It is not every day you find Amish farmers serving raw milk in the U.S. Senate. But this week a group of libertarian, small, sustainable, organic farmers were serving up the unpasteurized milk–which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deems dangerous–to Senate staff and local food advocates as part of an effort to push back against pending federal food safety regulations.
The National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association (NICFA), whose mission is to “promote and preserve unregulated direct farmer-to-consumer trade,” organized a lobby day Wednesday to rally opposition to the Senate FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510), a bill that would increase FDA inspections of food facilities and give the agency mandatory recall authority.
It is unclear exactly how or where NICFA fits into the lobbying scene. Most food policy experts inside the beltway know very little about the organization, and many characterize NICFA as a fringe group. The National Sustainable Agriculture Association (NSAC), an active force for sustainable agriculture in DC, doesn’t work with NICFA.
“We’re not working with them on anything, including food safety,” NSAC spokeswoman Aimee Witteman told Food Safety News in an email. “I don’t know much about them other than their opposition to National Animal ID. My sense is that they’re fundamentally opposed to any new food safety legislation–aren’t interested in trying to improve the food safety regime while also making it more targeted on the riskiest practices.”
It is also unclear how any members NICFA has or who exactly funds the organization. Many food policy insiders suspect the Weston A. Price foundation, a non-profit proponent of raw milk and whole foods, gives the group financial support. A spokesperson for NICFA said the group is funded exclusively through private donations but declined to provide any details.
Curious as NICFA may be, their reception on Wednesday had some libertarian star power. Former presidential candidate and small government hero Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) kicked off the reception with his usual stump speech and Joel Salatin, a farmer-turned-celebrity, for his appearance in best-selling Omnivore’s Dilemma and Oscar-nominated Food, Inc., emceed the event.
Salatin, a self-described “Christian-libertarian-environmentalist-lunatic farmer,” fired off a number of clever sound bites to his audience, which appeared to be mostly NICFA members.
“When the government gets between my lips and my food, I call that invasion of privacy,” said Salatin. “By what science is feeding your kids Twinkies, Ho-ho cakes, and Mountain Dew safe–but raw milk, homemade pickles, and compost-grown tomatoes are dangerous?”
“Our nation has the lowest per capita food expenditure, but the highest per capita health care expenditure of any developed nation,” he said. “Welcome to safe, deadly food.”
Though the event piqued the curiosity of many food policy wonks, no one seems concerned NICFA’s efforts could derail S. 510, a bill that enjoys broad, bipartisan support, but has yet to be scheduled for a vote.
David Gumpert, a health blogger and author of The Raw Milk Revolution who also spoke at the reception, indicated on his blog this week that the response to NICFA’s message was hard to gauge.
“My meetings with congressional aides were pleasant, but difficult to assess,” wrote Gumpert. “This seemed a fairly common reaction among other citizen lobbyists. Maybe the most encouraging thing about the aides I met was that they seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.”
“Most discouraging was that the aides seemed not to know very much about key problems in the food safety legislation–the absence of significant exemptions for the smallest food producers and farms, the huge financial burden imposed by the requirement for HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) plans, and the imposition of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standards on farmers,” he added.
Consumer and public health advocates have been insisting for months that though they are open to “scale-appropriate” food safety regulations, no food grower or processor should be exempt from the food safety system.
“We do have issues with anything that provides any blanket exemptions,” Sandra Eskin, director of the food safety campaign with The Pew Charitable Trusts, recently told Food Safety News. Pew is a key member of the Make Our Food Safe coalition (MOFS), a broad coalition of consumer, public health, and industry groups pushing for the passage of S. 510.
“Food should be safe regardless of its source — big processor, small farm, conventional operation or organic grower,” said Eskin.