FOOD POLITICS

Foresight on Food Politics

Foresight on Food Politics: The continual creep of food anti-freedom

The rise of the food police

"You may talk of the tyranny of Nero and Tiberius;" 19th century British political philosopher Walter Bagehot famously wrote, "but the real tyranny is the tyranny of your next-door neighbor." Have we entered the age of such "permeating influence and...obedience" to public opinion about what we should eat or not eat, sell or not sell when it comes to food and supermarket items? Only a quarter of the way into 2014, writes Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Washington's Keep Food Legal foundation, the year is already shaping up to be an unprecedented "crushing regulatory assault...on the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat and drink the foods you want." To Linnekin's daunting list, which you can read here, Farmer Goes to Market adds these other recent developments in the rise of supermarket anti-freedom:

Psst, buddy: Want to buy some whole milk?

A bill introduced late last month in the Connecticut legislature would ban daycare centers and home-based child-care providers from giving children under their care whole or 2-percent milk, unless the center could demonstrate a "documented" medical need. The "Act Concerning Nutrition Standards for Child Care Settings" limits milk to 1 percent or less milk-fat, in the interest of tackling the nation's "childhood obesity epidemic." Lest you think the state law is an isolated occurrence, it's important to remember USDA two years banned whole milk from its national school-lunch program, which serves about 32 million American children, also in the name of reducing obesity.

The irony, writes Elizabeth Nolan Brown, at Reason.com, is that research is beginning to question the traditional wisdom that reduced fat from milk actually leads to healthier kids. In addition to being more processed than whole milk, skim and low-fat milk may also actually contribute to children eating more than necessary, because it lacks whole milk's protein and fats that satisfy the appetite and make people less likely to overeat. She cites two scientific studies that showed drinking skim or 1 percent milk was actually associated with weight gain in pre-school and pre-and early-teen kids, while drinking whole or 2 percent milk was not.

"In addition to infringing on personal liberty," she writes, "the Connecticut bill...is based more on some legislator's harebrained idea of how nutrition and diet work than any actual nutrition or dietary science."

E-cigs are E-vil?

In a highly visible announcement two weeks ago, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration told the industry it plans to begin regulating electronic cigarettes for the first time, a move that would likely require health warnings similar to those on traditional cigarettes. Despite refusing to call for even more drastic regulatory measures some opponents of the nicotine-delivering devices have called for, including limiting television ads and flavorings, FDA nevertheless concluded some regulation is necessary to rein in the overly free market for the relatively new products. "I call the market for e-cigarettes the wild, wild West in the absence of regulations," Mitchell Zeller, head of FDA's Center for Tobacco Products, told a news conference announcing the decision.

The agency isn't new to attempts to regulate the electronic devices. Five years ago, it tried to regulate them as medical devices, until a federal court struck down the attempt. In 2009, the agency sought to impose restrictions on them as medical devices designed to deliver nicotine, a chemical compound that is addictive. Their growing popularity has led Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and other cities to ban or control their use in public places.

The problem with such bans, advocates of the devices point out, is that little or no evidence exists that the delivery of nicotine through e-cigarettes bring any of the demonstrated health effects of smoking traditional cigarettes. It's the smoke that carries the cancer-causing compounds known to be associated with cigarettes into the lungs of smokers and nearby people, which e-cigarettes do not cause. Regulating e-cigarettes should be done based only on the clear health impacts of nicotine, not cigarette smoke, they argue. Such definitive data does not exist, even an FDA official, Priscilla Callahan-Lyon, recognized in a recent scientific journal review she authored on the devices.

Pay no attention to that model behind the ad

For years, academics and other advocates of "protecting" children from marketing claims designed to entice them to eat unhealthy foods have justified the infringement on freedom to say what you want in advertising by arguing that children are incapable of distinguishing reality from the made-up world of modern advertising. Fair enough, whether you agree or not. But now, legislation is beginning to expand that protection to those who should have the ability to know better, but apparently don't; in particular, young women.

Two California representatives have introduced a bill in Congress that would eventually limit or ban "Photoshopping" models in advertisements, that is, using computer enhancement to create model photos that have "materially changed the physical characteristics of the faces and bodies of the individuals depicted." The regulation is backed by advocacy groups like the Eating Disorders Coalition who argue such restriction is necessary to protect young women from "[growing up] with unhealthy and unattainable notions of what they should look like."

"Advertisers...need to be accountable for not just what they sell, but how they sell it," said Seth Matlins, founder of Feel More Better, a site to "help empower girls and women to be happy and healthy."

"I’m a fan of commerce," Matlins told the media. "This isn’t anti-commerce or advertising; it’s a health issue."

Foresight on Food Politics: Nebraska joins lawsuit over California eggs

Missour will sue California over egg requirements

Nebraska's Attorney General this month announced Nebraska was joining in a lawsuit challenging California law that requires eggs sold in that state be produced under strict "humane" standards.

In a prepared statement, Governor Dave Heineman said, "There is concern that the California egg production standards create a precedent that would negatively impact Nebraska agriculture. This is about protecting Nebraska's farmers and ranchers from the potential for regulatory burdens that hamper interstate trade. It's not only about protecting our egg producers. This is also about the precedent this sets for our beef, swine and dairy producers."

The lawsuit was filed by Missouri's Attorney General last month. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster explained the rationale for the suit at a December meeting of the Missouri Farm Bureau. California's standards, passed by the state's voters as a ballot initiative in 2008, created a new state law prohibiting any confinement of farm animals so they can't turn around freely, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs. Set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015, it was believed to be the first time voters were asked directly whether to ban the practice of confining laying hens in small, so-called "battery" cages. Both the Nebraska Governer and Attorney General Jon Bruning argued in joining the suit the California law is yet another attempt by the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States to hurt agriculture, Nebraska's top industry.

"Nebraska farmers and ranchers have taken great pride in caring for their livestock for generations," said Bruning. "We stand with Nebraska ag producers and will fight HSUS' unconstitutional attempt to dictate farming practices in our state."

Five other states have joined the lawsuit against California. Missouri Pork Association head Don Nikodim has called the California law a clear violation of the U.S. Commerce Clause. The U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause gives only Congress the power to regulate trade between states. Missouri's Koster and other opponents argue that although California's law doesn't discriminate against any single state in its application, the state has failed to show the effects it imposes on commerce outside the state are minor in comparison to the local concern it seeks to address.

“I don't believe voters in California should be able to set agricultural policy in Missouri," Koster told the Missouri Farm Bureau assembly Dec. 9. "...California's new law goes further than just protecting chickens. It's also intended to advantage California farmers,” he said. “The new law says that anyone who sells eggs in California must house their own hens in accordance with California's animal protection standards, even if those animals are raised here in Missouri.

“If Missouri egg producers want to continue selling their eggs in California, they will have to retool their operations here in Missouri, and that will raise the cost of eggs in our state and across the nation,” he said.

California's 2008 ballot initiative is seen as the impetus behind national legislation proposed this year to eventually apply similar restrictions to egg production across the nation. You can read details of what that failed legislation would have meant to you here.

Foresight on Food Politics: Six states animal-rights groups will likely target next

Which state may be next for animal-rights political action?

Researchers at Oklahoma State looked at the history of state ballot initiatives restricting the confinement of farm animals and chickens, matched the demographics of the voters who supported those initiatives in California, and then conducted a "thought experiment" predicting the likelihood of success of similar agendas in other states. Here are the top half dozen most likely states to see action.


No. 6: Rhode Island

No. 6: Rhode Island

Negligible hog production and nearly no egg-laying hens means few farmers to mount an organized opposition. Predicted percentage of voters who would vote for an initiative like California's Prop. 2: 64 percent.


Massachusetts

No. 5: Massachussetts

Like its neighbor to the south, Massachusetts' demographics favoring higher income, higher education, age, religion and political affiliations similar to California's increases its chance of accepting regulation on animal production. "An initiative to ban gestation crates in Massachusetts is predicted to pass with high likelihood," the Oklahoma State researchers write. And even though Massachusetts produces more eggs than Rhode Island, unlike that state, it allows direct ballot initiatives, with low obstacles to getting one on the ballot: The signatures needed must only exceed 3 percent of the number of votes last cast for governor.


New Jersey

No. 4: New Jersey

Just because a state doesn't have a ballot initiative process, as in New Jersey, doesn't make it immune from regulation, the Oklahoma study warns. The Garden State has already flirted with animal-farming restrictions similar to California's: Legislation to ban gestation crates was passed by both the New Jersey House and Senate. Although eventually vetoed by Governor Chris Christie in June 2013, the veto barely survived a highly contentious override attempt by the state senate. Expected percentage who would support a California-type initiative: 69 percent.


New York

No. 3: New York

Annual hog sales of an estimated $28 million and egg production of 1.2 billion annually notwithstanding, New York follows the political demographics of its New England neighbors closely enough to make the likelihood of support for an initiative rise to 70 percent of voters.


Louisiana

No. 2: Louisiana

With fully seven in 10 of its voters predicted to support a California-type initiative, the results for southern and relatively more conservative Louisiana momentarily confounded the Oklahoma researchers. What explains the southern and rural state's affinity for a political initiative so favored by its Northeastern counterparts? Religion. Louisiana's heavily Roman Catholic identity tilts it toward supporting restricting farm practices in the researchers' demographic modeling.


Maryland

No. 1: Maryland

Maryland's demographics lead the state to the top of the list of most likely to support a ballot initiative, with 72 percent of voters predicted to back one. Although the state may not be a leader in either hog or laying-hen production, "do not doubt a nonagricultural state’s ability to influence livestock policy," the researchers caution. They predict groups like the Humane Society of the United States will continue to target states with small hog and hen populations, hoping to score victories that can be used to fan negative publicity across the country that could eventually be turned into both "voluntary" restrictions by large pork and egg buyers and national legislation.

Where did Nebraska fall? Hint: Click here for the six states least likely to welcome animal-welfare legislation.

Foresight on Food Politics: The six states chosen least likely to vote for animal-rights initiatives

Which states are most likely to oppose animal-rights political action?

Researchers at Oklahoma State looked at the history of state ballot initiatives restricting the confinement of farm animals and chickens, matched the demographics of the voters who supported those initiatives in California, and then conducted a "thought experiment" predicting the likelihood of the failure of similar agendas in other states. Here are the top half dozen states considered least likely to support such political action.

Where can groups like the Humane Society of the United States be expected to succeed? Click here to find out.


Nebraska

No. 6 Least Likely: Nebraska

With almost $1 billion in hog sales and 2.8 billion eggs produced annually, Nebraska--despite a political process that offers access to the ballot initiative--appears fairly safe from imposed restrictions on pig and poultry farms. However, the Oklahoma researchers warned, Nebraska could become an important keystone in what could be called "the Ohio strategy:" Win an initiative in a large farm state restricting gestation crates or caging hens and then rally the affected farmers in that state to lobby their peers on a nationwide level to support similar restrictions in order to "level the playing field." Projected voter support rate in Nebraska for a California-style initiative: 28 percent.


West Virginia

Least likely No. 5: West Virginia

West Virginia's combination of income levels, education, age, political affiliation and other demographics leaves it resistant to initiatives driven by animal-rights groups. The percent of voters likely to support such actions: Only 28 percent.


Oklahoma

Least likely No. 4: Oklahoma

A half billion dollars in annual hog sales and roughly three-quarter billion eggs produced per year, coupled with demographics that tend to make California-style initiatives unpopular, leaves Oklahoma relatively safe despite its offering access to the ballot-initiative process. Only an estimated 23 percent of voters would support such a measure.


Iowa

Least likely No. 3: Iowa

Ranking as the nation's biggest hog grower, no access to the ballot initiative process, and a low predicted support rate of only 21 percent all leave Iowa the most powerful hog state immune to gestation-crate bans, the Oklahoma study predicts.


South Dakota

Least likely No. 2: South Dakota

States with the lowest predicted support rates for animal-rights ballot initiatives are dominated by Mainline Protestantism, the study noted--the demographic that highly predicts opposition to California-style activity. Such Protestant identity makes areas of New England, which are highly sympathetic to such politics, "a very different place than the Protestant Dakotas," they write. Predicted support rate in heavily Protestant and livestock-engaged South Dakota: Only 17 percent.


North Dakota

Least likely to accept animal-welfare ballot initiatives? North Dakota

Like its neighbor to the south, heavily Protestant and politically conservative North Dakota tops the list of projected disinterest in political initiatives like California's, with but a 14 percent predicted support rate. With a large dependence on livestock, the largest number of farms per rural capita of any state, and among the highest white ethnicity rates—all of which impact affinity for such politics—"Prop two stands little chance of passing" there, the study concludes.

 

Foresight on Food Politics: Will pork prices feel the effect of tighter antibiotic controls?

Will antibiotic bans break the piggy bank?The U.S. Food & Drug Administration announced in mid-December it planned to issue a final set of guidelines that would eventually end the ability of farmers to use most animal drugs marketed in this country for improving how fast and how efficiently animals grow.

Because as many as nine out of 10 U.S. hog farmers use antibiotics at some point, according to USDA survey data—and 43 percent of those farmers say they use antibiotics specifically for the purpose of helping animals grow better--a soon-to-be-published study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics predicts ending such use of antibiotics has the potential to make a financial impact on hog farmers and the pork market.

USDA economists Nigel Key and William McBride use data from the 2009 USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey of feeder-to-finish hog producers—those farmers who buy pigs shortly after weaning at about 3 weeks old and then raise them to final weight—to estimate the potential effects on overall hog output and the variation in output that could result from banning antibiotics to promote growth.

Their results estimate that such use of antibiotics—often referred to as “sub-therapeutic use”—has a small positive effect on productivity and production risk, increasing output by 1 percent to 1.3 percent, while reducing the variation in output by 1.4 percent. Farmers could expect to immediately lose those productivity improvements should sub-therapeutic antibiotics be banned.

Although that percent change in productivity may seem minor, given the amount of controversy the practice endgnders in the media and the public, local grocers may be able to relate to the potential impact it would have on individuals because farmers, like grocers, operate on narrow margins. The researchers note that the average feeder-to-finish hog farmer had an average net return of only about 11 percent of sales in 2009--the year from which their data came. That means, assuming no change in prices for his hogs, an independent farmer forced to stop using sub-therapeutic antibiotics could be expected to see his income drop by about 10 percent, depending on how much he was paying for the antibiotics that were no longer being used. Even non-independent hog farmers—those who grow hogs owned by large corporations under contract, typically for a set payment per head of hog delivered—would also likely face losses. Because many are paid a bonus or on an incentive basis for delivering hogs at a standard weight and variability, the loss of ability to use those antibiotics would likely reduce the amount of pork they get paid for at their end of their contracts.

Because it would likely reduce pork supplies, at least temporarily, a national ban on sub-therapeutic antibiotics would likely result in higher hog prices, which would have the potential to impact the grocer. Ironically, the group most likely to suffer most from a ban on growth-promoting antibiotics would be the small share of farmers who currently earn a premium from marketing their hogs as “antibiotic-free.” Among the 16.3 percent of feeder-to-finish operations who said they used no antibiotics of any kind, about 15 percent reported receiving a price premium for not using antibiotics. Those growers would likely see the premium for their marketing trait evaporate overnight with the ban on the practice.

The USDA researchers caution that some limitations of their study design make it likely they have not captured the full potential impact of an antibiotics ban. For instance, they did not account for any downstream costs that might affect the processors by the expected decrease in the uniformity of hog size, which is known to slow down production lines. In addition, they did not estimate any impact on operations that handle newborn and newly weaned pigs. If the experience among European hog farmers when that continent banned the practice is any indication, the impact would be much larger for those operations. The resulting impact on pork supplies and the cost to the grocer would also likely be larger.

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