Food Policy

The State of Food Policy

From heritage hog bans to the "sriracha apocalypse"

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From the USDA's ridiculous expansion of the National School Lunch Program to the FDA's move to ban trans fats, I've been downright terrified by developments in food policy so far this year. As I wrote here last month, "February 2014 may go down as the worst month for food freedom since the New Deal era."

While I stand by my claim that this year is the worst in recent (or even distant) memory, a little perspective is always useful. To that end, I asked a handful of experts from different fields, perspectives, and regions what, in the respective opinion of each, is the most interesting food-policy development so far this year—for better or worse—and where they see us heading for the rest of the year. I encouraged them to focus their response on any federal, state, or local legislation or regulations (or some combination).

Kristin Canty, Producer/Director, Farmageddon

The food freedom movement has had a few positive developments so far this year.

On the state level, heritage breed hog farmers had a big victory in Michigan. Mark and Jill Baker, owners of Baker's Green Acres, a very successful grass based farm, have been under siege by the government for raising heritage breed hogs. They, and other farmers raising them for food were told that their hogs were feral and needed to be shot or they could pose a danger to Detroit. Many other farmers caved in and shot their pigs, however, Mark and Jill decided to fight the long battle with the state. Last month, a judge ruled that Mark and Jill could continue to raise their hogs.

At the federal level, Rep. Pingree (D-Maine) and Rep. Massie (R-Ky.) have proposed legislation that if passed would protect farmers from federal interference: "The Milk Freedom Act of 2014" and the "Interstate Milk Freedom Act of 2014[.]" Both representatives are farmers. Let's hope that 2014 continues to go in this positive direction.

Helena Bottemiller Evich, Reporter, Politico

I think one of the biggest developments so far this year was the unveiling of the Nutrition Facts panel update. Revamping the design and policy behind the iconic panel is a big deal in and of itself–it's the first overhaul since the labels were mandated in the 1990s–but it's particularly interesting that First Lady Michelle Obama announced the proposed policy at the White House. She's publicly endorsed–and her staff was involved in crafting–a bold policy that will impact every American consumer.

I say bold because the plan is controversial for much of the food industry. The mandate to list added sugars along with updating the serving sizes to be more in line with the larger portions Americans are eating two of the biggest concerns, but Obama has made it pretty clear these two changes are here to stay. Expect to hear more about these issues in the coming year.

Jason Foscolo, Attorney, The Food Law Firm

The most interesting news so far this year has been the FDA's announcement it will overhaul food labeling regulations. This may come as a surprise, but federal food labeling reg[ulation]s are excruciatingly detailed and comprehensive. It takes a big commitment to understand them if you run a food business now, pre-overhaul. Without a doubt, small to midsize manufacturers are going to have to re-familiarize themselves just to stay compliant, and this will come at a cost.

Professor Ernesto Hernández-López, Chapman University Law School

In October of 2013, the Los Angeles suburb of Irwindale went to court to stop production of sriracha, the popular jalapeno-based hot sauce, crafted for Vietnamese pho and used worldwide in myriad dishes. Seeking to "enjoin all operations," Irwindale argues that Huy Fong Foods, maker of sriracha, emits harmful odors. Its city council began public nuisance proceedings. In November, a judge found no credible evidence of health problems associated with odors. As of April 2014, Irwindale has not dropped the suit or ended nuisance proceedings. This has been labeled "sriracha apocalypse" and "srirachagate," with sauce fans fearing an end to Bon Appétit's 2010 Ingredient of the Year and Cook's Illustrated's best-tasting hot sauce. The immediate lesson: cooks and foodies beware. The larger lesson: food producers be careful of local governments and their legal authority.

Professor Jayson Lusk, Oklahoma State University

After California voters passed an initiative in 2008 banning certain livestock production practices, notably battery cages in egg production, the California legislature, fearful that its poultry producers would now be at a competitive disadvantage, passed a law requiring imported eggs to meet the same standard. Earlier this year, the Missouri attorney general (now joined by five other states) filed a federal lawsuit challenging the California law. Proponents of California's law point to state's rights to set their own minimum quality standards. Opponents posit that the law violates the federal interstate Commerce Clause and they argue that farmers and ranchers should be free to sell to consumers in any state, presuming they can find willing buyers. The outcome could have significant implications for states' abilities to set their own food safety/quality standards and for the free trade of agricultural products across state lines.

Walter Olson, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute

The big, ominous, and still underpublicized story this year has been the Food and Drug Administration's development of regulations to implement Congress' panic-driven, ill-thought-out Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. "Local growers are discovering that proposed FDA regulations would curtail many common techniques, such as using house-made fertilizers and irrigating from creeks," reported the L.A. Times in February. Another batch of new rules will curtail the age-old practice of feeding livestock on spent beer grains, to the dismay of many small brewers and farmers. While I'm ordinarily critical of the FDA's direction under Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, in some of these cases the agency has no choice—the law requires unreasonable results. Too bad for small, local, distinctive, traditional variety in food and farming—and too bad a supposedly anti-corporate, anti-overprocessed food policy culture led by folks like Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and Marion Nestle will offer no effective resistance.

Michele Simon, Public Health Attorney, Eat Drink Politics

While some food advocates are celebrating the first lady's leadership on meager reforms such as increased font sizes on the Nutrition Facts label, there remains deeper food system challenges that continue to go ignored by the Obama Administration.