While we’ve been working hard to provide COVID-related resources for farmers and food producers, our other work hasn’t stopped – and it’s more important than ever, to help build resilient, local, diversified food systems.
We’re continuing to provide guidance for farmers, ranchers, and cottage food producers to help them navigate the laws and regulations that govern them.
We’re also hard at work on one of the major underlying problems: corporate control. The mainstream food system is controlled by a handful of large companies in each sector. Just 3 companies are estimated to control 90% of the chicken meat market in this country! These companies own the birds from the day they are hatched all the way to the grocery store shelves. The companies contract with farmers to raise them, but the companies control every step of the process.
In a highly publicized incident in 2015, one of these contract farmers blew the whistle on Perdue Farms. Craig Watts allowed an animal welfare group onto his farm to film the conditions that the chickens lived under – conditions that were effectively dictated to Watts by Perdue. Watts shared that he had observed an increase in the birds placed on his farm by Perdue that carried bacterial infections, as well as problems with the numbers of birds he was required to raise in each house. These all create a food safety risk for consumers. And the conditions are a far cry from the images and language that Perdue uses on its labels and in its commercials.
What was Perdue’s reaction? To blame Watts. They started sending inspectors to his farm, auditing his operations, and requiring him to take “biosecurity and poultry welfare” actions. Perdue delayed sending any new birds to his farm – and given the intense consolidation of the poultry industry, Watts had no one else that realistically he could buy or sell from.
Watts brought a whistleblower claim to the Department of Labor. But Perdue responded that his claim couldn’t be heard because there are no whistleblower protections in the Poultry Products Inspection Act.
The FDA then weighed in, arguing that the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act apply. We agree with that conclusion, but not how FDA got there. FDA’s position was that live animals are part of the FFDCA’s definition of “food,” which we vehemently do NOT agree with.
The problem with saying that live animals are “food” (as opposed to being destined to become food) is two-fold. One, it contradicts the plain meaning of statutory language in a way that expands the agency’s authority, which is not good precedent to set. Two, it would reduce the number of farmers who are exempt from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules.
Why? Because the Tester exemption, for which we fought so hard, is based on the farmers’ gross sales of food, as well as whether they market primarily direct to consumers and local restaurants and retailers. So, consider a small farmer who raises cattle to sell at the local livestock market but also raises vegetables to sell at the farmers’ market. Under the FDA’s interpretation of the law, if the sales of the produce AND the cattle combined are over $500,000 annually, then the farmer isn’t exempt – and will have to spend tens of thousands of dollars complying with FSMA’s Produce Safety Rule, even if the vegetable portion of their farm is very small and entirely direct-to-consumer.
So FARFA teamed up with two of our allies, RAFI-USA and R-CALF USA, to weigh in as an “amicus curiae,” or “friend of the court.” FARFA’s executive director helped draft a brief supporting Watt’s whistleblower claim, while setting out how the Department of Labor has jurisdiction without having to agree with FDA’s problematic claim that live animals are food.
Protecting farmers who speak up about corporate abuse is core to who we are – both for the farmer’s sake and because it’s vital for holding these corporations accountable and making changes.
Stay tuned – we’ll be sending out a new action alert later this week, with how you can take action to support family farmers in the current debates in Congress.