activism,  politics,  science

food regulations

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A friend on facebook posted a link to this article: Michigan Officials Destroy $5,000.00 worth of Good Organic Food from Family Farm. Besides leaving me wondering whether the inclusion of the “.00” was meant to make the amount appear larger to the quick casual reader, the headline makes me think about a time when I was a teenager, and a bunch of 4-H beef was seized from a butcher’s shop because his license was as a mobile butcher and he had butchered it all on his property instead of the other farmers. There was a big outcry over that because it was good prime beef raised by kids and bought by local community members who were not necessarily the ones responsible for the bad decision in how the beef was butchered. I can’t remember what happened with that case though I vaguely remember going to sit in the courtroom and watch part of the proceedings. When people suggest that consumers can adequately decide on the safety of their products, I think about how the beef purchasers in that case didn’t seem to realize the risk they were taking sending their cows to an improperly licensed butcher, so how would they be qualified to know if the butcher is taking good safety precautions in how he does his work?

I read the article about the Michigan farm with all sorts of mixed thoughts. There definitely needs to be changes to the laws around farming. In Ontario one of the laws that needs to change is the chicken quotas, which makes it impossibly hard for local farmers to legally sell more than a very small number of chickens. The law on selling ungraded chicken eggs only from the farm gate is another one that needs to change. Why not allow them to sell their eggs from a farmers market table in the town instead and save everyone some driving?

On the other hand the article is written like there should be no difference than legal or illegal, and any food should be okay unless pathogens are suspected. When the article asks when food has been condemned and seized from a variety of big companies, wouldn’t the answer be that the big companies follow recalls without requiring the officials to go in and force them?

Is there a role for government inspection of food? Do we recognize that role only when it coincides with what we want? Does calling something “good organic” mean it should be exempt from rules? I know some people view it that the rules should only apply for “big factory farms” and food processors, and that independent farmers should be trusted to do everything the best anyway, but I wonder about that, because I wonder at what point people can get overconfident, sure that they know how things should be. I think of something like Certified Professional Midwives in the United States, which are basically the independent farmers of childbirth with no legal restrictions on them and a horrible reputation for saying that breached past-due births are just a variation of the normal and oops, that baby must have been meant to die. Individuals can and do make bad decisions. If people are supposed to trust the farmers because they have a relationship with the farmers, and because the farmers seem nice and intelligent and well-read on something, what happens when they find out the farmer just didn’t believe bad things could happen to him?

Should the battle for raw milk be based on science? Should there be studies to confirm where and how the dangers can be prevented? Or should it be based on political ideas around liberty and the idealization of small farms?

I want laws that encourage and promote small agriculture and local food, wanting regulations built on science rather than government lobbying, and frustrated by the way in which the campaign for good food gets used as anti-government propaganda. Regulation can be good for the small business too. When the big diaries in Alberta wanted to get rid of the small Horizon Dairy (a dairy owned by a friend of my family) they had the dairy board remove regulations over what price milk was allowed to be sold at. They could afford to sell at a loss in the areas where Horizon Dairy had a foothold, but the smaller dairy was unable to survive the price drop.

Part of this issue is a question of how political change should be made. What role should  civil disobedience (like selling raw milk) and public opinion have? (Also: if selling raw milk is an act of civil disobedience is the goal to promote the legalization of the milk or the dismantling of food safety laws in general?) What role should scientists and health professionals have? What role should corporate lobbyist have?

There’s an interesting article about efforts to ban GMOs in Hawaii. One of the points the argument against GMOs there is not carried out by the local farmers nor by people who have necessarily lived there for a long time, nor for that matter by those who will be eating a huge amount of the food as most of Hawaii’s food is imported while the GMOs are predominantly indoor seed-production and papaya. What moral ground do those activists have to try to change how the farmers farm? Yet the idea that a small group of people can and should fight to make changes is a big part of political activism. I am torn between the belief that people can and should do all they can, and the belief that people are likely to end up echo chambers where they hear their own ideas reflected back with little connection to reality, and that the small group attempting to impose their will creates problems.

Part of this issue is a question of how we know whether something is true or not. How do we know whether raw milk is safe in the general sense, and how would a person know whether their specific source of raw milk is safe? How do we know when our news sources are accurately reporting on an issue and when does it matter that they are omitting details or being purposely inflammatory? With so much pseudoscience and propaganda around us how do we make adequate decisions?

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