FarmPolicy

September 19, 2014

Food Safety; Biotech; EPA; Disaster Aid; Ag Economy; and Corn Use

Food Safety

Erik Eckholm reported in today’s New York Times that, “As it reeled from the recall of half a billion eggs for possible salmonella infection, the American egg industry was already battling a movement to outlaw its methods as cruel and unsafe, and adapting to the Obama administration’s drive to bolster health rules and inspections.

“The cause of the infections at two giant farms in Iowa has not been pinpointed, Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said Monday in a television interview. But ‘there is no question that these farms that are involved in the recall were not operating with the standards of practice that we consider responsible,’ Ms. Hamburg said in the strongest official indication yet that lax procedures may be to blame.

“One of those producers, Wright County Egg, responded that it ‘strives to operate our farms in the most responsible manner, and our management team has worked closely with F.D.A. through their review of our farms.’”

The article added that, “The other farm under intense scrutiny is Hillandale Farms.

Federal officials have not questioned the intensive methods that have produced cheap eggs and meat but that some criticize as cruel and bad for the environment and public health.

Animal rights advocates, who have campaigned to end the housing of hens in tiers of cages, were quick to seize on the recall. ‘Confining birds in cages means increased salmonella infection in the birds, their eggs and the consumers of caged eggs,’ the Humane Society of the United States wrote last week in a letter to Iowa egg producers.”

Today’s article pointed out that, “But the link between cage farming and disease is not so clear, say many academic and government experts who add that some aspects of cage production, which prevents birds from wallowing in their droppings, may be safer than letting hens run loose.

“‘Some groups tend to cherry-pick studies to show the results that they want consumers to see,’ said Jeffrey D. Armstrong, dean of agriculture and natural resources at Michigan State University.

“‘The bottom line is we don’t know’ whether caged or cage-free production is safer, Mr. Armstrong said.”

By any historical measure, American egg production is efficient and comparatively safe. The current recall is the largest in memory, but involves only a small fraction of the 70 billion eggs produced annually, mostly by hens who spend their lives with six or seven others in cages the size of an open newspaper, their droppings carried away by one conveyer belt while the eggs are whisked off by another,” the Times article said.

Lyndsey Layton reported in today’s Washington Post that, “Although it has broad authority to regulate the production of food, the FDA historically has inspected egg-laying facilities only if it suspected contamination, said [Jeff Farrar, the FDA's associate commissioner for food protection]. That is likely to change under a new agency rule that took effect in July. And food safety legislation pending on Capitol Hill would require the FDA to routinely inspect high-risk food facilities, including henhouses.

“Under a long-standing regulatory divide, the USDA regulates the health of the chickens, not the eggs they produce. The agency has visited the producers at the heart of the outbreak, but only to grade the quality of their eggs as part of a voluntary program, according to USDA spokesman Caleb Weaver. Quality graders visit packaging facilities, not laying houses, Weaver said.

“And while some states inspect farms and egg-laying facilities — and several conduct vigorous inspection programs — Iowa, the leading egg-producing state, does not, said Dustin Vande Hoef, spokesman for the state’s agriculture department. ‘Clearly this is a tragic situation, but two federal agencies have been given the responsibility to ensure food safety and we count on them in that regard,’ Vande Hoef wrote in an e-mail.”

Under legislation that has passed in the House and is expected to be taken up by the Senate in September, the FDA would be required to visit Wright County Egg and other similar producers annually. It would have access to internal company documents that show results of microbial testing and the company would be required to adopt a strategy to prevent contamination and prove that it follows the strategy. The bill also would require companies to keep uniform distribution records, making it easier and faster for the FDA to track contaminated food,” the Post article stated.

The New York Times editorial board indicated today that, “The blame for the nationwide recall of tainted eggs must fall on the producers who allowed their eggs to become contaminated and distributed them for sale. But after a decade of tainted beef, spinach, the list goes on — federal officials also must take the rap for moving too slowly to strengthen the country’s food safety system.”

And The Washington Post editorial board noted today that, “If there’s a silver lining in the massive recall, it is that this latest outbreak of food-borne illness (remember peanuts, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, etc.) appears to have sparked action in the Senate, where comprehensive food-safety legislation has languished since July 2009. The bill would give the FDA the power to initiate a mandatory recall of contaminated products. And it would set up systems to trace food from farm to fork, thus making it easier and faster to pinpoint sources of contamination. A vote by the full Senate is expected as soon as it returns Sept. 13.”

Alicia Mundy reported yesterday at The Washington Wire Blog (Wall Street Journal) that, “For the past year, references to any food problem or recall, no matter how minor, have provoked a chorus of ‘we need a food safety bill now!’ from consumer advocates and Obama administration officials. The Food and Drug Administration’s chiefs have missed few opportunities to talk up the Food Safety Modernization Act, which passed the House last year.

With elections looming, Washington insiders saw little chance that the Senate would complete the bill this fall – until now. The recall of about a half-billion eggs in a salmonella scare may have given new life to the legislation. About 1,300 cases of the disease have been reported with possible links to eggs produced in Iowa.”

Alicia Mundy also reported yesterday at the Journal’s Health Blog that, “Rosa DeLauro, the House’s loudest voice on food safety, has just asked the heads of the USDA and the FDA to explain what they knew — and when they knew it — about an egg producer linked to the salmonella outbreak. The DeCoster family operation owns Wright County Egg, which has recalled 380 million eggs, and has ties to Hillandale Farms, the producer that has recalled more than 170 million eggs.”

Yesterday’s update added that, “Shortly after DeLauro’s missive went out, Henry Waxman weighed in.

“He and Bart Stupak over at the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent their own ‘What did you know and when did you know it?’ letters — but to the two farms at the center of the recalls. The members asked Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms when they were first in touch with the U.S. government. Waxman and Stupak also requested inspection records for the companies’ facilities; documents related to allegations of health, safety, environmental or animal cruelty violations; and the names of all their egg customers in the last year.

It’s a safe bet that there will be congressional hearings this fall on eggs.”

Biotech Issues

The AP reported on Friday that, “A judge’s ruling halting planting of genetically modified sugar beet seeds has left growers feeling uncertain as they wait for federal officials to decide the next step for a crop that provides half of the nation’s sugar supply.

Duane Grant, chairman of the board at the Boise, Idaho-based Snake River Sugar Co., said if a solution can’t be worked out to use the genetically modified seed, his company and its growers fear there isn’t enough conventional seed to plant next year. The company produces about 20 percent of the nation’s beet sugar.”

The AP article explained that, “Monsanto seeds also dominate corn and soybean production, but experts said last week’s decision is limited to sugar beets. Some groups hope, though, that the ruling could prompt the USDA to take a broader look at questions involving genetically modified crops.

“Monsanto referred questions to Luther Markwart, executive vice president of the American Sugar Beet Growers Association. He said the next move is up to the USDA.

“‘The message we’re giving people is you have to be patient and let this play out,’ Markwart said.

USDA spokesman Caleb Weaver said the agency’s attorneys are reviewing the ruling but haven’t made any decisions.”

“The ruling comes two months after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a ban on the planting of genetically modified alfalfa seeds. The USDA still must abide by a lower court’s order to conduct an environmental impact study on use of the seeds,” the AP article said.

Elisabeth Rosenthal reported in today’s New York Times (“In the Fields of Italy, a Conflict Over Corn”) that, “The World Trade Organization says that general bans on genetically modified crops constitute an unfair trade barrier, because there is no scientific basis for exclusion. But four years after a W.T.O. panel ruled that European Union policies constituted an illegal ‘de facto moratorium’ on the planting of genetically modified seeds, some farmers, like [Giorgio Fidenato, an agronomist], and seed producers like Monsanto complain that Europe still has not really opened its doors.

“It is true that a small but growing number of European countries, including Spain, Portugal and Germany, now allow some cultivation of genetically modified crops. But only two genetically modified seeds (MON810 and the Amflora potato seed) out of dozens on the global market have made it through the European Commission’s laborious approval process, a prerequisite for use.

“What is more, some areas of Europe have declared themselves ‘G.M.O.-free zones,’ or free of genetically modified organisms. France, Austria and Germany specifically ban MON810, saying they believe that it could harm local crops. In Italy, a Kafkaesque approval process in which the Agriculture Ministry has never established the requirements for success, makes genetically modified crops a nonstarter.”

EPA: Water Issues

Ben Geman reported on Friday at The Hill’s Energy Blog that, “The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday floated a draft strategy to improve water quality nationwide, one that bluntly recognizes that today’s pollution sources are often difficult to target with traditional Clean Water Act controls.

“‘Despite our best efforts and many local successes, our aquatic ecosystems are declining nationwide. The rate at which new waters are being listed for water quality impairments exceeds the pace at which restored waters are removed from the list,’ EPA acknowledged.”

The update noted that, “When the landmark water law was enacted in 1972, traditional ‘point sources’ of pollution —think industrial discharge pipes fouling waters — were the big problem.

But times have changed — the strategy notes that ‘Over the last 30 years, stressors have shifted’ and that ‘recent surveys found that nutrient pollution, excess sedimentation, and degradation of shoreline vegetation affect upwards of 50 percent of our lakes and streams.’

“‘In addition, recent National Water Quality Inventories have documented pathogens as a leading cause of river and stream impairments. Sources of these stressors vary regionally, but the main national sources of water degradation are: agriculture, stormwater runoff, habitat, hydrology and landscape modifications, municipal wastewater, and air deposition. EPA’s strategy must now meet these shifting needs and priorities,’ EPA noted.”

Mr. Geman added that, “Other plans include wider targeting of pollution from livestock operations…”

Disaster Aid

The Washington Insider section of DTN reported yesterday (link requires subscription) that, “In order to dampen Republican opposition to a high priority small-business economic package, the White House pressed Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., to pull her $1.5 billion agricultural disaster program, one of the elements of the package that was drawing fire from budget hawks. In return, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel promised to fund the program through existing USDA authorities.

“Colleagues, including Agriculture Committee ranking member Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, expressed doubts that the administration has authority to, as Chambliss put it, ‘spend taxpayer money without it coming through Congress.’

“Others have been even more critical, suggesting not only that the White House lacks authority to follow up on Emanuel’s pledge, but that it was poor policy to attempt to do so. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., wrote the president later in the week urging him to reconsider the commitment to Lincoln. They listed several reasons, suggesting that using an administrative route for a large disaster package would violate the regular funding process and fly in the face of Obama’s public comments about the need for transparency in the budget process.”

The DTN item noted that, “By now, murmurs of disapproval have come from a number of sources, including some normally friendly to disaster aid programs who suggest the Emanuel-Lincoln deal is unseemly and the program itself may be inequitable, as well. At this time, Lincoln seems determined to defend her proposal in spite of the target it provides her — and the administration’s — political opponents.

“Thus, it is likely negative political comments about the program and the political horse trading that has been involved will follow the proposal through the fall elections, Washington Insider believes.”

Meanwhile a news release Sunday from Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) stated that, “Last week Congressman Blumenauer met with local farmers as well as representatives from farming distribution networks, farmers markets, conservation groups, communities of faith, and other interested parties to discuss the 2011 reauthorization of the Farm Bill.”

Congressman Blumenauer believes that Oregon is dramatically shortchanged by the current composition of the Farm Bill, particularly because we tend to have smaller scale operations and our farmers and ranchers largely produce food rather than heavily subsidized commodities. Here in the United States, the benefits directed to cotton, corn, and sugar are concentrated in the top percentages of farming interests and flow largely to a handful of states. The environmental titles which would benefit Oregon agricultural interests as well as the environment and the rest of the population are profoundly lacking.

“Congressman Blumenauer believes the next Farm Bill should maximize value to the taxpayer, the environment, and especially our Oregon farmers and ranchers.”

Ag Economy

Pat Hill reported yesterday at DTN (link requires subscription) that, “The outlook for American agribusiness is upbeat, according to the first DTN/The Progressive Farmer Agribusiness Confidence Index.

“The index, launched August 23, is designed to measure sentiment in the agribusiness sector. Based on a survey of 100 business managers of a representative array of agribusinesses across the country, the index is a companion to the DTN/The Progressive Farmer Agriculture Confidence Index, which was launched in April. Like that index, this one will be published three times a year: before planting, before harvest and at year’s end.

The initial agribusiness index, calculated by comparing positive and negative survey answers, is 71.0; any score above 50 indicates optimism. The Present Situation Index is 73.5 while the Expectations Index is 69.3.”

Corn Use

Reuters writer Mica Rosenberg reported yesterday that, “Soaring consumption of high fructose corn syrup in Mexico, aided by high sugar prices and paltry local cane harvests, could accelerate next year and boost sugar exports to the United States.

“Mexican consumption of the corn-based sweetener, which is cheaper than sugar, nearly doubled from 653,000 tonnes in the 2008/09 cycle to 1.2 million tonnes this crop year.

“While that amounts to less than 20 percent of U.S. consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, known as HFCS, analysts see Mexican demand for corn syrup rising nearly 17 percent in 2010/11 to around 1.4 million tones.”

The article added that, “A growing market for U.S. corn syrup in Mexico is welcome news for the U.S. HFCS industry, which is battling a perception among some American consumers that sugar is more healthy.”

Keith Good

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