Should You Be Able to Buy Food Directly From Farmers? Regulators Don't Think So
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The jury in the criminal misdemeanor case of Minnesota farmer Alvin Schlangen last September acquitted him of all charges after several hours of deliberation. But the regulators’ push against privately-distributed food continues unabated. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has moved forward with a local prosecutor in Schlangen’s rural county, pressing similar criminal charges as the ones he was acquitted of in Minneapolis. He is scheduled to go on trial again in late June. And in Wisconsin, prosecutors have sought, in the wake of their loss over the licensing issues, to have Vernon Hershberger jailed for allegedly violating his bail terms since charges were filed in late 2011.
At its heart, this is a struggle over a steady erosion of confidence in the integrity of our industrial food system, which has been hit by disturbing disclosures seemingly on a weekly basis. In just the last few weeks, for example, we have seen shrimp, cookies, and veggie burgers recalled by the FDA for being sold with undeclared ingredients.
Also in recent weeks, members of Congress and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control have escalated warnings about the growing danger of antibiotic resistant pathogens emerging from farm animals, which consume about 80 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. The Atlantic reported last summer that medical specialists are seeing a spike in women with urinary tract infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, likely transmitted by chicken meat.
This erosion in the confidence of the food system carries serious implications. It financially threatens large corporations if long-established food brands come under prolonged and severe public questioning. It threatens economic performance if foods deemed “safe” become scarcer, and thus more expensive. And it is potentially explosive politically if too many people lose confidence in the professionalism of the food regulators who are supposed to be protecting us from tainted food, and encourages folks to exit the public food system for private solutions like the consumers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, and elsewhere. Just look at the vituperative corporate response to recent consumer-led campaigns to label foods with genetically-modified ingredients.
As more consumers become intent on making the final decisions on what foods they are going to feed themselves and their families, and regulators become just as intent on asserting what they see as their authority over inspecting and licensing all food, ugly scenarios of agitated citizens battling government authorities over access to food staples seem likely to proliferate. It’s an unfortunate recipe for a new kind of rights movement centered on the most basic acts—what we choose to eat.
David E. Gumpert writes about food and health, and is the author of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Food Rights: The Escalating Battle Over Who Decides What We Eat.