Thicke backs Maine model for egg safety rules

Democratic candidate for Secretary of Agriculture Francis Thicke is calling for regulations “modeled after a program that has been used successfully in Maine for more than 22 years to return integrity to Iowa-produced eggs.” Thicke introduced the proposal during his September 11 debate with Republican incumbent Bill Northey. Excerpt from his opening statement:

The State of Maine’s egg safety program complements the new [Food and Drug Administration] egg rule and shores up weaknesses in the federal rule. Specifically, the Maine program has three features that go beyond the requirements of the new FDA egg rule: 1) An effective program for vaccination of laying hens; 2) Monthly inspection of laying facilities for sanitation, and testing for Salmonella within the building; and 3) Egg testing when Salmonella is found in the building.

I’ve posted the full text of Thicke’s opening statement after the jump. Gabe Licht covered the debate for the Spencer Daily Reporter, and Lynda Waddington was there for Iowa Independent. Northey defended his record on egg safety, denying his department had the authority to inspect the feed mill suspected in the salmonella outbreak:

Thicke reiterated the secretary of agriculture should inspect feed mills, noting the [Jack] DeCoster feed mill filled 12,500 semi loads annually.

“First of all, there is a distinct word in there,” Northey fired back. “… Commercial feed mills that sell feed. The reason that we do that is to actually protect the consumer of those that are buying feed from others. Our regulations are actually not for food safety, but are for protection of consumers… We have been told … this mill does not sell feed — that birds at the other facility are owned by DeCoster as well… Just as we don’t go to a farmer mixing his own feed, we do not go to those mills that are producing feed for private facilities or on their own facilities.”

“The secretary of agriculture has the authority to make rules to cover loopholes and this is a DeCoster loophole playing a shell game and we should not play that game with him,” Thicke said.

The incumbent had pointed words for his rival.

“Unless you know something we need to know more about the situation …, it would be important to … wait for the information and be able to find out whether they were actually in violation of that or not,” Northey said. “… We don’t just make decisions on large facilities different than others because our rule says we are to inspect commercial facilities selling feed to others, not facilities of a certain size.”

Thicke has said Iowa Department of Agriculture rule-making could have closed the loopholes that allowed DeCoster’s feed mill to avoid state inspections.

The secretary of agriculture candidates also clashed over agricultural zoning:

Although both candidates were clear that there is enough room in Iowa for all types of sizes of agriculture, and that they would support all aspects of the industry, a major difference between them was exposed while answering a question regarding local control of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) placement.

“Absolutely,” said Thicke, who argued that allowing local government to decide the site of CAFOs would not add additional regulations for owners, who already must follow county building policies, but would allow local residents control over their environment.

Northey disagreed and stated that agribusinesses “need one set of rules,” otherwise there would be “a real challenge” in getting any new developments approved.

Thicke, who formerly served on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, sympathized with country residents who had to live near “toxic fumes,” while Northey sympathized with producers “who have been demonized.”

Speaking of local control, last week Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now wrote about the connection between DeCoster’s operations and Iowa’s 1995 law protecting CAFOs from zoning at the county level:

After initially rising from poverty in Maine with a small chicken operation, DeCoster’s run-ins with New England legal authorities led him to flee to Iowa, where he ventured into building hog confinements and factory farm egg facilities just in time to coincide with that state’s loosening of the environmental regulations in 1995, with the passing of House File 519, which stripped all local authority from regulating factory farms.

The passage of this piece of legislation single-handedly pushed more independent hog farmers out of farming in Iowa, the nation’s number one hog and egg producer, than any other law in the state’s history. Since 1994, the year prior to the passage of H.F. 519, Iowa has lost nearly 72% of the state’s hog farmers, as the number has dropped from 29,000 to 8,300 today. As part of the industry trend, hogs moved off pasture into massive warehouse-style confinements, hundreds of which Jack DeCoster built across much of central Iowa, laying the foundation for a “protein” producing empire that included pork, eggs and a steady stream of state and federal violations.

That would be a great issue to use against Republican gubernatorial candidate Terry Branstad, in an alternate world where the Culver-Judge administration and the Democratic-controlled Iowa legislature had done something to advance local control during the past four years.

Press release from Francis Thicke’s campaign:

   SPENCER, Iowa, September 11, 2010 – Iowa Secretary of Agriculture candidate Francis Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee) today proposed regulatory framework modeled after a program that has been used successfully in Maine for more than 22 years to return integrity to Iowa-produced eggs. Thicke, a southeast Iowa dairy farmer, soil scientist and national expert on sustainable agriculture, called for overhaul of the egg industry oversight system when he met one-term Republican Bill Northey in a debate at the Clay County Fair in Spencer.

   Following is the text of Thicke’s opening statement:

“Normally in a debate I would begin by laying out my vision for Iowa agriculture and food production. However, Iowa is under a national microscope. The egg recall and nationwide Salmonella food poisoning from Iowa eggs have damaged Iowa’s reputation. The Iowa Secretary of Agriculture should, above all, be the spokesperson for Iowa’s agriculture and food system and should be taking action to assure Iowans and the nation that this problem is being addressed.

“I don’t see that happening. It’s not enough for the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture to say that this is a federal problem and that he is going to wait for an FDA report to see what the problem is. That does nothing to restore confidence in the integrity and reputation of Iowa’s food and agriculture system.

“Preliminary indications are that the Salmonella contamination came from a commercial feed mill, owned by Jack DeCoster, which delivered feed to two Iowa egg-laying facilities. We know from Iowa Code, Chapter 198, that the Secretary of Agriculture has the authority and responsibility to inspect and ensure the integrity of feed mills that produce commercial feed. But the secretary denies his authority to inspect the DeCoster feed mill, even though the law explicitly states that feed mills that sell feed or distribute feed to contract feeders should be licensed and inspected. Mr. Northey contends that DeCoster has a loophole exemption. What he does not say is that the law also says that the secretary has the authority to adopt rules to carry out the purpose and intent of Chapter 198. In other words, he has the authority to close loopholes in the law through rule-making.

“As Secretary of Agriculture, I would not only fulfill my responsibility to inspect commercial feed mills, I would also lay out a regulatory framework to ensure food safety in the egg industry. After reviewing the new FDA egg rule and consulting with scientists working in this arena, I propose that the Iowa Legislature should adopt the model used by the State of Maine, which has been in place for 22 years and has been effective in protecting Maine’s eggs from Salmonella enteritidis.

“The State of Maine’s egg safety program complements the new FDA egg rule and shores up weaknesses in the federal rule. Specifically, the Maine program has three features that go beyond the requirements of the new FDA egg rule: 1) An effective program for vaccination of laying hens; 2) Monthly inspection of laying facilities for sanitation, and testing for Salmonella within the building; and 3) Egg testing when Salmonella is found in the building.

“These measures have worked well to protect the safety of Maine’s egg industry and would work well here in Iowa as well. As the No. 1producer of eggs, Iowa should also be No. 1 in egg safety.”

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