We read the week's biggest food politics news, so you don't have to.
We read the week's biggest food politics news, so you don't have to.
May 22, 2015
If you’re like most Americans, you probably want to know where the meat you buy at the supermarket comes from. Well, you might be out of luck. And we’re not talking about which farm, or even which state it comes from–but which country. A Wednesday vote by the House Agriculture Committee proposed to repeal “country-of-origin” labeling (COOL) on meat packages that included information about where in the world the animals were born, raised, and slaughtered.
The 38-6 House vote followed on the heels of Monday’s World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling against parts of COOL, which it says puts meat producers in countries like Canada and Mexico at a disadvantage. Those countries also have the potential to enact retaliatory tariffs against the U.S. cattle industry for the labeling. Perhaps because of this, Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway said that the House might vote for a repeal as early as July.
Country-of-origin labeling was part of the 2002 Farm Bill, and was implemented in 2008. Though it was originally written to help the American cattle industry compete with Canada and Mexico, it hasn’t been popular domestically. Some big ranchers say that it hurts their relationships with trading partners and requires extra money and bookkeeping time. A few weeks back, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also released a study that said it found no economic value to consumers in labeling the origin of meat.
But country-of-origin labeling has been popular with consumer groups and those who are fighting for more transparency in their food chain, not less. And the USDA report did acknowledge that it had received comments indicating a “substantial interest” in COOL on the part of consumers, and concluded that “a consumer’s right to know benefits those consumers who desire COOL information.”
As Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch sees it, the decision also has other chilling implications. “The COOL case proves that trade agreements can and do trump U.S. laws,” she said in a press release from the group responding to the decision.
Here’s some other food news you might have missed this week:
How the White House Plans to Help the Humble Bee Maintain Its Buzz (Washington Post)
Honeybees have been disappearing at alarming rates for years; we reported last week on a new study that found 42 percent of colonies have died in the past year. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, a plan that will seek to restore the habitat of honeybees by managing things like office park design and forest rebuilding after wildfires. Critics of the plan say that until the administration takes a hard look at the impact of toxic neonicotinoid pesticides on honeybee populations, environmental management may not have a significant impact.
Critics Hear E.P.A.’s Voice in ‘Public Comments’ (The New York Times)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received more than one million comments last year on its proposal to expand the definition of–and therefore further protect–the nation’s drinking water. Waters of the United States (WOTUS) is the law that determines which bodies of water are considered protected, and the EPA suggested that it also include streams and wetlands as part of a greater water ecosystem. A bill to withdraw that proposal passed in the House last week. Meanwhile, the EPA defends its proposal with the fact that nearly 90 percent of those WOTUS comments were supportive. Critics say that the EPA’s overwhelming social media outreach with environmental groups like the Sierra Club skewed the comments in its favor.
Walmart Urges Suppliers to Curb Antibiotics, Treat Animals Better (Los Angeles Times)
In what could be seen as a major game-changing move, Walmart is asking its U.S. suppliers to follow new guidelines on animal treatment and antibiotics, making it the latest in a string of companies to curb the use of antibiotics in animals. The company said Friday that the move, prompted by customer feedback, will give consumers more information about their food. “We believe it’s important to promote transparency in this process, helping to put our customers in charge of their food choices by providing clear, accurate information about food ingredients,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, president of the Walmart Foundation and senior vice president of Walmart Sustainability. Walmart’s announcement follows similar news from companies including Tyson Foods, McDonald’s, and Chick-Fil-A, all of which said they were eliminating the use of human antibiotics in the face of mounting pressure from consumer groups.
FDA Wants To Pull Back The Curtain, Slightly, On Farm Antibiotics (NPR)
And more good news about antibiotic use in agriculture. Kinda sorta. One of the most troubling aspects of farm antibiotic use is that it’s nearly impossible to know how many antibiotics are being used and where–the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) simply doesn’t collect that data. Now the FDA has proposed a new rule that would allow it to collect data on whether the antibiotics bought by giant farming operations like Tyson are intended for use in cattle, pigs, chickens or turkeys. It doesn’t sound like a huge step, but if it happens, it could spark a new level of debate within the agency.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Chickens (HBO)
Halfway point! Here’s a treat: Everyone’s favorite British news host John Oliver takes on contract chicken farms in his HBO show, Last Week Tonight. Specifically, how the economics of contract chicken farming skew in favor of the person holding the contract–and the scare tactics used to keep contractors from speaking out. Like most of Oliver’s segments, he takes on a serious issue but makes it fun too–just wait for John’s tirade at the end, scored by the industry’s trademark jangly guitar music.
‘Ag-Gag’ Bill Goes to Governor (WRAL)
North Carolina may no longer be a good place to record your employer’s wrongdoing without their knowledge. Lawmakers have approved a bill that would allow businesses to sue employees who go unauthorized into places to conduct undercover investigations. Though it applies to all businesses, rights groups have called it an “ag-gag” bill specifically aimed at those filming the misdeeds of agricultural operations such as poultry farms. The bill now goes in front of Gov. Pat McCrory.
USDA Allocates $21 Million to Help Farmers, Ranchers Battle Drought (Los Angeles Times)
Farmers and ranchers in drought-stricken states will soon see some relief from a $21 million federal fund. The USDA will use the U.S. Drought Monitor to allocate the money to the areas most affected by drought in eight states. No word on how much will go to California, the state experiencing the most publicized drought. This money is expected to help farmers and ranchers implement more effective irrigation systems, plant cover crops, ensure reliable water sources for livestock, and other water conservation methods.
Los Angeles Lifts Its Minimum Wage to $15 Per Hour (The New York Times)
L.A. joins Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, and Oakland in helping its poorest workers by raising its minimum wage. The city council voted on Tuesday to raise its minimum wage from $9 an hour to $15 an hour by 2020. Labor groups are hoping that this sea change in the second-biggest metropolis in the U.S. could have a ripple effect across the country. It will certainly affect workers in L.A.–some estimates say that more than half of the city’s population earns $15 or less an hour.
McDonald’s Workers Descend on Headquarters to Protest ‘Poverty Wages’ (The Guardian)
Speaking of the $15 minimum wage: About 5,000 McDonald’s employees descended on the company’s Chicago headquarters this week protesting their paltry pay. They held signs and chanted slogans begging the fast food giant to pay workers a living wage and allow them to unionize, and they delivered a petition signed by 1.2 million Americans asking for the same. Earlier in the week, McDonald’s banned media from its shareholder meeting, prompting U.S. trade union federation AFL-CIO to ask, “What does the company have to hide?”
Argentine Farmers to Register Monsanto Soy Seed Use in Crackdown (Reuters)
Farmers in Argentina using Monsanto’s genetically modified soy seeds will need to register them with the government. The Argentine Agriculture Ministry announced that it is creating a national seed registry to try and crack down on black market Monsanto seed resale. Farmers using the Intacta seeds, which are bred to kill crop-eating worms, will also have to report how many seeds they replant and set aside after each harvest. Though some worry that this will lead to farmers paying Monsanto for the use of its seeds every season (as is the case in the U.S.), Argentina’s Agricultural Ministry says that it’s opposed to these royalties.
Soda Tax Raises $116,000 of Revenue in First Month (Berkeleyside)
Last November, Berkeley became the first city in the country to pass a law taxing sugary drinks. Now councilmembers there have announced that it raised $116,000 in its first month, and is on track to raise $1.2 million this year for the city. Though many are quick to point out that the revenue is generated from soda-drinking, which is not necessarily something to be celebrated, the money is a tangible reminder of the city’s grassroots victory against Big Soda, which put in nearly $2.5 million to campaign against it (those for the soda tax raised a little less than $1 million).
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