Food fight


Who knew ordering a steak dinner could be so political?

The American food industry is undergoing some major policy changes, challenging ranchers and farmers across the West. Oregon cattle ranchers are struggling to deal with the recession, increasingly health-conscious consumers, and environmental concerns about land use . Fears over food safety have led to a push toward sanitization of American agriculture, leading to the destruction of ponds and acres of crops in the process. Consumers are losing faith in food manufacturers due to serious contamination outbreaks with spinach, beef and peanut butter, to name a few.

It’s been hard to figure out exactly where the Obama administration stands in all of this, despite a recent press release regarding its commitment to upgrading the U.S. Food Safety System. On Monday the administration announced it would seek to ban the use of many antibiotics in healthy farm animals to increase growth, a practice linked to treatment-immune bacteria in humans—a measure supported by the American Medical Association but not the farm industry. The FDA also recently passed a new public health regulation to improve egg safety and reduce salmonella illnesses.

However, the appointment of Michael Taylor as senior adviser to the FDA commissioner has caused a hullabaloo over the failure to mention Taylor’s ties to agricultural industry giant Monsanto, and what industry-insider status might mean for someone in charge of regulating food safety.

A bill introduced in February, H.R. 875: Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, would increase regulations since recent events demonstrate that the FDA hasn't been effective in controlling food hazards coming from farms and factories in the U.S., according to bill supporters. Opponents view it as a direct attack on small-scale farmers -- they say that the bill’s “draconian restrictions…could mean the end of organic, biodynamic and sustainable agriculture practices.” They also point out that Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who sponsored the bill, is married to Stanley Greenberg, a political consultant whose corporate clients have included Monsanto. But so far the bill remains in a House subcommittee, and many food-politics groups like Slow Food USA are advising people to avoid overreacting to this legislation.

Even with some changes afoot in the food industry, it's still a good time to eat locally.