I got a taste Sunday of what it is like to be a government food policy official in enemy territory.
I spoke at the NOFA-NJ Winter Conference in Lincroft, NJ, and decided to assume the role of David Edwards, a high-ranking (and fictitious) food policy official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (NOFA is the Northeast Organic Farming Association.)
I had actually assumed the same fictitious role on Wednesday evening at a get-together at Groton Wellness, but because most of the people there already knew me, it was all in good fun. Yesterday, most of the people hadnt met me before. And also, this time I dressed for the role, in suit and tie and dark glasses; the NOFA-NJ board member who introduced me, Theresa Lam, played along and explained to the 45 or so people present that David Gumpert has been delayed, but we have a substitute speaker, a high-ranking official from the Department of Health and Human Services by the name of David Edwards.
I guess I should have realized that not everyone understood this was a skit when one man immediately got up and left when the speaker he had come to see apparently wasn’t there. This was, after all, a busy conference, with several dozen presentations and more than 500 attendees.
My/Edwards’ talk was entitled, Survival of the Weakest: Keeping Americas Food System in Safe Hands, and I went through a series of PowerPoint slides making the case that our factory food system has done a wonderful job of keeping peoples stomachs full, even if it has led to serious chronic health problems and police-state regulation of small farms selling food privately. The health problems, I pointed out, have resulted in huge economic benefits for Big Pharma and the medical profession, and the over-regulation has benefited Big Ag corporations.
I also argued, as David Edwards, that we in government had cleverly created a food safety crisis to distract from the factory-food-related health issues (such as antibiotic resistance, over-use of pesticides, and the rise of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs).
I thought it was pretty cute, till people in the audience began taking me seriously. One woman interrupted with questions about why I was defining food safety entirely in terms of pathogens. I was taken aback, but decided to stay in character.
She wouldnt accept David Edwards explanations that there were serious food safety issues, and that we had to penalize small farmers to get the message across, even if that meant confiscating unregulated food. Why would you dispose of perfectly good food? she inquired when I explained that food confiscated from from Rawesome Food Club in California and from Alvin Schlangen and Michael Hartmanns farms in Minnesota had been disposed of in landfills. How did you know it was unsafe?
I gave her the standard line, that because it hadnt been a part of the states regulation-inspection process, it was assumed to be high-risk food. She wasnt buying it.
A man wanted to know why I was arguing that we had to promote an armed raid against Rawesome Food Club in Los Angeles. I explained that we had to set some tough examples, to discourage others from getting the idea that private food sales would be tolerated.
In the Q&A afterwards, there were more tough comments and inquiries about the Food Safety Modernization Act and about undue corporate influence over dairy and other industries. I cut it short after just a few questions, anxious to return to the much-more-comfortable David Gumpert.
Theresa Lam confessed to me afterwards that she had been worried that my skit had gone awry, and perhaps I should come out of character. A couple people were pretty angry. But in the end, she was relieved, and glad I had stayed in character. People were engaged. It was a very informative exercise.
I must admit, I sweated the intense cross examination. It made me realize how uncomfortable it can become for government proponents who have commented here, when people here become angry and fire off intense questions.
In the end, I realized yet again why government officials are so reluctant to engage in direct face-to-face discussions or debates about raw milk and other food rights issues. Who wants to have their rules questioned and scrutinized?
I also understood how insecure these officials must feel, at heart, to be defending a system that has become so terribly corrupted. So many stay inside their hallowed halls, limit themselves to speaking to industry supporters and other government officials. They must be just a tad nervous. After all, its never a good idea to be messing with peoples food.
The push to legalize raw milk in Maryland, home of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, is gaining momentum. Liz Reitzig has been leading much of the effort, and tomorrow (Tuesday) will feature a full day of hearings. Livestreaming of the hearing will be available here; click on the arrow with the Health and Government Operations Committee.