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"Monitoring corporate agribusiness from a public interest perspective"

March 23, 2007        Issue #492

Editor\Publisher: A.V. Krebs E-Mail Address: To receive: Send name and e-mail address to

EDITOR'S NOTE As the AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER embarks on its tenth year, support and contributions from readers remains vital and always appreciated. Checks should be made out to A.V. Krebs, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98213-0201. Thank you.


 * THE NEW RULES OF FOOD       By Alan Mammoser

By Amy Goodman
King Features Syndicate March 21, 2007

What do Osama bin Laden and Chiquita bananas have in common? Both have used their millions to finance terrorism.

The Justice Department has just fined Chiquita Brands International $25 million for funding a terrorist organization ... for years. Chiquita must also cooperate fully with ongoing investigations into its payments to the ultra-right-wing Colombian paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia. Chiquita made almost monthly payments to the AUC from 1997 to 2004, totaling at least $1.7 million.

The AUC is a brutal paramilitary umbrella group, with an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 armed troops. It was named a terrorist organization by the United States on September 10, 2001. Among its standard tactics are kidnapping, torture, disappearance, rape, murder, beatings, extortion and drug trafficking.

Chiquita claims it had to make the payments under threat from the AUC in order to protect its employees and property. Chiquita's outside lawyers implored them to stop the illegal payments, to no avail. The payments were made by check through Chiquita's Colombian subsidiary, Banadex. When Chiquita executives figured out how illegal the payments were, they started delivering them in cash. Chiquita sold Banadex in June 2004 when the heat got too intense.

While the AUC was collecting U.S. dinero from Chiquita, it was butchering thousands of innocent people in rural Colombia. Chengue (pronounced CHEN-gay) was a small farming village in the state of Sucre. About 80 AUC paramilitary members went into the town in the early hours of Jan. 17, 2001. They rounded up the men and smashed their skulls with stones and a sledgehammer, killing 24 of them.

One 19-year-old perpetrator confessed, naming the organizers of the mass murder, including police and navy officials. To date, he is the only one who has been punished. This is just one of hundreds of massacres carried out by AUC.

Chiquita has had a long history of criminal behavior. It was the subject of an extraordinary exposé in its hometown paper, The Cincinnati Enquirer, in 1998. The paper found that Chiquita exposed entire communities to dangerous U.S.-banned pesticides, forced the eviction of an entire Honduran village at gunpoint and its subsequent bulldozing, suppressed unions, unwittingly allowed the use of Chiquita transport ships to move cocaine internationally, and paid a fortune to U.S. politicians to influence trade policy.

The lead reporter, Mike Gallagher, illegally accessed more than 2,000 Chiquita voice mails. The voice mails backed up his story, but his methods got him fired. The Enquirer issued a front-page apology and paid Chiquita a reported $14 million. The voice-mail scandal rocked the Enquirer, burying the important exposé.

Chiquita was formerly called the United Fruit Co., which with the help of its former lawyer, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and his brother Allen Dulles' Central Intelligence Agency overthrew the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, in 1954. And you can go back further. Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez wrote in his classic "One Hundred Years of Solitude" about the 1928 Santa Marta massacre of striking United Fruit banana workers: "When the banana company arrived ... the old policemen were replaced by hired assassins."

While the U.S. is seeking extradition of Colombia-based Chiquita executives, the administration of President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, with its own officials now linked to the right-wing paramilitaries, has countered that Colombia would seek the extradition of U.S.-based Chiquita executives. Colombian prosecutors are also seeking information in Chiquita's role in smuggling 3,000 AK-47 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to paramilitaries in November 2001.

A $25-million fine to a multibillion-dollar corporation like Chiquita is a mere slap on the wrist, the cost of doing business. Presidents like George W. Bush and Uribe, businessmen first, while squabbling over extraditions, would never lose track of their overarching shared goal of a stridently pro-corporate, military-supported so-called free-trade regime. As long as that remains the same, union organizers and hard-working farmers, like the men of Chengue, will continue to be killed on behalf of Chiquita or some other multinational company.

That next organic, fair-trade banana you buy just might save a life.

AMY GOODMAN is the host of the nationally syndicated radio news program, Democracy Now!

By Javier Baena
Associated Press March 21, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia --- Colombia's chief prosecutor said Tuesday he will demand the extradition of eight people allegedly involved with Chiquita's payments to right-wing paramilitaries and leftist rebels in a region where it had profitable banana-growing operations.

The prosecutor also said in an interview with local RCN radio that his office had opened a formal investigation into allegations that Alabama-based coal producer Drummond Co. Inc. collaborated with paramilitaries to kill union members.

A civil lawsuit in the U.S. makes similar allegations, which the company has denied.

Chiquita Brands International pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. federal court to one count of doing business with a terrorist organization. The plea is part of a deal with prosecutors that calls for a $25 million fine and does not identify the several senior executives who approved the illegal protection payments.

The agreement ended a lengthy Justice Department investigation into the company's financial dealings with right-wing paramilitaries and leftist rebels the U.S. government deems terrorist groups. Prosecutors say the Cincinnati-based company agreed to pay about $1.7 million between 1997 and 2004 to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as AUC for its Spanish initials.

The AUC has been responsible for some of the worst massacres in Colombia's civil conflict and for a sizable percentage of the country's cocaine exports. The U.S. government designated the AUC a terrorist group in September 2001.

In addition to paying the AUC, prosecutors said, Chiquita made payments to the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, as control of the company's banana-growing area shifted. Chiquita has said it was forced to make the payments and was acting only to ensure the safety of its workers.

But federal prosecutors noted that from 2001 to 2004, when Chiquita made $825,000 in illegal payments, the Colombian banana operation Banadex earned $49.4 million and was the company's most profitable unit.

In 2001, a Banadex ship was used to unload 3,000 rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition for the paramilitaries, which were officially listed as a "terrorist organization'' by the U.S. government two months earlier. "They should be judged in Colombia, not only for the extortion payments, but also for the transport and safekeeping of 3,000 rifles,'' chief federal prosecutor Mario Iguaran told RCN radio.

Iguaran did not identify the people he hopes to extradite, and the U.S. complaint did not identify anyone by name --- it simply said that 10 people working for Chiquita or its Banadex subsidiary were involved in the illegal payments.

Chiquita spokesman Mike Mitchell declined to discuss the eight people that Colombia wants extradited, noting the Justice Department complaint ``names no individuals, and no individuals have been charged. As we have previously noted, Chiquita voluntarily disclosed to the Department of Justice and Chiquita also informed the Colombian government of the situation and the payments almost three years ago,'' Mitchell said.

Iguaran said the arms were used by the paramilitaries to push leftist rebels out of the zone in northern Colombia where Chiquita had its banana plantations.

Chiquita sold Banadex, its Colombian subsidiary, in June 2004 for around $43.5 million.

Meanwhile, Drummond officials did not immediately return calls seeking comment. ``In the case of Drummond, there's a formal investigation. The investigation is well-advanced. Still, a decision has yet to be made,'' said Iguaran.

A Colombian union, Sintramienergetica, sued Drummond in 2002 in Birmingham, Alabama, with help from the United Steelworkers of America, blaming the company for the paramilitary killings of three union leaders at the company's mine in northern Colombia in 2001. ``What we're seeing is some private business that recruit the (paramilitaries), aware of their conduct, to kill,'' said Iguaran.

Both companies have operated along the northern coast, long a paramilitary stronghold. Colombia is now in the midst of its worst political crisis in decades as evidence emerges of a symbiotic pact between politicians and the paramilitaries, in which the militias intimidated voters into supporting certain candidates in return for cuts of public contracts.

Lisa Cornwell, Associated Press writer in Cincinnati contributed to this report.    

By Gary Marx
Chicago Tribune Tribune
March 22, 2007

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Colombia's attorney general said Wednesday that he has formally sought information from the U.S. Justice Department as part of a preliminary investigation into Chiquita Brands International.

The Ohio-based fruit giant admitted last week in U.S. federal court to paying more than $1.7 million to a right-wing group that has massacred scores of civilians.

Atty. Gen. Mario Iguaran said he sent a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Justice Department soliciting documents about the scheme, including the names of Chiquita executives who approved or participated in the payments, which lasted from 1997 to 2004.

Iguaran also said he is seeking information about whether Chiquita may have been involved in arms trafficking. In 2001, a ship carrying 3,400 AK-47 assault rifles and 4 million rounds of ammunition unloaded at a dock in northern Colombia managed by Banadex, a Colombian subsidiary of Chiquita that was later sold off.

The weapons ended up in the hands of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, the same group that received the payments from Chiquita.

Chiquita has said it made the payments to the AUC to protect its workers. But Iguaran appeared to disagree, saying Chiquita's payments may have assisted the AUC in its brutal campaign to extend its authority. "The relationship was not one of the extortionist and the extorted but a criminal relationship," Iguaran told a handful of foreign correspondents in an interview.

"It's a much bigger, more macabre plan," he added. "Who wouldn't know what an illegal armed group like the AUC does . . . by exterminating and annihilating its enemies," Iguaran said. "When you pay a group like this you are conscious of what they are doing." Iguaran said Colombian authorities could ask for the extradition of Chiquita executives if there is enough evidence to prosecute them. The United States and Colombia have an extradition treaty.

A Chiquita representative could not be reached for comment Wednesday night.

Last week, Fernando Aguirre, Chiquita's chairman and chief executive officer, said the company made the payments to the AUC to protect its banana workers. The company said it fully cooperated with the U.S. Justice Department investigation.

Chiquita has agreed to pay a $25 million fine as part of its plea deal with the Justice Department. The names of the ten Chiquita executives involved in the scheme were not disclosed in documents filed in U.S. federal court in Washington.

"In 2003, Chiquita voluntarily disclosed to the Department of Justice that its former banana-producing subsidiary had been forced to make payments to right- and left-wing paramilitary groups in Colombia to protect the lives of its employees," Aguirre said in a statement. "The payments made by the company were always motivated by our good faith concern for the safety of our employees."

Chiquita's payments to the AUC violated U.S. law because the State Department has labeled the group a foreign terrorist organization.

Conservative ranchers and other wealthy Colombians founded the AUC to battle left-wing insurgents that a decade ago controlled much of the country, including the banana-growing region in northwestern Colombia where Chiquita's subsidiary operated.

The AUC quickly swept across Colombia, dislodging leftist insurgents in a brutal campaign that left hundreds --- perhaps thousands --- of civilians dead, according to human-rights groups.

By Associated Press
March 20, 2007

GENEVA, Switzerland --- The World Trade Organization authorized an investigation into the European Union's banana tariffs Tuesday, reopening a decade-old dispute pitting Latin American countries and the U.S. against the EU, officials said.

Ecuador asked the global trade body to establish a compliance panel, claiming that Brussels has failed to comply with WTO rulings. The EU blocked Ecuador's initial request two weeks ago, but couldn't delay the investigation a second time under WTO rules.

The WTO has consistently ruled against how the EU sets tariffs for bananas, forcing the 27-nation bloc to overhaul a system that grants preferential conditions for producers from African and Caribbean countries, mainly former British and French colonies.

Brussels, however, says a new banana tariff established last year --- €176 ($234) per ton --- has brought its rules for banana imports in line with WTO rulings.

But Ecuador, the world's largest banana producer, says the new tariff has actually taken away some of its market share in Europe, hurting more than one million Ecuadorians dependent on the banana industry. The tariff has cost Ecuador about $131 million, trade negotiator Juan Holguin has said. "At the moment, the tariff is discriminatory and doesn't allow our bananas to enter EU markets. Our participation in EU markets is going down," he said Tuesday.

Mr. Holguin said that Ecuador was not opposed to entering into further consultations with Brussels, but that it was determined to make its case at the WTO. He declined to say what he considers to be a fair tariff, adding that any number could only come out of negotiations with all interested parties.

EU trade official John Clarke on Tuesday reiterated Brussels' "firm commitment to pursue a negotiated settlement in 2007." Ecuador's request for a panel "seems to contradict this overall spirit," he told the WTO's dispute settlement body.

The EU expressed disappointed with Ecuador's action two weeks ago and accused the country of seeking preferential treatment at the expense of some of the most vulnerable countries in the global trading system.

Latin American producers and banana companies based in the U.S. have long complained that the EU rules favor Caribbean and African producers. The U.S., in 1999, and Ecuador a year later both won the right to impose trade sanctions on European goods after the WTO found the EU's rules to be illegal.

Cameroon, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica backed the EU after Ecuador's request two weeks ago. Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama voiced support for Ecuador's position. The U.S. response was more ambiguous.

Latin American bananas currently have around 60% of the EU banana market, while African and Caribbean producers have 20%, EU officials have said. Bananas grown in the EU --- mostly on Spanish and French islands --- account for another 20%.

The case, originally brought to the Geneva-based trade referee in 1996, spawned a series of disputes in the WTO as lawyers wrangled over procedural intricacies and legislation which had previously never been tested.

By Parija B. Kavilanz
March 21 2007

The United States and its key trading partners like the European Union, India and Brazil are scurrying to reach a worldwide deal in the next few months to boost trade in farm and industrial goods.

Why should you care? Because trillions of dollars in cross-border trade are at stake between the United States and its 115 trading partners.

And if these negotiations fail --- again --- trade experts warn that could ultimately mean higher prices for groceries, clothes, shoes and hundreds of other items for millions of Americans.

"If the talks break down completely, Americans won't see an overnight increase in product prices but it will certainly happen over time," cautioned Daniel Griswold, director of the Cato Institute's Center for Trade Policy Studies.

Dubbed the "Doha Round," the global trade talks through the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been going on for the past five years amid much wrangling between the United States, the European Union nations and other countries. The talks collapsed last July but were revived again in January. While China wasn't part of that original group since it wasn't yet part of the WTO, experts said America's second-largest trading partner has since become an active participant in the discussions.

Moreover, analysts said, the clock is ticking for the Bush administration to get a breakthrough this time before the July 1 expiration of the so-called "fast-track" authority that allows the president to speed trade deals through Congress for a yea or nay votewithout considering any amendments.

Without it, Griswold said other countries lose the incentive to hammer out trade deals with Washington because of concerns that Congress would alter the agreements. In other words, the fast-track provision and the trade talks are intertwined. "You can't have one without the other," he said.

The United States wants to boost exports of homemade goods from ball bearings to shoes, from corn to financial services. Major trading partners like the EU, India and other countries also want greater access to U.S. food and other markets. But they're unwilling, in the eyes of the American negotiators, to open up their markets to U.S. firms.

Although an agreement on agriculture is critical for the negotiations to succeed, Griswold said there's much more at stake than haggling over prices for farm products. "It's a perversity to think that the Doha trade talks are just about agricultural products. They're not," he said, adding that an agreement on farm trade would become a catalyst to easing trade restrictions in manufactured goods and services as well.

Said Griswold, "The world economy is less productive than it should be. U.S. companies don't sell as much abroad because of [trade] tariffs and barriers." To his point, the U.S. trade deficit last year jumped 6.5 percent to a record $763.6 billion as Americans' appetite for foreign-made goods again outpaced exports of homemade goods.

Some economists argue that the deepening deficit is a drag on the country's economic growth since surging imports displace domestic production --- and jobs. According to the Labor Department, the United States has lost nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs since 1998.

If the Doha talks fail, it doesn't only mean that more barriers are likely to go up --- but also that existing ones won't come down. That becomes a one-two punch for U.S. consumers and producers. "Consumers will continue to pay prices higher than they should on imported products like sugar, rice, clothing, footwear and cars, and manufacturers will lose out on market opportunity abroad," Griswold said.

Nariman Behravesh, chief economist with Global Insight, an economic and financial forecasting firm, agreed. "It's the equivalent of throwing sand in the gear and slowing down the process of globalization," said Behravesh. 'In general, opening up trade lowers prices and gives people savings that they wouldn't have had otherwise," said Behravesh. On the export side, trade limitations also mean lost sales and jobs for manufacturers.

It's not surprising that industries with skin in the game, such as U.S. food producers, restaurants, distributors and suppliers, are banding together in support of free trade proposals.

One such example is the the Food Trade Alliance (FTA), a coalition backed by Yum! Brands, which operates Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut chains.

Griswold said trade barriers have become a prickly issue for U.S. fast-food companies such as McDonald's, Pizza Hut and others who are rushing to to expand overseas as their own home markets become more saturated.

For now, both Griswold and Behravesh said they're not so optimistic that the trading powers can broker a deal in the days ahead. "The EU is not in a mood to open up their markets any more than they already have," Griswold said. "India is dragging its feet and Congress is not in the mood to give concessions on global trade. The ingredients are just not there for success." Said Behravesh, "A lot has to happen fairly quickly but no one wants to be the first to make the big move. Is a breakthrough possible? Yes, but the stars are aligning against it again."

But Sean Spicer, spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, said the agency remains hopeful. "We're keeping our fingers crossed that we get a deal in hand in coming months. We're staying focused on the positive because if the talks fail, it will be a big letdown for our workers, farmers and consumers," Spicer said.

The Food Trade Alliance could not immediately be reached for comment.

By Alan Mammoser
Conscious Choice
March 21, 2007

What if you knew the story behind everything you ate, such as where the food came from, who grew it and how? Imagine the landscape from which it came, perhaps a thriving collection of family farms. What if you knew the people that grew the food, knew that they got a fair price for it and that they actively worked to protect the landscape?

How differently would we eat if we got to know our food better?

Basic knowledge of where food comes from and how it is produced is lost on many Americans today and with it a trust in the food supply that sustains us.

With the rise of a highly industrialized society, an industrial farming system has developed along with it. Farms have become ever more mechanized, specialized and distant from most of the population. The federal government has contributed to the trend through legislation, with consecutive farm bills that favor big concentrated commodity growers --- sometimes known as "factory farms" --- while nearly ignoring local growers with smaller operations, sometimes collectively called "family farmers."

Now, when you walk into your local grocery, you see shelves chock full of all the marvels of our food system, with colorful packaging and displays. But do you know where it comes from? Do you trust it? In most cases, there is no information beyond the basic government approvals and ingredient lists. But for a growing number of people, particularly in the age of food safety scares, the lack of information is unacceptable. Many Americans want to get to know their food, and the story behind it, better.

A new food movement is growing out of these concerns. Concerned citizens, farmers and others are starting to work on a new set of rules for the food system. These rules or standards would ensure sufficient incomes for family farmers, fair treatment of farm workers, proper care of farm animals and conservation of the environment.

While some are working on the specific rules, others are figuring out how to communicate about the issue and efforts to others. They're devising ways to convey the stories behind food, so grocery shoppers know more about a cut of meat or a bag of beans and can use this information to make better choices.

This food and farming conversation is gathering force, appropriately, in the Midwest. Many leading thinkers are gathering in March at the Family Farmed Expo (, a two-day event in Chicago that contains events for the general public. Local experts on the subject will be on hand as well.

"When national organic food standards were adopted in the early 90s, there was a choice," says Jim Slama of Sustain USA, a Chicago-based non-profit that works on food and farming issues. "At that time, the feds chose to emphasize environmental standards in the strictest sense, to certify whether the food production system avoided artificial fertilizers and chemicals. But they chose to ignore other values related to producing and selling food, values that many people care about."

Slama and his colleagues are at the forefront of a "food convergence." Previously, food-related issues were addressed separately as individual groups focused on organics, local production, fair trade or family farm issues. Today, these groups are coming together to look at food from all angles with the belief that collectively, they can have far greater impact.

Four key topics of discussion include certifying family farms; fair trade standards; organics and beyond; and local food and flavor.

Fred Kirschenmann has watched with alarm as the number of independent family farms decline across the Midwest. The North Dakota farmer and senior fellow at Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture noted that this tragic disappearance was occurring even as demand was growing for specialty food products.

"New markets are opening," says Kirschenmann. "In many cases, markets for organic foods, but they really take organic to another level. They come from peoples' rising desire to buy food that protects the land and animals, supports farm families and farm workers. These markets demand food products that independent family farmers can, by their very nature, best provide."

This new demand for food can be summed up in three things food must convey: memory, story and relationship. People want food that carries the land's qualities and nutrients to their tables --- that's its memory. They want to know where it came from and follow it to its source --- that's its story. And they want to enjoy a trusting relationship through real communication with the producer.

Kirschenmann joined like-minded rural advocates and food activists to form the Association of Family Farms (AFF). The organization's goal is to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by forming cooperatives and creating their own unique brands, which they will certify with a special seal.

Like the ubiquitous "UL" (Underwriters Laboratories) label on household goods, the AFF seal will appear on food products from meat to wheat. It will certify food in three ways: 1) environmental stewardship on the farm; 2) social standards, such as fair treatment of farm workers; and 3) fair business practices including fair compensation for family farmers.

AFF is composed of farmers from local marketing organizations and co-ops and is gradually expanding through regional committees. In addition to the AFF seal, Kirschenmann foresees an interactive website that will provide detailed information about the food, and the farmers and practices used to produce it.

For AFF to work, it needs solid rules and agreed-upon standards by which to judge whether a food item deserves the seal. The group is drawing upon the Portland-based Food Alliance, whose certification programs support sustainable agriculture. Their standards are comprehensive and touch on every aspect of the farm economy and call upon farmers and ranchers for the following:

*  Provide safe and fair conditions for workers *  Ensure healthy and humane care for livestock *  Avoid use of hormones or related antibiotics *  Avoid genetically modified crops or livestock *  Reduce their use of pesticides and other toxins *  Actively conserve soil and water resources *  Protect wildlife habitat *  Plan for continuous improvement

Michael Sligh of the North Carolina-based Rural Advancement Foundation is working to adapt international fair trade standards, such as those well-recognized for coffee, to the domestic food market. "The standards are tools to help small farmers make a claim, to make their products more unique and more valuable," Sligh says

Organic Valley is a LaFarge, Wisconsin-based cooperative that is owned by 900 independent farmers, most with small to mid-sized family farms. The Organic Valley label provides a powerful seal that guarantees social justice and environmental care. Now, the company is moving toward adopting some form of fair trade standard.

"Organic and beyond," is how the company's CEO, George Siemon, describes it, signaling Organic Valley's desire to reach buyers who care about a wide range of values in their food.

Erin Ford, a project coordinator at the company, notes that good standards require good metrics. "To create useful standards, we need to answer basic questions, such as 'what is a family farm?'" she says. "Another is, 'what is local food?'"

Organic Valley has done much to provide answers, just through the guidelines it has established for its members. "We've got good working definitions, based upon our experience as a national brand working through a regional business model," says Ford.

For example, to define a family farm, the company sets out certain thresholds, such as the number of heads of cattle (the maximum allowed for members is 500 without special approval, although their farmer average is 65). Their local milk is seen in a broad yet well-defined regional context, with seven major trade areas across the country broken up into the following regions: Pacific Northwest, California, Rocky Mountain, Texas, Midwest, Northeast and New England. Their goal is to ship within their regions, so the milk in the stores comes from relatively local producers.

To tell the food story, to convey trust, means food must become more local, in both a real and a figurative sense. The food buyer must come to know the landscape, the scene of the harvest, whether it be across the continent or in the buyer's own region. Locality plays a big role in any new standards for food.

The creation, or restoration, of local food systems goes to the heart of what people love most about food, namely, flavor. The international Slow Food movement sees this instinctively, placing the concern for good flavor into broader agendas for land conservation and the survival of diverse plant and animal varieties. Slow Food brings the discussion of fair trade down to where it really matters most: the plate.

"The universal aspect of food is pleasure," says Erika Lesser of Slow Food USA. "It's not gluttony. It's just the reality of how food motivates people. It's like doing good by eating well."

This appeal to taste could bring huge numbers of people into the fair trade fold, by getting them to look for good -- and good-tasting -- meals. Slow Food projects bring producers together around agreed-upon standards for special heritage varieties, such as raw milk cheese, Gravenstein Apples or other high value or unique foods.

There is still a lot of work ahead to make the "memories, stories and relationships" of food accessible to most city folk who live far away from farms and food production. The evolving conversation --- with new farmer-oriented standards, seals and methods to communicate food stories --- may create a growing swell that will shake our food system, and our ways of interacting with it, to its very roots.

ALAN MAMMOSER is a Chicago-based writer and regional planner.

By David Rogers
Wall Street Journal March 16, 2007

House Democrats are using an Iraq war spending bill to wage battles of their own with the Bush administration over safety regulations for the chemical and meat industries.

Over protests from the National Association of Manufacturers, the measure would bar federal regulators from pre-empting the stricter standards for chemical plant safety, which might be adopted by state or local governments,

A second provision seeks to put the brakes on the administration's plans to move more toward "risk-based inspection" procedures at meat and poultry processing plants this spring.

Both provisions were approved Thursday by the House Appropriations Committee as part of the larger $124.6 billion spending bill, which is slated to come to the House floor next week. The wartime funding bill has been so dominated by the debate over U.S. policy in Iraq that the business-related sections have received little attention, but together they pose immediate challenges to the Departments of Homeland Security and Agriculture.

In Homeland Security's case, the department is already moving to establish an interim final rule next month for chemical plant safety to protect against potential terrorism attacks. Imposing such regulations has been a high priority for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee for several Congresses. But the same lawmakers have long argued that any federal standard must respect the right of states, such as New Jersey, to have stricter chemical plant safety standards.

Thus far, Homeland Security appears to be taking the opposite approach and draft language would pre-empt any state law, regulation or court decision if it "hinders, poses an obstacle to or frustrates the purposes" of the proposed federal rules. That position is favored by industry groups like NAM that prefer a uniform federal standard. But the House bill now would bar the department from approving any site security plan for a chemical facility "unless the facility meets or exceeds" the security standards of the state and local government.

In a letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (Dem.- Wisconsin), NAM complained that the provision threatens to disrupt and delay Homeland's rulemaking process. But the Senate Appropriations Committee leadership is sympathetic to the House stand. And language upholding state and local standards could be included in the Senate version of the same Iraq bill to be unveiled next week.

In the case of the Agriculture Department, the regulatory issue centers on the department's experiment with a new "risk-based" regime for targeting inspections of meat and poultry processing facilities. Proponents, such as Rep. Jack Kingston (Rep.- Georgia) argue that the system is more effective and efficient than the more current process. But food safety groups complain that the department still lacks adequate data to judge risk and appears more concerned with cutting inspection costs.

The House provision seeks to stop the department from ramping up its efforts this spring by instituting the risk-based procedures at more than 250 processing plants in the coming months. A department spokesman said that the plants impacted are still a small percentage of the estimate 4000 facilities inspected daily by the government. But the House provision would bar any such program for the remainder of this fiscal year unless a formal rulemaking process is carried out first.

"I am not opposed to the implementation of a risk-based inspection system, however such a system should be based on meaningful scientific data in order to rank product risk and determine establishment risk," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Dem.-Connecticut), who manages the agriculture portion of the spending bill. "Unfortunately, USDA lacks this data, so moving forward at this time would not be the wisest course of action."

"Additionally, by issuing a rule the process will have greater transparency and it will ensure the American people have full participation in the process."

Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said only that FSIS looked forward to working with Rep. DeLauro "as part of the open and transparent process that has guided the development of risk based inspection from the beginning."