Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Joel Salatin, Part 2: Food Regulation And The Little Guy

In part two of the Earth Eats interview with Joel Salatin, he talks about what's wrong with food regulation from the standpoint of the small farmer.

Joel Salatin On The Farm

Photo: dabdiputs (Flickr)

Joel Salatin encourages customers to visit his Polyface Farm in Swoope, Virginia where he leads tours.

Earth Eats recently spoke with farmer Joel Salatin, whose Polyface Farm was featured in the films Food Inc. and Fresh. He is also a food activist and an author. His eighth book, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” was released on October 10, 2011.

Read part one of the interview.

Food Safety Modernization Act 18 Months Later

Annie Corrigan: The last time you and I spoke was in March of 2010 when you were visiting Bloomington, Indiana. What changes have you seen in the food system over that time?

Joel Salatin: That’s not that long ago, only 18 months, but the biggest change of course is the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010 signed by President Obama on January 4, 2011.

This law, put through by food safety advocates — well-intentioned but naive — for the first time gives the FDA the right to come onto any farm without a warrant and ascertain if that farm is doing anything that is considered not “science-based.” This phrase is used now 11 times, the first time the phrase science-based has ever been used in a piece of regulatory legislation.

Of course I think I’m using science, but so does Monsanto. And so the question is whose science will be used as a regulatory foundation and enforcement action? President Obama named to interpret that and be in charge of the program Michael Taylor, the 10-year attorney for Monsanto who shepherded transgenic modification into the world. So, we can be pretty sure whose science this will be.

There is a tremendous amount of concern and fear out here in the countryside, especially among small producers, as we sift through this lengthy piece of legislation and wonder its ramifications for us. We do not think it will be good. It will be, we think, fairly devastating, and so people like me are running as hard as we can to get more customers, more people aware of this so that if things do develop like we think they will, there will simply be too many informed people that will rise up against it.

Enemy #1: Raw Milk?

AC: In your mind, what’s the worst-case scenario for this?

JS: The worst-case scenario is that, for example, outdoor poultry will be outlawed because that is considered bioterrorism. Outdoor poultry commiserates with wild birds and then the wild birds take the diseases to the science-based Tyson chicken houses and threaten the planet’s food supply.

There would be a more militant regulation against raw milk. We’re already seeing that. There have been numerous swat raids already. People have been jailed even for drinking their own milk from their own animals in California especially. We’re seeing a heightened threat from the food police against small, artisanal, community-based, transparent producers.

An Alternative To Governmental Food Regulation

AC: Let’s continue to talk about the idea of food regulation especially as it relates to all the food recalls and the food-borne illnesses that we’ve been seeing lately. As you were just saying, you’re an outspoken critic of food regulation in this country. My question for you is if not for the regulation that we do have now, would this problem of food-borne illness outbreaks, would that not be so much worse than it already is?

JS: Would it be worse? Probably not. What we would have instead is independent certifiers. There are tons and tons of independent, private certifying agencies that do inspections and have a protocol and do a stamp of approval: “Heart Association Approved” or “AARP Approved” or “AAA Approved.” There is absolutely no reason why that can’t also be done in the food system if consumers want it.

The problem is when you ask for the federal government to regulate food like this and the government then penetrates regulatorily into the food system, you have a necessary coziness where the big operations have enough political clout to get passes.

In the movie Food Inc., we saw rotating business cards between the regulatory agencies and the big food industries. It’s a revolving door, and the people that are out of that loop of course are people like me: small, artisanal folks that are embedded in their communities, small businesses, small farms. We don’t have 100,000 employees and we don’t have the political clout to get special concessions for ourselves.

And so you come down to the point that it’s really simply the industry and government in bed together. That’s essentially what we’ve got.

So, if you believe that the government is a good thing to regulate this, then that’s fine. You can have your government regulations. But we need an alternative food system in which the people that don’t trust the government to regulate their food have the freedom of choice to opt out of government-agenda-sanctioned food so that they can autonomously decide what to eat. That to me is the ultimate democratization and freedom answer to the current heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all approach of the industry-driven food regulation system from the federal level.

Who Pays The Consequences

AC: What other changes would you like to see from your standpoint as a small producer?

JS: For me, the best protection is an informed consumer who actually can come and visit the farm and make a choice. If we want to create a populace of people who are informed and have their decision-making muscle exercised, it will only come when we allow people to make decisions and suffer the consequences of bad decisions.

If people have food choice — if they could get pickles from Aunt Matilda’s Kitchen, if they could get raw milk from their neighbor’s dairy farm, if they could get homemade quiche from a friend — then what we would have is an encouragement of better food education and informed decision-making populace.

And that, I would suggest, is a good thing.

When you have the government deciding on what can and cannot be eaten, then people become ignorant about food, ignorant about farming, eliminate their relationship with any of this because, after all, it’s got a government stamp on this so it must be fine.

The fact is that all of that regulation is political. The big outfits that have the problems, the first thing they do is hide behind the skirts of the regulators and say, “We’ve conformed to every regulation out there,” and that absolves them of any kind of liability.

I say if a business messes up and they have to personally suffer liability. If they don’t have government skirts to hide behind, they’ll probably be a lot more conscientious about the food that they produce than they are right now, when you have minimalistic standards that are fairly political, subjective, and businesses can always hide behind the bureaucracy to absolve themselves of liability.

More: Read part one and part three of the Earth Eats interview with Joel Salatin.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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