Andrew Martin and Gardiner Harris reported in today’s New York Times that, “Every few weeks, it seems, deadly germs turn up in the food supply.”
“Is it becoming more dangerous to eat?
“Public health experts cannot give a definitive answer, largely because the historical figures on food-borne illness are spotty. But most of them believe the nation’s food supply is markedly safer now than it was 100 years ago, and probably safer than a decade ago.”
The Times article indicated that, “The Obama administration has promised an intensive focus on food safety. On Capitol Hill, crackdowns are under consideration. And the food industry, reeling from costly recalls, is more open to change.
“Robert E. Brackett, senior vice president for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said major food companies have made strides. But the recent outbreaks have shown that a single sloppy ingredient supplier can damage large segments of the food industry.”
Today’s article also stated that, “Public health experts say the complexity of the food supply illustrates the need for tougher government oversight, including more field inspectors.”
Reuters writer Christopher Doering reported last week that, “The U.S. pork industry, battered by import bans by nearly two dozen countries worried about the H1N1 flu outbreak, could soon receive some help from the government, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday.
“‘Clearly pork producers have suffered and will continue to do so until we get this turned around,’ Vilsack told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. ‘We are looking at ways we can be of assistance or help,’ he said.
“Vilsack did not go into details on what type of aid the industry might receive or when it would occur.”
The article added that, “In a letter to the USDA earlier this week, the National Pork Producers Council said low prices have compounded a slump in the pork industry. It suggested USDA buy $50 million in pork products for donation to food pantries and hunger relief to bolster hog prices.”
Meanwhile, Steve Fainaru reported in yesterday’s Washington Post that, “Health officials have found no connection between the pig farms, owned and operated by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, and the flu virus that paralyzed Mexico for much of the past two weeks. But the crisis, which appears to be abating, has inflamed tensions between the world’s largest hog producer and the poor neighboring communities here that have long warned that the farms are a danger to their health.
“‘To the people of this community, what brought about this problem was the pig farms,’ said Guillermo Franco Vázquez, the mayor of Perote, a county seat that has 22 farming communities, including La Gloria, in its jurisdiction. ‘To clear up this myth — or to confirm it as reality — we need more studies.’”
Yesterday’s Post article stated that, “With the crisis playing out, local residents and officials appear to be increasingly focused on the area’s relationship with Smithfield, which operates in Mexico under its subsidiary, Granjas Carroll de Mexico. The conglomerate, which had $11.4 billion in sales last year, has made the Perote Valley a cog in its global expansion, an aggressive strategy that has frequently put the company at odds with the local population.
“In 2007, hundreds of protesters blocked a federal highway in an effort to halt construction of a pig farm near La Gloria. Mexican officials say the company responded by pressing criminal charges against five residents who were perceived as leading the demonstration, including a 66-year-old farmer who was forced to sell his corn crop to defend himself. Smithfield has denied any involvement. The case is still pending.”
The Post article also indicated that, “Smithfield employs 907 people, making it the largest employer in the Perote Valley. The company works with 262 local service providers, according to the state, pays federal taxes and contributes 2 percent of its payroll, about $125,000 last year, to support Veracruz’s infrastructure. The company said it has funded reforestation and irrigation and has provided computer equipment to local schools.
“But relations between Smithfield and the local population are so strained that the state official who signed the 1993 deal to bring the company to Veracruz refuses to visit Perote ‘because I don’t want the confrontation,’ said Miguel Rolón García, the director of economic development.”
In other flu related news, Patrick Barta, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, reported that, “The recent emergence of A/H1N1 flu highlights a wider concern among scientists: Pig and other animal populations are growing too rapidly, raising the odds of disease outbreaks and other environmental problems.
“The world’s pig population has surged in recent years, to about one billion animals from less than 750 million 30 years ago, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Agricultural economists believe the number of hogs and other livestock will keep rocketing higher in the long term, as developing-world incomes rise and meat demand booms.”
The Journal article noted that, “Nguyen Thanh Son, an official at the Institute of Animal Husbandry, a part of Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, says the country’s large, industrialized pig operations often follow healthy practices, but he acknowledges there are some ‘household’ pig farms that have environmental problems. He said the government has been trying to work with these operations to make them adopt better practices and that the government is also investing in breeding programs to develop stronger and healthier pigs as well as vaccination programs to deal with diseases.”
(For a more technical look at H1N1, see, “How Time and Mutations Engineered the New H1N1 Strain,” an article that was published in today’s Washington Post).
In related analysis regarding responses to the flu outbreak, The New York Times editorial board noted yesterday that, “The World Health Organization, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Trade Organization and the Organization for Animal Health have stated flat out that properly cooked pork ‘will not be a source of infection’ for influenza A(H1N1).
“That has not stopped China, Indonesia, Russia and a dozen more countries from banning imports of pork products from the United States, Canada and others touched by the virus. Egypt hasn’t had a case of flu, yet the government ordered herds slaughtered. Afghanistan quarantined its only known pig, in the Kabul zoo.”
The Times opinion piece added that, “What these measures are clearly not about is protecting public health…[A]s the world works its way through what will be a couple of more years of dismal economic performance and likely social unrest, governments should temper the fear-mongering and self-serving protectionism.”
Sen. Lugar on Indirect Land Use
Recall that last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a proposed rule regarding biofuels and the issue of indirect land use.
With respect to this EPA proposal, a news release issued on Friday from the office of Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) stated that, “‘At this time when we all seek to work with the President to improve the economy through new energy investment, it is unfathomable that the EPA would act to curtail a great boon to rural development,’ U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar wrote today in a letter to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson.
“Lugar said that the proposed EPA rule uniquely applying a life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions standard to ethanol was ‘highly speculative and imperfect’ and ‘economic models simply do not accurately capture indirect emissions with an acceptable degree of certainty. . . I urge you to halt consideration of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions due to lack of sufficient information, and work with Congress to find a workable solution.’”
The press release noted that Sen. Lugar “expressed his disappointment with the EPA decision at a Senate Agriculture Committee Hearing on Thursday.”
To listen to an audio clip of Sen. Lugar’s comments on this issue at the Thursday hearing, just click here (MP3-three minutes).
In other news regarding bifouels, Christopher Jensen reported late last week at The New York Times Online that, “The Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to make an important and far-reaching decision this year that will affect more than 500 million gasoline engines powering everything from large pickups to family cars to lawn mowers: whether to grant the ethanol industry’s request to raise the maximum amount of ethanol that can be added to gasoline.
“That request has engine manufacturers and consumer advocates worried about possible damage, service station owners in a tizzy over the financial and legal implications and a leading petroleum industry group saying the move is unwise and premature.
“Specifically, ethanol producers are asking that the maximum ethanol content in the most common blend of gasoline be increased from 10 percent — a limit set about three decades ago — to as much as 15 percent. The blend the industry hopes will become common is known as E15, but the E.P.A. could approve a blend between E10 and E15.”
The Times article explained that, “The issue came before the E.P.A. in early March when Growth Energy, an ethanol lobbying group, and 54 ethanol manufacturers asked the agency for a waiver of the Clean Air Act so that more ethanol could be added to gasoline.”
The article noted that, “Approving E15 would have a huge impact on consumers, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, and could cause problems including the voiding of car warranties. ‘There’s a lot to worry about,’ he said. ‘All a consumer has to do is look at the fuels section of the owner’s manual, which says that the use of fuel above 10 percent ethanol may result in denial of warranty claims.’”
However, the article also stated that, “Growth Energy, whose co-chairman is Wesley K. Clark, the retired Army general and former Democratic presidential candidate, has told the E.P.A. that it has proof from several studies that E15 will not damage engines and will result in cleaner air while reducing the nation’s reliance on oil.”
The Times piece also noted that, “[Tom Buis, the chief executive of Growth Energy] said that the advantages and safety of E15 were clear and that allowing higher ethanol content would help to make the nation less dependent on petroleum. He said there was no reason to delay.
“‘You know, some people don’t want to do anything — they just want to test, test, test or study, study, study,’ Mr. Buis said. ‘You know, this nation has been stalling for 30-some years from becoming energy independent.’”
Animal Agriculture / Welfare
A recent update posted at the FeedStuffs Food Link webpage noted that, “Consumers today are increasingly questioning the quality and care taken in the production of meat, milk and eggs. Some of that concern stems from the fact that companion animals are increasingly being viewed by society as family members. While many recognize and accept that there is a difference between animals used as companions and animals used for nourishment, most agree that animals raised for whatever purpose should be humanely cared for.”
The update added that, “The animal activist groups would have you believe that animal welfare is a major concern of the American public.”
Recall that Tuesday’s (May 5) FarmPolicy.com update included an audio clip (MP3- two minutes) which featured the President of the Humane Society of the United States, HSUS, Wayne Pacelle, who spoke at the National Association of Farm Broadcasting on April 27.
The clip (MP3) included the following statement by Mr. Pacelle: “[A]nd then we have other uses of animals that are widely practiced in society such as the use of animals in agriculture where there is an increasingly robust debate about what the standards should be in terms of how the animals are treated.”
Meanwhile, in a public forum on May 5 hosted by the Farm Foundation in Washington, D.C., entitled, “Animal Welfare in Production Agriculture,” Paul Shapiro, Senior Director of HSUS implicitly used the notion that animal welfare is a significant concern of the American public when making the following argument (MP3-one minute) about regulating animal agricultural practices:
“[M]ost laws relating to the treatment of animals don’t include farm animals; in fact, the Animal Welfare Act at the federal level exempts all animals used for agricultural purposes and most state anti-cruelty codes exempt customary agricultural practices regardless of whether they cause suffering to animals or not. And the result of this has been, unfortunately, that there have been some practices- not all- but some practices within animal agri-business that have grown out of step with mainstream American values about how animals ought to be treated…[W]hat I’m suggesting though is that there are some practices that because there have been virtually no rules controlling how animals can be treated –we’ve seen grow out of step with what Americans want for farm animals. Three examples of that relate to the extreme confinement of calves raised for veal, pigs used for breeding, and egg laying hens.”
However, the Feedstuffs webpage included a link to a five-minute audio conversation with Wes Jamison, of the University of Florida (MP3) who noted in part that, “Both our research and research done at Ohio State and other institutions shows that animal welfare per say, is not a front of mind or top of mind issue- it is latent in the background. Think of background noise, it is not a top of mind or front of mind issue upon which consumers make decisions regarding either agricultural policy, farm policy or food policy…[C]onsumers are for animal welfare sort of like they are for security, but they really don’t know what that means.”
Jamison added that, “What the Human Society has become very adept at doing is amplifying guilt among consumers about the difference between how they treat their pet animals and other animals, and farm animals.”
In a related point that was made at the Farm Foundation Forum on Animal Welfare and Production Agriculture, Bob Krouse, CEO of Midwest Poultry Service expanded on this point by illustrating how consumers, when given a choice, pick eggs to purchase at the grocery store.
In part, Mr. Krouse stated that (MP3-three minutes), “The egg industry is not arguing about whether or not we should have chickens in cages or not in cages, it really comes down to what value do people place on these behaviors and is this enough of an issue to an individual to decide to not buy eggs from conventional cages…[O]ut of our six million hens we’ve got about 200,000 that are cage free, and it wouldn’t bother me to have all the birds in cage free if that is what our customers want; but we have to answer to our customers, that are the grocery retailers and the food service companies and demand at the grocery store is 90-95 percent Grade A eggs from caged hens and then 5-10 percent of the demand is for specialty products.”
Also at the Farm Foundation Forum, moderator and former Congressman Charles Stenholm asked Professor David Blandford, Professor of Economics at Penn State University, generally about how these issues interact with feeding a world that could have as many as 9 billion people by 2050. To listen to this Q and A, just click here (MP3- two minutes).
An editorial posted at The Marion Star Online (Ohio) on Saturday by Korre Boyer, the Organization Director for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, noted that, “I don’t want to cloud the issue of food production by saying that individual housing units are the only way Ohioans raise livestock because that would simply be untrue. However, individual housing units are the best way to raise some types of livestock so that the American farmer can meet consumer demand and produce an affordable product.
“You may choose to buy ‘free range’ eggs or ‘organic’ foods. These are examples of the product choices you, the consumer, have at the grocery store or local farm market. These choices may be one of the most fundamental rights stripped away by this so-called, ‘animal welfare’ group [The Humane Society of the United States]. By eliminating or blocking the use of fundamental, science-based, modern farming practices, we stand to lose the choice of what we would like to purchase for our families to consume.”
Recall that last week the executive branch released a budgetary item that was presented in a document, entitled, “Terminations, Reductions and Savings.” The document stated on page 74 that, “This proposal would reduce the Federal [crop insurance] subsidy to both farmers and the insurance companies in three ways: 1) reduce premium subsidies by five percentage points on all coverage levels; 2) increase the Government’s share on underwriting gains to 20 percent from 5 percent; and 3) reduce the premium on Catastrophic Crop Insurance (CAT) by 25 percent and charge a sliding scale fee for CAT coverage from $300 up $5,000 depending on the crop value. These changes are justified because the 2008 Farm Bill created several new subsidized programs in this area, and farmers and the crop insurance companies have recognized the value of crop insurance, so such a heavy subsidy is no longer needed.”
A news release issued on Friday by National Crop Insurance Services stated that, “The crop insurance industry has paid over $565 million to the farmers in Illinois for losses due to crop loss or decrease in commodity prices for 2008, according to the most recent summary of business data released by the Risk Management Agency.
“‘The amount of indemnities paid may still continue to rise,’ said Robert Parkerson, president of National Crop Insurance Services, a trade association for the crop insurance industry. ‘Not all losses have been paid yet because the Risk Management Agency just recently released the prices for the GRIP policies, and many still need to be finalized and paid.’”
The release added that, “The good news for taxpayers is that the lion’s share of those payments comes from the private insurance companies that sell and service the Federal crop insurance program. For their part, the private insurance companies have contributed substantially from the funds they set aside as loss reserves.
“In total, the crop insurance industry has paid out over $8.5 billion in losses for 2008 nationwide.”
With respect to the $8.5 billion payout, recall that the March Congressional Budget Office 2009 baseline projected that from 2009-2014, direct payments, counter-cyclical payments, ACRE payments and marketing loan benefits in total will average about $6.5 billion a year.