bad-Cop Routine That Enticed So Many Foodies to Sanction FDA’s Takeover of Food System?

I keep asking myself, how did we ever get to this point, where political and economic control of America’s food system is on the verge of being turned over to a government agency whose leaders declared early this year we have “no absolute right” to “any particular food” or to “bodily and physical health.”

I keep thinking about the old Soviet Union’s control of food system, where, in the interests of the revolution (food safety), farms were turned into collectives (facilities), which produced grand five-year plans (HACCP plans), reenforced by centralized standards (Good Agricultural Practices), and there were special exemptions for private peasant plots (Tester-Hagan exemptions). It all led to chronic shortages, terrible quality, and eventual collapse.

I keep wondering how smart informed people from all segments of the food rights and sustainable food arena got themselves engaged into supporting a hopelessly complex set of rules to maybe, possibly, depending-on-how-you-interpret-them allow certain small farms exemptions from this governmental takeover of the food system.

And I marvel that a bunch of other smart people are willing to trust the FDA, and hope that it will suddenly transform itself from a bunch of hardasses who take pleasure in driving small food producers out of business into a sensitive agency dedicated to sustainable food production; you can see the skewering I took for contradicting that logic in a new posting about the food safety debate at Grist.org (although most of the comments are skeptical of the FDA apologists). 

The government takeover was premised on winning over a bunch of notable foodie organizations over, and once the zealots engaged people from the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, the Northeast Organic Food Association (NOFA), and Rural Vermont, they could pull the old good-cop-bad-cop routine, with Sen. Tester the good cop via the hope of holding Big Ag at bay, if you’ll only help me figure this thing out. Once you’re figuring out the “or’s”, “and’s”, and “wherefore’s”, and deciding when a farm becomes a “facility,” you quickly lose touch with the big-picture issues, including:

* That the food safety crisis is of a much different sort than what is addressed by S510. Ben Hewitt, the author of The Town That food Saved, and of an upcoming new book on food safety, articulates the real challenges very clearly in a recent blog posting.

* That the Tester-Hagan amendment provisions are their own can of worms in terms of enforcement. Food rights advocate Doreen Hannes imagines one scenario where farmers at farmers markets will need to ask for customer identification to determine if they live within 250 miles of the market.

Finally, we’re hearing that if the Congress doesn’t pass S510 now, the opportunity for food safety controls will vanish “for a generation.” That’s just another form of fear-mongering. Unfortunately, the government-takeover artists have gone too far to turn back. They couldn’t get the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), so they moved to “food safety.” Believe me, if S510 doesn’t make it through Congress this time, they’ll soon be back with another scheme, and it will have just as little to do with food safety. I’ll bet the farm on that one.?

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16 Comments on "Was It the Good-Cop-Bad-Cop Routine That Enticed So Many Foodies to Sanction FDA’s Takeover of Food System?"

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Bill Anderson
December 6, 2010 6:39 am


There is a huge difference between what is happening in the U.S. today with SB510, and what happened in Russia 100 years ago.

The United States is a thoroughly industrialized country. We are today in a post-industrial society.

In 1917, Tsarist Russia was a largely Feudal agrarian society. The majority of people were peasants or serfs still working under lords, nobles, etc…

After WWI and the two revolutions, the Bolsheviks took over, and in fact proved to be incredibly efficient industrialists. That is what you are talking about here — the "5-year plans" and "collectivization" (aka industrialization) of agricultural.

The Bolsheviks did in 20 years what took the rulers of Western countries over two centuries to accomplish — they dispossesed the feudal peasantry of the common rights of the land (in the West this was done through various "land reforms") and drove them into cities to work in factories.

The Bolsheviks were very much immitators of the western capitalists whom they opposed. They just used a different socio-economic structure to accomplish the same goal — industrialization. Where the rulers of the west used corporations and banks, the Bolsheviks used the command-and-control planned economy. The end result was the same, though.

My point is this — we are WELL past the point of industrialization in the United States today. If we are to accurately understand and oppose SB510, we must understand it in the context of modern globalization, neo-liberalism, and the decreasing significance of the nation-state in comparison to global organizations like the WTO. I'm speculating here, but I'm willing to bet that SB510 is in part an effort to "harmonize" U.S. food regulations for reasons of international commerce.

For example, the U.S. dairy industry is buzzing with talk about the E.U. standard for Somatic cell counts (SCC). The U.S. standard is no more than 750,000/mL, while the E.U. is 400,000/mL. Until recently, bulk milk for producing any dairy product to be exported to an E.U. nation had to meet the E.U. standard for SCC. In just the past few months, however, the E.U. tightened this requirement and mandated that each farm meet the E.U. standard, where previously, only the commingled milk as a whole had to meet their standard.

It is only a matter of time before the U.S. adopts the E.U. standard for Somatic cells, just to simplify commerce with the E.U.

I believe they refer to this as an attempt to "harmonize" standards.

This is but one example, and I'm sure the implementation of SB510 (if it is implemented) will lead to many more examples. The agenda is more than just destruction of small farms. It is about the dominance of the global corporate commodity market, and the destruction of unique localized cultures and economies.

It is so easy to oversimplify this issue, but nothing is ever that simple. Its about much more than just brute state control, although that is certainly part of the agenda.

Smy Opin
December 6, 2010 7:52 am

A cursory reading at Grist might make it appear that you took a "skewering".

The "logic" that was presented to counter your arguments was strong in quantity –
but it completely lacked substance.

Keep your chin up.. there is rarely value on the bandwagon.

December 6, 2010 8:29 am


"In a sense, I fear, our food-safety regime is lurching along the path that sees bacteria itself as a problem to be wiped out, rather than focusing on specific practices that create niches for bacteria that are known to be harmful .To see what I mean, take a hard look at the U.S. egg industry, which has pretty much exposed itself as a pathogen-concentrating disaster this year. For the latest gory details, see this Humane Society expos about Cal-Maine, putatively the nation's largest egg operation. In the end, S. 510 might force huge egg operations to sterilize their eggs before they reach the shelf or vaccinate their hens against salmonella — a problematic response, in my view — but it won't force them to stop cramming hens tightly together in cages"

Tom Philpott is exactly on target here.It is the " specific practices that create niches for bacteria that are known to be harmful " that is the problem.Agricultural practices that create these niches should be exposed and condemned. It is a MONOCULTURE vs Diversity problem.MONOCULTURE creates these niches.Diversity eliminates them.The food safety regime encourages MONOCULTURE and discourages diversity.

Bill Anderson
December 6, 2010 9:00 am
Judith McGeary
December 6, 2010 9:02 am


You seem to assume that there was a better choice that I and others could have made, and we somehow passed it up through stupidity or naivete. That defies the truth of what actually happened.

For over a year, I've said that S510 is a bad bill that does not address the underlying problems with food safety and that gives FDA too much power. But it was clear that there was overwhelming support in Congress to pass such a bill — witness the 283 votes for HR 2749 and the unanimous Committee approval of S510. The Tester-Hagan amendment, with all of its complexities and lack of perfection, was a hard-fought battle at every step of the way. It is only now, after the bill has been delayed in large part because of the negotiations over the Tester-Hagan amendment, that there is any possibility that the bill could die. And even now it still appears likely to pass through last-minute maneuvering.

If there's a lesson to be learned from the food safety bill and Tester-Hagan amendment, it is that the system is already very far gone down the path of control of our food supply by the Agribusiness-government combination, and that there are limits to what can be done by a handful of activists and organizations. It's up to more people to start holding officials accountable on an ongoing basis at every step of the way, not just when the vote is imminent.


Joseph Heckman
December 6, 2010 9:40 am

Another example of biodversity: http://www.ippfbe.org

David Hannes
December 6, 2010 10:24 am


Ever since I met you at the NIAA Convention in Kansas City I've been amazed at your unwavering lilt toward compromise.

When you're right, you don't have to compromise.

Then you don't have to make excuses.


Steve Bemis
December 6, 2010 11:01 am

Judith: well said. And thank you for working so hard to give us at least a ledge to dig into with fingertips.

Steve Gilman
December 6, 2010 11:04 am

O David, what a Goliath you have created! Your smackdown on the Grist discussion WAS very substantial, actually. Folks might want to check it out at:
< http://www.grist.org/article/food-2010-12-03-the-real-nitty-gritty-on-small-farms-and-food-safety-bill&gt;
While mistrust of FDA is always well-warranted, and political passions a virtue to maintain credibility naysayers have to at least be able to pass Journalism 101.

And in addition to the history lesson on the Soviet food system you received in a previous post heres one on S.510:

The FDA empowerment you ascribe to S.510 actually was codified EIGHT years ago in the Bioterrorism act of 2002. Where were you THEN, David? Probably off doing other work like the rest of us and no match for all the usurption of government power that came down after 9/11 in response to terrorism, real and imagined.

The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 twisted the definition of a farm into that of a facility by declaring common farming operations such as cutting and trimming during harvest to be processing operations. And the FDA was empowered to oversee facilities and require registration, inspections with a host of other regulations. FDA has this power NOW, as we speak and they are in fact hard at work codifying same in the Guidances for tomatoes, leafy greens, melons and onions for starters.

Nothing really happened in 2002 however, as Big Ag and Big Pharma made sure FDA stayed toothless and minimally funded during the 8 years of the Bush II administration. But the big Consumer groups were lined up when Obama came in and HR2749 hit the House with further legislation that essentially threw small farmers under the bus in their haste to empower FDA to be able to handle the increasing outbreaks contaminated food in the marketplace. Where were you then, David?

Sustainable and organic groups were left to gear up their capacity and play catch up and while there were some small wins, HR2749 was a disaster for small farms. By the time the action moved to the Senate, however, a food safety task force and other coalitions were able to respond substantially.

At the outset S.510 was as dismal as HR2749 but the coalitions managed to find sponsors finally including Tester — into safety of the Managers Package to insert:
Senator Sanders (D-VT) providing FDA authority to either exempt farms engaged in low or no risk processing or co-mingling activities from new regulatory requirements or to modify particular regulatory requirements for such farming operations.
Senator Bennet (D-CO) to reduce unnecessary paperwork and excess regulation required under the preventative control plan and the produce standards sections of the bill, including instructions to FDA to minimize the number of different standards that apply to separate foods, to make requirements scale appropriate, and to prohibit FDA from requiring farms and other food facilities to hire outside consultants to write food safety plans.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) to provide for a USDA-delivered competitive grants program for food safety training for farmers, small processors and wholesalers, with a priority on small and mid-scale farms.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to strip the bill of wildlife-threatening enforcement against animal encroachment of farms and require FDA to apply sound science to any requirements that might impact wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) to exempt farmers from extensive and expensive traceability and recordkeeping requirements if they sell food directly to consumers or to grocery stores, to allow labeling that preserves the identity of the farm through to the consumer to satisfy traceability requirements, and to in most cases limit farm recordkeeping to the first point of sale when the product leaves the farm.
Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Kay Hagan (D-NC) to give very small farms and food processing facilities as well as direct-market farms who sell locally the option of complying with state regulation or with modified, scale-appropriate federal regulation.

I submit these PROTECTIONS are real wins that will make a HUGE positive difference on the ground for farmers. THE BOTTOM LINE IS that if S.510 does not go through then farmers are completely subject to the wide powers FDA is already operating under from the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. You can bash stalwarts like Judith and the other membership groups that have worked to make these protections a reality all you want David — but it's easy to see (a' la Grist) that you speak for no membership organization of your own — and that your opinion lacks both reality and credibility.

The Complete Patient
December 6, 2010 12:19 pm

You are correct about the global implications of S510–some of the international connections and obligations are written into S510 (and HR 2749).. I was merely suggesting important similarities between S510 and the Soviet food system that may provide a not-very-pretty glimpse into our future.

I agree that the negotiations over Tester-Hagan may wind up having created significant obstacles to final passage of S510, and that may be one of its most important accomplishments. I didn't mean to suggest stupidity, or any particular motives, on the part of the many that have joined to support S510–rather, to point out that they made a fundamental decision to get the best out a bad situation. I just find that "best" to be very depressing, and potentially unworkable, and wonder if it might have been preferable to have had the entire sustainable food community focused on opposition. Maybe more woulda, coulda, shoulda on my part than is warranted.

Steve G.,
Absolutely right that I speak for no membership organization–whew, that is one of my true luxuries. My opinion is based on the reality of having observed first-hand the heavy hand of the FDA and its lackey state regulator agencies come down on owners of small farms and food production operations…while somehow letting large organizations off the hook. By the way, FDA officials will never ever engage in discussion with these farmers or their representatives, geared toward remedying possible safety problems. When you see enough of these situations, you can only conclude that the FDA is motivated by political rather than safety considerations. So I terribly fear rewarding the FDA with greater authority over smaller enterprises (even with the limitations of Tester-Hagan).


Ken Conrad
December 6, 2010 6:50 pm


I agree with you when you suggest in the final paragraph of your last post, that the system is already very far gone down the path of control of our food supply by the Agribusiness-government combination and that It's up to more people to start holding officials accountable on an ongoing basis at every step of the way.

That being said however would you not agree that S 510 is little more then a reflection of ongoing political skullduggeries and those who have chosen to accept the Tester-Hagan Amendment have with all due respect, been sucked in and made a deal with the devil?

Ken Conrad

Deborah Stockton
December 7, 2010 3:58 am


Yes, there was, and is, a better choice, and you are neither stupid nor nave. You could have opposed this bill. Many others made this choice. You still can. With your unique combination of abilities, you not only compromise, but you take many, many others down that road with you.

Several years ago, you supported a government managed voluntary NAIS while those of us actually fighting it opposed any government involvement, knowing exactly where it would lead. More compromise from you.

After that you lobbied hard for the Talent-Emerson bill, which would have inserted NAIS into the Federal Code where it had never existed, essentially inviting mandatory NAIS. As a lawyer, you should have known better. Even after it was publicly pointed out, you continued to support it. More compromise from you.

When S 510 (and predecessors) reared its ugly head, you again took the position of compromise with Tester-Hagan. You could have, and still could, openly oppose it. David Gumpert and Doreen made quite clear the problems with the Tester Amendment. More compromise from you.

You said,

It is only now, after the bill has been delayed in large part because of the negotiations over the Tester-Hagan amendment, that there is any possibility that the bill could die. And even now it still appears likely to pass through last-minute maneuvering.

This bill has been delayed, and might die, in large part because of the uncompromised position of Senator Tom Coburn who openly opposed it on strong principles, and because of the tax issue. You dont mention these.

You said,

"If there's a lesson to be learned from the food safety bill and Tester-Hagan amendment, it is that the system is already very far gone down the path of control of our food supply by the Agribusiness-government combination, and that there are limits to what can be done by a handful of activists and organizations. It's up to more people to start holding officials accountable on an ongoing basis at every step of the way, not just when the vote is imminent."

If there is a lesson to be learned from this bill, it is to stand on principle, act on faith, and not offer compromise as the beginning of engagement. If there is a limit to what can be done by a handful of activists and organizations we have not found it yet, and it is certainly not this kind of compromise.


lola granola
December 7, 2010 6:17 am
December 7, 2010 7:28 am


I am glad the Tester amendment got in. But even with it in you should have opposed 510. There is no excuse for supporting such an abomination.

Are we free or are we slaves? Pick one and quit straddling the fence.

Live free or die trying.


Mark McAfee
December 7, 2010 3:22 pm

Just back from my LIGA Flying doctors of Mercy Medical mission flight into deep Mexico
( Ocoroni Clinic near Los Mochis Mex ). It was great to get away and get a healthy prospective on what we truly have…beyond on the rarified BS that flies arround the foodie liberation front etc….. We saw nearly 300 patients and I got to know some Fresno Doctors real well….this is important for me at OPDC. It is truly sad to see the " Nestle food deserts" that American and international corporations have created in third world countries. There is virtually no good whole food and the immune status of the kids really shows it.

I also spent some time reading all 480 pages of SB 510. On page 30 I found One very important clause….. It says " Rule of Construction"…."Nothing in this subsection shall be construed to provide the Secretary with the authority to prescribe specific technologies, practices or critical controls for an individual facility".

That means the FDA will not be running arround demanding pasteurization or anything else. It is strictly forbidden.

I think that the real stink will start when the FDA tries to establish its blacklist of High Risk Foods. I am absolutely sure that they will try and put raw milk on this High Risk Foods List. Western Growers will freak out if spinach gets blacklisted. That is when I attend the hearings and demand evidence that Raw Milk has ever killed anyone in the USA in the last 30 years and in the same breath provide CDC evidence of many deaths caused by pasteurized milk.

That is when the FDA will have a headache that even their latest and greatest patented ANSAID will not fix. My take away from SB 510 is that it is massively unworkable, is massively bureaucratic, massively expensive, will massively increase USA presence in other countries business and will end up being a huge Cluster F….

You can already see representatives bailing out and not supporting this bill. This bill does not cover juices or meat or eggs. Can you smell politics. These are some of the biggest risk factor foods. SB 510 is a sick joke…that really shows how far from reality the clowns in Washington DC really are.

David….Russia at least has their Kvas, legal RawMilk Kefir and socialized medicine that works by prevention. We do not even have that. What we have is deep corruption and a bill that feeds a medical industrial sterile food machine that needs to feed on people in order to survive.

I am staying the course and will just keep on teaching people and feeding people in a better way and ignore this madness. Madness is self limiting because it is cursed and untrue.


Don Wittlinger
December 7, 2010 9:40 pm

"S510 lipstick on a pig and worse than the Patriot Act"