Egg recall linkfest: Northey's inaction, Thicke's vision and Branstad's delusion

Democratic Secretary of Agriculture candidate Francis Thicke spoke this morning about the recall of half a billion eggs originating from two Iowa companies. I’ve been wondering why our current Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey, has kept quiet about the salmonella outbreak that prompted the largest food recall in history. Thicke pointed out that Northey had the authority to license and inspect feed mills like the one that served “habitual violator” Jack DeCoster’s operations, but instead Northey did nothing.

More details on the perspectives of Northey and Thicke are after the jump, along with many other links on the egg recall story.

If you think Northey’s failure to prevent or adequately respond to this disaster is outrageous, wait till you hear the agriculture policy Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad rolled out this week.

Thicke has been a voice for sustainable farming practices for decades. His comments this morning are worth posting in full.

Democrat Francis Thicke says Iowa Ag Secretary should step up, take responsibility

Iowa code gives Agriculture Secretary authority to ensure safety of poultry feed

DES MOINES, Iowa, September 2, 2010 – Iowa Secretary of Agriculture candidate Francis Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee) today called on his opponent to explain why “habitual violator” Austin “Jack” DeCoster was allowed to avoid feed mill inspections that could have identified a strain of Salmonella Enteritidis before 1,470 Americans were sickened and a half billion eggs were recalled.

In a statement to reporters, Thicke said:

The egg recall is a national embarrassment to the state of Iowa that threatens consumer confidence in the foods that we produce. For my opponent to defer all responsibility to federal authorities, when Iowa law clearly gave him authority to ensure the safety of the feed thought to be the cause of the Salmonella contamination, calls into question his leadership and commitment to the integrity of Iowa’s food and agriculture.

The egg recall scandal is damaging the image of Iowa agriculture, and the Iowa Ag Secretary should be front and center on this issue. Instead Bill Northey has issued no official statements and has not even acknowledged the recall on either his department or his campaign web site. He did tell KAAL-TV in Austin, Minn., that “I think we do take for granted food safety and we take for granted the fact that most people do do things right.”

An agriculture secretary who takes food safety for granted is taking for granted that operators like Jack DeCoster will do the right thing, even though history has shown that time and again that he will pursue profit over worker safety, public health and environmental protection.

Iowa code gives responsibility for the safety of commercial feed to the Secretary of Agriculture. The Secretary is charged with licensing and inspecting feed mills.  However, the department exempted the feed mill which supplied feed for both Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms from licensing and inspection.  

Bill Northey’s answer for not licensing and regulating that mill is that the department has exempted farmers who grind their own feed from licensure and inspection.  But, the mill in question provides feed for two huge egg-laying facilities and produces about 300,000 tons of feed a year, enough to fill about 12,500 semi trucks.  This is certainly not what I would consider a farmer feed mill.

Clearly, this kind of exemption is appropriate to allow family farmers to feed their own livestock without burdening them with a lot of government red tape and bureaucracy. However, it is ludicrous to extend that exemption to the mill providing feed to these two industrial-scale operations responsible for the Salmonella food poisoning. Did Secretary Northey exempt that mill by design, or is he just being derelict in his responsibilities?

Bill Northey denies that he has any authority related to the contaminated eggs, and he has given no indication that he wants authority in this arena. If I were Secretary of Agriculture, I would use the authority already present in Iowa code, and if there were still holes in the federal regulatory process, I would request the Iowa Legislature to take action to ensure food safety. Iowa deserves a Secretary of Agriculture who is willing to step forward to provide leadership and take the actions necessary to resolve this issue and avoid future problems.

The Associated Press had previously reported on the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s failure to inspect conditions at the huge feed mill. Thicke is right that this exemption should be applied to family farmers growing their own feed, not an enormous factory producing millions of eggs every week. Given DeCoster’s long list of violations related to food and worker safety as well as environmental pollution, the Iowa secretary of agriculture should not have taken the safety of his current operations “for granted.”

Thicke didn’t mention that Northey’s predecessor also did nothing to monitor conditions at the facilities in question. Democrat Patty Judge served two terms as secretary of agriculture before being elected lieutenant governor in 2006. She was on the job when Wright County Egg was founded and clearly could have done more to make sure the feed and production methods were safe. But Judge was an enthusiastic advocate of factory farms and isn’t known for seeking to regulate them, even those with a record of violations.

Food Democracy Now is urging consumers to sign a letter that will go to their local grocery store, with this message: “I refuse to consume any eggs from [DeCoster’s] facility or others closely associated with it and ask that you immediately purchase your eggs from a company that is safe and respects the laws of our country.” Although I purchase eggs produced at several small Iowa farms, I signed Food Democracy Now’s letter and hope the Windsor Heights Hy-Vee will get the message.

Unfortunately, food safety problems aren’t rare and isolated cases, as Thicke noted last week:

“The current Iowa Secretary of Agriculture consistently conveys a message that we should increase the scale of industrial livestock production in Iowa,” Thicke said. “But, he avoids addressing the health, environmental and social costs of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) the animals are housed in.”

In a statement last week, a high-ranking U.S. Food and Drug Administration official said the salmonella outbreak shouldn’t be viewed as an isolated incident in today’s industrialized food system.

“It’s not all that surprising,” said Sherri McGarry, emergency coordinator for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “We are seeing much more centralized production and distribution nationwide – and that’s not restricted to egg production.”

The USDA currently has more than three dozen open cases related to meat recalls alone.

“With the sheer size of our food-processing and distribution systems and the amount of aggregation and co-mingling of food products occurring today – particularly with meat products – conditions are ideal for an isolated contamination incident to become exponentially multiplied and to cause food-borne illnesses all across the nation,” Thicke said. “When food travels thousands of miles and changes hands multiple times, there are many more opportunities for contamination. By contrast, an isolated food contamination incident in a local or small-scale food processing system will be much smaller scale and will more likely be contained to or near the source of the problem.”

I was amused to see Republican attorney general candidate Brenna Findley seize on DeCoster’s misdeeds as an issue to use against Tom Miller. The Attorney General’s Office labeled Jack DeCoster a “habitual violator” in 2000, and the designation expired in 2004. In 2005, DeCoster’s son Peter made a $10,000 donation to Miller’s re-election campaign. (Iowa Independent’s Lynda Waddington reported on August 27 that DeCoster and his immediate family have made more than $500,000 in political contributions to Democratic organizations and candidates since 1999.)

Findley called on Miller to return that donation, and Miller is rightly doing so. At the same time, Findley has some nerve to say “habitual violators should not be allowed pollute our politics” when her whole campaign narrative against Miller is that he’s too tough on corporate violators, whereas she would take a more business-friendly approach to the job. Miller has done a lot of work on consumer protection and making businesses comply with the law. Specifically, Miller’s office did lots of work during the 1990s to enforce laws DeCoster was breaking:

“In this state, no one was stronger on DeCoster than our office,” Miller said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “We were the ones on the front lines prosecuting him.”

Miller said his office effectively prosecuted DeCoster, making him the first and only person to be deemed a “habitual violator” in Iowa.

“We had a huge battle with Jack DeCoster in the ’90s over the pollution issue at the hog lots,” Miller said. “We got enough violations prosecuted that he saw it would be inevitable that we would get habitual violators status, so he agreed to that.”

Findley’s opportunism is laughable, but the agriculture policy Findley’s big fan Terry Branstad just announced is mind-boggling. In the middle of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened hundreds or even thousands of people, Branstad’s answer is less regulation of agribusiness and specifically fewer environmental lawsuits against producers. As with most Branstad campaign promises, this one “included few specifics,” but you can download the pdf file here. Branstad views DeCoster as “one bad egg,” as if Republican proposals wouldn’t make it easier for other large producers that skirt the rules. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t read a report on manure spilling into some creek or river, and Iowa’s water quality is poor.  But Branstad’s sympathies are with business owners who tell him anti-pollution rules imposed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources cost too much.

Culver’s campaign slammed Branstad’s proposal:

Branstad’s Agriculture policy is more of the same failed idea: removing oversight.

Branstad proposes that government should ” …get out of the way…”

Branstad’s approach of putting all of these jobs at risk by offering regulatory short cuts to a few is just as reckless as his widely criticized proposal to cut the oversight abilities at the Department of Economic Development.

Every time there is a problem with the food coming from Iowa, it affects the livelihood of all farmers and processors, most of who play by the rules and produce high quality products.

There is already a balance between regulation and jobs. However, protecting the public health and the integrity and reputation of food produced in Iowa must continue to be a top priority. Branstad encouraged and promoted the growth of factory farms when he was governor. Now, he wants to cut down on the regulation and oversight of these operations.

“It is shocking that during the egg recall, Branstad says that he believes there should be less oversight. It’s clear that Branstad is out of touch with the current issues facing Iowa’s farmers. Removing oversight isn’t going to help create new farms, it’s going to put into jeopardy Iowa’s food supply,” said Culver/Judge Communications Director Ali Glisson.

Governor Culver has called for a review of state and federal laws overseeing factory farms. He has also called for significant increases in fines and penalties for violators.

Culver’s late to this party. He was slow to comment on the egg recall, and his administration hasn’t done nearly enough to regulate factory farm pollution. He hasn’t even tried to give country governments zoning authority over agricultural operations. (Many Democrats believe Patty Judge has influenced Culver on this score.) But at least Culver seems to recognize that our food safety is at risk if we do nothing, which broadly threatens Iowa agriculture as well as public health.

Republicans complain that regulations are too costly for business, but they ignore the hidden costs of not safeguarding our food supply. On that note, I recommend Dave Swenson’s latest commentary at Insider Iowa. Excerpt:

Dense farming operations with thousands, even millions, of animals are by their very nature biologically hazardous and require high operational and environmental standards of care.  Agricultural economists will argue these are the modern norms, whether in hog, poultry, dairy, or beef enterprises, and if we want to keep food costs low, these are the production systems that assure those efficiencies.  But those efficiencies are phony when they do not include the horrific costs of episodically sickening society in the process.

This doesn’t mean that the solution to all of our food production problems is a reordering of our systems so that critters run loose as some immediately argued  — there is simply no way to satisfy current demands for meat and poultry products using yester-year methods. Instead it demands that food regulations evolve to include a priori the risks inherent in modern animal production systems.  Even though these modern systems achieve production efficiencies necessary to assure adequate supplies of farm commodities, those systems are inherently environmentally and biologically hazardous and compel higher regulatory standards, which most farmers will fight viciously.  […]

Whether it is recalled ground beef, peanut butter, or now eggs, modern society must be on guard against risks of widespread man-made food-sourced epidemics. They are a function of our agricultural systems, our manufacturing processes, distribution networks, and our own lack of understanding of current risks and emerging risks.  

There is also an important and pre-emptive role that federal agriculture and food safety regulators must play in preventing such outbreaks in the future.  Keeping us safe is government’s number one job.  Business, however, howls at the mere thought of increased regulation or, more appropriately in this case, merely adequate regulation, and we currently have a wave of ill-thought libertarian sentiment demanding less government and more market freedom.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement executive director Hugh Espey issued this statement on September 1:

“Gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad must be tone deaf to be calling for a deregulated agribusiness industry in Iowa the same week that more details about how the lack of robust factory farm regulations led to the largest salmonella outbreak and egg recall in U.S. history continue to be released.  We don’t need streamlined regulations, we need stronger regulations.  The people of Iowa don’t want a government that kowtows to corporate ag.  We want a government that will put people before profits, stand up for clean air and clean water, and crack down on factory farm polluters.”

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  • Tom Miller

    Tom Miller is right for giving back the donation.  Branstad won’t be able to deregulate agribusiness to the extent that he would like with a Democratic legislature, but if we have deadlock on matters like this Branstad would start threatening to withhold funding for other programs.  It’s going to be ugly if Culver doesn’t win in November.  

    Does Miller have a re-election website or is that too partisan for the office?  I probably asked this before.  

    • I haven't seen a campaign website

      There’s no reason why he couldn’t have one as long as it’s run through campaign funds and not by AG office staff.  

  • In case you have difficulty posting, try another browser

    Desmoinesdem, thanks for the tip!  For more than a week I was unable to post comments.  By switching from Internet Explorer to Mozilla Firefox, the problem appears to have been solved.

  • I hope Thicke goes aggressively for this angle

    Considering the damage this egg episode has done to Iowa agriculture, this really should become Northey’s “animal cruelty moment.”  As someone observing from outside of Iowa, this really is very, very bad for Iowa ag.  As soon as I saw the Grist Magazine piece on this, I had to make my own small donation to Thicke’s campaign.