It’s later than you think

Unless you work in DC, it’s tough to understand some of the unspoken signals that received from Capitol Hill.  In recent days, lobbyists sniffing the air like animals anticipating a storm, immediately understood the latest message:  We’re 100% into the race to October and recess until after the November 4 election.

We’re now feverishly calculating what, if anything, can/will be accomplished between now and the early October recess date.   The man/woman on the street would assume Congress would try and get as much done as possible to have a stellar record at which to point as they campaign.  Not so much; in fact, the mindset is more “do nothing, apologize for nothing.”

Consider the following:   There are less than 80 calendar days until the October 2 target recess date; of that total, there are less than 20 congressional “work days,” keeping mind Congress works a short Tuesday-Thursday week.   This tells us very little will be done prior to 535 members scuttling to airports in October, their party leaders having saved the controversial, the contentious, the ugly and the complex issues until the post-election lame duck session likely to begin just before Thanksgiving and end just before Christmas.

I heard this week the House GOP leadership told its caucus members to collect all solid candidates for what’s called the suspension calendar.  This means bills so noncontroversial, American and apple pie that 218 votes – a majority of the House – is a given.  Similarly, Senate leadership is putting together a list of noncontroversial issues and presidential appointments – judges, cabinet folks, and members of commissions, boards and the like, as well as the odd ambassador – to  fill its calendar so as to appear busy.

As the end-of-July drop-dead date pre-August recess approaches, there will appear to be a frenzy of legislative activity because Congress acts only with a looming deadline.   The same will happen toward the end of September as the October recess approaches.  Whether all of the activity and noise leads to achievement is anyone’s guess at this point.

Major legislation that must be done includes the bill to give the administration more money to deal with the Texas immigration crisis. This issue will consume the rest of July.  While there will be lots of public outcry, with noise very similar to that surrounding the broader immigration reform debate, this action should not be confused with comprehensive immigration reform, because that won’t be happening.  Reauthorization of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) will be achieved, but FY2014 spending bills are dead in the water.  Short of a miracle of bipartisanship and compromise, Congress will act in September to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government running until well after the November election.  Even then, it’s likely very few individual spending bills will be passed, rather another omnibus spending package will be enacted.

There will be no action to modify or repeal the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), and while the House continues to tack language onto bills to curtail EPA rulemakings on Clean Water Act (CWA) authority and greenhouse gas/carbon capture, the Senate will ignore those efforts.  There will be no legislative remedies to FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rulemakings, and no energy legislation of any substance will see the light of day.  This week it also became clear reauthorization of federal highway programs, those that fund state highway, bridge and urban commuter projects, could be reauthorized, likely during lame duck.  Pre-election may see a short-term funding “fix” for the near-bankrupt Highway Trust Fund (HTF) through March or May, 2015, but no long-term funding solution.

Any legislative action in the lame duck session, of course, depends on how the numbers fall in November.  If voters decide they like the GOP House, Democrat Senate set-up, it’s pretty the same ballgame.

However, while the House looks pretty safe for Republicans right now, if the GOP takes the Senate, then the lame duck could be the shortest in history.   Only absolute must-pass legislation, such as an omnibus spending package, will be done; the rest will get punted into the 114th Congress in January.  No Senate Republican will be of a mind to give Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) any kind of “legacy” wins.

For lobbyists — and I think the public at large — the good news is that anything not accomplished by the end of the session dies.  All bills must be reintroduced, but all mischief ended.

Vermont’s Avenging Angel of Technology

I was fortunate this week to meet a woman named Joanna Lidbak. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy in this fact, save for where I met her and who she is.  She was a witness for the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives (NCFC) as a Vermont member of Agri-Mark, Inc. at a House Agriculture Committee subcommittee hearing on the “societal benefits of biotechnology.”  She was the only witness who didn’t have a PhD, nor a teaching/research position at a major university.  I wish there were a million more like her out there.

Her resume puts me and most I know to shame; consider the following next time you even think about complaining you have too much to do and not enough time:

Ms. Lidbak and her husband are first-generation farmers, running a 45-cow dairy in northeast Vermont.  They rent 200 acres from her husband’s aunt and uncle, cut extra hay, raise/process Jersey steers for local beef sales, and sell a bit of composted manure.  There are two young sons involved – a  three-year old and one just sixteen months – and she has a full-time job with a farm credit association, she’s first vice president of the county farm bureau, and a dairy cattle judge for youth and 4-H dairy shows across New England.   She’s got a degree in agri-business management and a master’s in business administration.  Did I mention she’s got a serious blog?  Yes, it’s called, and she’s on every social media outlet there is.  Go there, read it, tweet her, follow her.

She hauled herself to Washington, DC, ostensibly to talk about the benefits of biotechnology to both farmers and consumers, but delivered, I think, one of the most eloquent, simple and well-reasoned strategies for dealing with the average Joe and Jane naysayer about technology in agriculture broadly.  Her message was simple:   Without the technologies allowing her and her husband to grow corn in a short season, use genomic cattle testing, maintain and enhance animal welfare and health, keep their land fresh for pasture, control production costs so they can produce high quality, safe and affordable foods, they’d be out of business.

Empathy was evident in her testimony when she stated so much of the “information” the average consumer carries into a supermarket about biotech, animal welfare, organic versus conventional is misinformation, gleaned from social media, irresponsible or lazy general media or promoted by one activist group or another.  “No one likes to be told their wrong,” she said to me in a short conversation after the hearing.  “People don’t like to be told what they believe to be true isn’t.  You have to be patient, listen, provide direct information directly, and hope they have an open mind.”   Biotech companies, food companies, are you listening?

She’s an equal opportunity farmer, believing there’s room for as many kinds of farming and ranching as there are folks who want to engage.  Her egalitarianism extends to her organic producer neighbors, and to support her community she’ll buy their products at farmers’ markets.  However, she draws the line at buying organic in supermarkets.  “I generally do not believe in paying the higher premium for these foods because they provide no added nutritional or other health benefits.  With a growing family and a growing farm business, we have lots of other places to spend our hard-earned money,” she said in her hearing testimony.  I love her for that philosophy alone.

I’ve been to her blog a couple of times and she’s being attacked as a “traitor” on Twitter by the anti-technology, label-everything gang for even testifying.  Based on her responses, she’s taking it all in stride.   When it comes to accusations the use of technologies is not “sustainable,” here’s her take:

“To us, sustainability means living and farming in a way that meets today’s needs while ensuring future generations also can meet their needs.  Every time I look into my sons’ eyes, I realize they are that next generation, which makes our responsibility that much more tangible.”

Her plans?  Here’s what she told the House subcommittee:

“I am happy to continue to speak up for our right to farm in the best way we know possible, which in our case includes biotechnology and the use of GMOs.  I will continue to pursue an active presence (on social media)…via newspapers, church meetings or everyday conversations, sharing articles and ideas along with my knowledge about the opportunities and challenges we face as modern-day farmers and parents.  If I reach one person or 10 people reach out to me for a question or appreciating my hands-on and practical perspective from farm, then I have succeeded.  And I have.”

I wish there were a million more like her.

The full House Agriculture Committee biotech hearing video and testimony can be found here:

The House v. President Barack Obama

House Speaker John Boehner (R, OH) this week announced he’ll introduce a bill to instruct the House General Counsel to sue President Obama for failure to “faithfully execute his oath of office” to “protect our system of government and our economy from continued executive abuse.”

Blame it on the upcoming midterm elections and the GOP’s manic zeal to retain the House and take control of the Senate, or agree with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D, CA) it’s all just “subterfuge” to distract from a do-nothing Congress, anyway you cut it, this is not action to be taken lightly.

This shouldn’t have been such a shocker.  In March, a House bill to make it easier to sue a sitting President was approved 233-181, a party line vote save for five Dems who jumped on the GOP train.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) said the measure was “dead on arrival” in the Senate; the President vowed to veto it if it ever landed on his desk.

This week White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters: “They are considering a taxpayer-funded lawsuit against the President of the United States for doing his job.  This lawsuit is nothing that’s going to consume the attention of the White House,” adding “we feel completely confident” the President acted in his authority.”  For himself, President Obama says he “works around Congress” because he must when the legislative branch refuses or can’t act on issues of the day.

The legal action is being taken, Boehner said, because President Obama “ignores some statutes completely, selectively enforces others, and at times, creates laws of his own.”  He cited Obama actions on the health care law, gay marriage, climate/energy, foreign policy, education and immigration where “President Obama has repeatedly run an end-around on the American people and their elected legislators…”

“If the current President can selectively enforce, change or create laws as he chooses with impunity…his successors will do the same…giving the president king-like authority at the expense of the American people,” the Ohio lawmaker said, adding he’s constantly asked by citizens why the House hasn’t acted before now.  “We elected a president, Americans note; we didn’t elect a monarch or a king,” he says.

This comes down to Boehner’s faith in the judicial branch of government to referee a dispute between the legislative and executive branches, and that the outcome will somehow change the hearts and minds of parties on both sides of this dispute.  The House can take this action only if it can demonstrate no one else can challenge the President, harm is being done to the general welfare and trust in execution of the law, there is no legislative remedy, and there’s “explicit House authorization for the lawsuit, through a vote authorizing litigation against the President.”

I see both sides of this issue, but I’ve still not fully digested the implications of the suit per se, nor the implications of the President losing, or for that matter, the House losing the suit.

Frustration with Congress being unable to find its backend with both hands and flashlight is palpable in this town and across the country.  I empathize with the President.  The likes of Reid and Boehner automatically rejecting the actions of the opposite chamber for purely partisan reasons is childish and short-sighted.  Immigration reform is an excellent example; there’s no logical reason the House should continue to reject out-of-hand the Senate’s comprehensive, bipartisan reform bill.

However, impatience and frustration with the system are no justification to ignore the law you’ve sworn to uphold.  We are all taught that without the rule of law and a citizenry which obeys the law, we’d have chaos.  The President is an attorney who taught constitutional law.  Shouldn’t he be the model to whom we turn?  But he almost boasts when he ignores chunks of this or that law, modifies enacted bills to suit his own interpretation of what they should require rather than what they do say and require, and he effectively creates “orders” with the force of law as if Congress didn’t exist.

The President, Boehner and the rest of Congress weren’t elected because we all truly believe these are the smartest people in the room all the time.  We deemed them the best of who was on the ballot at the time; implicit in that is our assumption they should be smart enough to sit down is a room, check their egos and partisanship at the door and work this stuff out without all the schoolyard taunts, name calling and the blame game.  Certainly extra-legal actions are unnecessary on both sides.

Said President Franklin D. Roosevelt:  “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”

So who’s Kevin McCarthy?

Rep. Kevin Owen McCarthy (R, CA), 49, the small businessman with an MBA representing the 23rd District of California and current House majority whip, moves up to the number two GOP leadership slot on August 1.  Elected House majority leader this week by an overwhelming majority, McCarthy, first elected in 2006, has for four years been the boyish gray-haired acolyte standing in the background at House Speaker John Boehner’s (R, OH) press conferences.

It was sitting Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R, VA) stunning defeat in the state GOP primary a couple of weeks ago that gave McCarthy his shot at becoming second-in-command of the House GOP caucus. It also maintains his distinction as having risen to House leadership faster than any other member in the history of the U.S. Congress.

Here’s how the Clerk of the House describes the majority leader’s job:  “…scheduling legislation for floor consideration; planning the daily, weekly, and annual legislative agendas; consulting with Members to gauge party sentiment; and, in general, working to advance the goals of the majority party.”

As majority whip – the most thankless job in leadership – it fell to McCarthy to keep the troops in line on legislation moving to the floor.  One news report refers to him as “manically social,” and this affability may be why he was able to pull off the job of bridging a caucus with conservatives on one end who claim they don’t care if they’re reelected in pursuit of their ideological goals, to the opposite pole, homeland to more “liberal” Republicans, those who cynics refer to as “Republicans in name only” (RINOs).

Cantor’s departure is not mourned by most national agriculture groups who put the blame for two years of Farm Bill delay squarely on his shoulders a sign of the low priority he assigned food and agriculture generally. As to McCarthy, so far these same groups view his ascension with cautious optimism.

McCarthy doesn’t hold an agriculture committee seat – he sits on the Financial Services Committee – but as the grandson of a California cattleman, he represents a district north and east of Los Angeles, extending to the heart of the state’s Central Valley, the nation’s “salad bowl.”  The largest industry in his district is agriculture yielding cotton, citrus, grapes, all things found on salad bars, alfalfa, sheep and cattle.  The second biggest industry in the 23rd District is energy, and one county – Kern County – produces more oil in a year than the state of Oklahoma, says McCarthy’s official website.

Given the economic makeup of his district, it shouldn’t surprise anyone McCarthy understands the need for immigrant labor to plant and harvest crops, work dairies and processing plants.  He supports a pathway to legal status for undocumented workers as part of federal immigration reform.  Some say this positon is a political ticking time bomb; others say McCarthy is representing the folks who voted for him.

The media say McCarthy holds many of the same political views as Cantor.  However, the difference is Cantor always seemed to be working for Cantor, an impression confirmed by his district’s primary vote.  McCarthy seems to understand his success is a direct result of GOP success.  I met him briefly back when he was the youngest Republican leader in the California Assembly.  Definitely a nice guy, he struck me as a “moderate conservative,” definitely right of center but a pragmatic Republican in the Boehner mold.   Unlike Cantor – who Boehner publicly referred to as his “friend and colleague” – McCarthy and the Speaker are personally closer.  McCarthy is a team player; Boehner won’t have to look over his shoulder to see what his majority leader may be doing or saying and to whom.

Boehner says he’ll run for a third term as Speaker if the House stays in GOP control come the November election.  McCarthy, who won reelection in 2012 with nearly 74% of the vote, will come in as his heir apparent.

Nearly all sources of various political persuasions interviewed in the post-leadership election stories on McCarthy’s win calls him as “a nice guy,” “a gentleman,” and on and on.  Worse things can be said, but don’t forget no one rises from deli owner in Bakersfield, to the youngest GOP leader in the California assembly to freshman House member, to House majority leader if they’re not politically gifted, wicked smart, a bit “clever” and tough.  Fingers crossed.

Too much Eric Cantor

As a chronic victim of Potomac fever, I watched House Republicans and Democrats duke it out this week over their chamber’s version of the FY2015 agriculture/FDA spending bill.  My interest was admittedly disproportionate to most C-Span viewers as there were expected amendments I was working to kill.

The floor debate was a good old back and forth, one side accusing the other of any number of sins against the American people, but generally said in the nicest possible way.  The big issue was House GOP language allowing schools/school districts to obtain waivers allowing them to opt out of the new federal school breakfast and lunch nutrition requirements – more fruits and veggies, “local” purchases, etc. – if they could show a net operating loss for a six-month period going back to July, 2013.  Many schools say they’re losing money, the foods are too expensive and hard to find, and when they do serve the new USDA menu, kids won’t eat the food and throw the lunches away.

Facing down the schools was none other than First Lady Michelle Obama and her “Let’s Move” program designed to head off/reduce childhood obesity.  Her minions kept pointing at the “science” underlying the new menus.   Her former White House assistant chef Sam Kass, now unexplainably a senior advisor to the President on food policy, kept admonishing folks to “follow the science,” and Rep. Sam Farr (D, CA), ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on agriculture, was his acolyte, pushing an amendment to strip the waiver language from the bill.

As the GOP assured one and all they aren’t trying to force kids to eat cake, candy and sugar-laden soda pop for lunch, and as the Democrats tried to convince everyone they stand on the side of the angels in retraining children what to eat, the House Republican leadership pulled the plug on the debate.  Why?  House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R, VA) lost the Virginia Republican primary to a college professor, or as I like to call it, the best example of what goes around, comes around in quite a while.

The first scheduling announcement said debate would resume next week; then late Thursday, it was formally declared the bill was off the floor schedule indefinitely and “may be taken up at some later time this summer.”   One House GOP staffer told me senior Republicans on the floor were “emotional and distracted” by Cantor’s stunning defeat, and the GOP needed to “regroup” to move on.  A Democrat staffer, acknowledging the Cantor defeat was unsettling, said scuttling the bill had more to do with potentially losing the vote on school lunch waivers.

Cantor’s fate is admittedly a game changer of sorts in the House.  I still blame Cantor for mishandling of the floor action on the House Farm Bill that delayed that legislation for over a year in his zeal to cut federal food stamp rolls, a rather extreme example of politics over policy.  Street talk say Cantor plays to the ultraconservative side of the House and had his sights set on becoming House Speaker one day.  House Speaker John Boehner (R, OH) speaking to reporters with unusual candor this week, said all the right things about his “friend and colleague,” but refused to get sucked into the “why” of Cantor’s defeat, declaring “it’s just one election” and “they’re all different,” and saying the Majority Leader would be chosen – as such folks are always chosen – by a vote of the caucus.

The original one-hour debate recess so Republicans could meet, assess, talk process, etc., made sense, but the scheduling did not.  What also surprises me is unending dithering by reporters, Democrats and other Republicans over why Cantor lost, what his defeat means to the party nationally and its prospects in the November elections, and what the fate of the free world might be with Cantor out of House leadership.

Being the round-headed Midwesterner I am, and being one of those who prefer to view most glasses as half full, I think House GOP leadership has indefinitely delayed the bill to “regroup” over how to win the school lunch battles, and ultimately, pass the bill it wants to pass.  Unfortunately, an analysis by an appropriations committee veteran, now an industry lobbyist, is probably the correct one.

She contends House ag approps won’t come back to the floor, but rather will become part of an omnibus FY2015 spending package – all the spending bills too controversial to make it on their own. This “minibus” will be rushed through the process during the post-election lame duck session.  If she’s right, chalk it up to another opportunity lost.

Inside D.C.

I’ve spent the morning talking biotechnology policy issues specifically and food production/processing technologies generally, mostly in the context of prospective congressional hearings to talk about various societal impacts of and political issues surrounding biotech. The morning’s discussion has generated a tremendous frustration with those who oppose food production technology advances, basing their views on little more than rumors/propaganda/urban myths they’ve picked up on social media.

Biotechnology and its implications for the betterment of the planet are issues I’ve been involved in for over 25 years, back to the days when I was a reporter/editor. To be able to scientifically and safely improve plants and animals which feed us by eliminating diseases, overcoming the need for chemicals, to get crops to grow and move to market faster, or to discover crops and animals which can survive and thrive in environments which heretofore wouldn’t support food production is breathtaking in its implications for the overall future of the planet.

I’ve represented the company which proved livestock cloning could create a genetic twin of the barnyard rock stars and do it safely. I’ve taken on other “challenges” in shepherding biotech applications through the FDA approval process while holding off congressional interference in what’s supposed to be an objective, science-based review of safety and efficacy. I’ve worked biotech issues for so long I feel like I’ve earned a PhD in genetics.

This experience taught me most folks are schizophrenic about technology. If a biotech company announced today FDA has approved a biotech-derived cure for or a vaccine against cancer, Alzheimers or HIV-AIDS, the world – and the media – would cheer. Make the same announcement about a faster growing, drought-tolerant, saline-tolerant, insecticide/herbicide-resistant plant variety, and the opponents would be out in force – with full media attention — filing complaints and lawsuits, seeking legislation to ban the products and generally scaring the crap out of the general public. Make an announcement about a genetically improved cow, pig, sheep or other four-legged food animal, and morally superior among our activist friends would declare war.
Biotech has benefitted this country for going on 40 years. Folks forget or never knew the entire wine industry is the result of plant cloning. They forget biotechnology benefits corn and soybean production to the point over 90% of those crops are biotech varieties, removing millions of gallons and thousands of pounds of chemicals from the growing process. Because of these successes those who scream for the labeling of genetically modified foods should understand their demand would result in about 95% of U.S. food production being labeled.

What disturbs me most are folks who purport to be bright individuals, but who are in a position to withhold technology benefits for the rest of us based on their “personal discomfort.” I’ve listened to members of the House and Senate say they’re “uncomfortable” with a technology breakthrough, or as one senior Senator said, “I don’t want to eat a Dollyburger.” Well, Senator, then don’t. Last time I looked there was no one forcing you to accept the product of any technology with which you aren’t personally at east.

However, lawmakers aren’t elected to make technology decisions for the rest of us based on their personal views. They were elected to evaluate the process, the agency deciding safety, efficacy and equivalence, and to make the best objective policy decision on behalf of their state or district.

I understand being skeptical because something sounds “too new,” odd or is out of your comfort zone. However, commonsense should prevail along with a personal responsibility to learn, and trust in those whose job it is to evaluate and approve or disapprove the technology.

My mother used to tell my brothers and me that when the Salk oral polio vaccine was developed, she wasn’t sure she wanted her boys “drinking that stuff.” I did, and I’m glad I did. My mother didn’t let her “discomfort” get in the way. She read every word she could find on Dr. Salk’s breakthrough and did the smart thing.

Next week it’s all EPA all the time

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has to be wishing next week was over already. It’s expected on June 2, she’ll roll out the incredibly controversial first-ever federal attempt to regulate and limit greenhouse gases (GHG). Then, likely midweek, she gets to announce her agency’s final decision on how much ethanol and other biofuels must be blended with gasoline during the rest of 2014, and probably into 2015.

This second major announcement will cap months of furious lobbying by the biofuels industry, stunned last November when EPA announced it would ignore the statutory levels for the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), and recommend reducing how much corn ethanol, biodiesel (plant or animal-based), renewable diesel and non-corn ethanol must be blended with gasoline in 2014.

For the livestock and poultry industries the silent prayer is EPA will stick to its guns and roll back to 13 billion gallons the amount of corn ethanol that must be blended. However, word on the street is the proposed 13 billion gallon mandate will edge up to 13.6 billion gallons or thereabouts when the final announcement is made. EPA’s reasoning will be that last fall, gasoline consumption numbers were way down, so to avoid the so-called “blend wall” – the point at which a refiner, to meet the total number of gallons it must legally blend, has to blend at a rate higher than the 10% legal maximum – the agency drastically reduced the RFS mandate. Today, gasoline demand numbers are up, so more ethanol will be needed. McCarthy has hinted at this shift for weeks in speeches and appearances on Capitol Hill.

For advanced biofuels – biodiesel, renewable diesel, cellulosic ethanol, sugar-based ethanol – the overall RFS mandate will be around 2.2 billion gallons, insiders say. Of that, the biodiesel RFS will be stay very close to the proposed 1.28 billion gallons, and if true, this will be a major disappointment for the biodiesel industry because it’s production this year is expected to be north of 1.7 billion gallons where it believes the RFS should be set.

The political fall out of the RFS announcement will be renewed calls for “fixing” the RFS. Most agree Congress was wrong to set in law specific gallon figures for the annual RFS mandate. However, among those who believe corn ethanol is the single largest cause of the last two years’ run-up in meat prices, the diehards want the RFS repealed, with those claiming the middle ground on this issue wanting to see at the very least an update in the formula for RFS calculation, with a “trigger” based on available corn stocks, requiring the RFS be waived in whole or in part.

On the GHG proposed regulation, this maiden attempt will aim at existing coal-fired power plants for two reasons. First, the President has apparently decided that controlling climate change will a big part of his presidential “legacy.” And if that’s the case, then it’s logical to go after the nation’s largest source of carbon and GHG emissions and that would be public utilities. The opposition is fierce – utilities and general industry – are throwing out number after number on increased costs of electricity to consumers, lost jobs and a major hit to the economy overall.

It’s important to watch how this plays out. In true Obama fashion, he’s first gone after the giant in the GHG game. If he can successfully get emissions control/technology rules on the books for existing power plants, then it’s a lot easier to roll up rules on future power plants, and then to impose similar rules on all other GHG emitters. However, there are those so convinced EPA is overstepping its legal authority with this rulemaking that lawsuits will abound, likely holding up any final rulemaking until well after President Obama has retired.

For production agriculture, the largest GHG source is the animals we raise. The good news on this front is the White House has said publicly more than once it won’t try and regulate the GHG emissions from this nation’s livestock and poultry farms, but rather work on a voluntary approach to get technology on farm that will aim at cutting emissions 25% in the next six years. It’s unclear how the rest of the food chain will fare.

Next week will seem like all EPA all the time. Let’s just hope Ms. McCarthy has a good public relations team trained and ready and can keep her talking points straight.

Food Companies should be more like circuses

Meat processing companies, grocery store chains and restaurants – whether white table cloth or fast food – take note of the recent one-two punch dealt the animal rights movement by non-ag companies with the backbone to stand up to intimidation and corporate blackmail. I’m talking about the vindication of – and $15.75 million payment to – Feld Entertainment, along with Groupon’s message to PETA to pound salt if it thought the company would cease offering zoo and circus deals just because the radical animal rights group told it to.

I make no secret of my frustration with food companies – producers, processors and retailers – who succumb to PR fears and attempt to give radical activists “something to make them go away.” This is cowardice in the marketplace and works against our collective industry’s best interests. Firms who partner with activists as protection from threats or to grow their niche market are either naïve or stupid.

The $15.75-million judgment levied by a federal court last week requires the Humane Society of the U.S., it’s “affiliate” group the Fund for Animals and 10 other animal rights groups to pay Feld Entertainment’s legal costs in a 14-year legal battle over allegations Feld, parent company of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, routinely mistreated the Asian elephants in its shows. The court called the allegations “vexatious,” “frivolous” and “groundless.” This is the second payment awarded to Feld. In 2012, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) settled for $9.3-million.

Groupon, based in Chicago, was targeted by PETA in one of its “we-buy-your-stock-you-have-to-listen” gambits. However, PETA missed the deadline for stock ownership in order to attend the company’s May 20 shareholders meeting. PETA wanted the company to drop affiliations with certain circuses and zoos. Groupon refused to knuckle under when the world’s most radical animal rights group insisted it adopt a biased policy as to which events and attractions it offers its customers. Groupon said it doesn’t make business decisions based on politics or activist pressure, but rather upon what its customers want. The company’s actions were praised by the National Center for Public Policy Research, which counseled the firm to adopt a politically neutral policy, one that made business sense for the company and offered shareholders value.

HSUS’s Wayne Pacelle, in classic loser spin mode, told the May 17 International Business Tribune, “the wind is at our back on this issue,” and the multimillion-dollar settlement deal isn’t “anything more than a small bump in the road in the public-relations fight over the systemic mistreatment of animals.” He said he “expects” insurance will pay HSUS’s share so none of the $180 million he took in last year from unwitting donors is sent to Feld. Pacelle was generous enough to suggest Feld use the settlement money to protect elephants killed for ivory. Feld spends millions each year to support its Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida, as well as the Elephant Transit Home in Sri Lanka, a group which takes abandoned calves and injured elephants, rehabs them and releases them in the wild. I’d like to know how much HSUS spends on elephant protection or rehabilitation.

The key to these victories is that these companies demonstrated corporate courage, not fear. I’ve spoken to a buddy at Feld, and the company has never lost a ticket sale at any of its various family entertainment venues it can attribute to an animal rights protest or nasty things said by any activist group. Talk to the food retailers who’ve been targeted by activists such as HSUS and PETA, some hit with international campaigns. None is out of business, in fact all are doing better than they were a decade ago. You’ll find out none have lost a penny because Pacelle or Ingrid Newkirk don’t like what they sell.

The Groupon attitude is exemplary: Give your customers what THEY want, not what some activist group with the price of a stock share or the cost of a USAToday full-page ad demands.   In the case of animal agriculture, our customers want meat, milk and eggs. Your first and foremost responsibility is to give consumers the best possible products from the best treated animals at the best price.

My advice to corporate execs who must “manage” these issues is this: Study the victories of Ringling Bros. and Groupon and learn from them. The first time you tell an activist “no, thanks” will be the toughest. After that it gets easier; kind of like a day at the circus.

Pre-election politics as usual

Anyone hoping or praying that in this midterm election year Congress will hold back the partisanship bickering until much later in the summer need only scan the headlines around the big issues pending to know those hopes and prayers are for naught. During this run-up to the November elections, the partisan sniping and delaying tactics seem to have started earlier than usual or expected.

The early advent is most likely because we’re approaching the longest consistent congressional “work” period for the rest of the year. As of May 19, Congress will actually be in session, in Washington, DC, for five consecutive weeks; then it’s in session for four weeks in a row post-July 4 recess. Keep in mind I’m talking congressional “weeks,” meaning the week begins around noon to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, and ends midday Thursday so all House members and a third of the Senate can scurry to the airport, fly home and squeeze in a few more campaign stops.

The legislative victims of the political equivalent of “my- political way-or-the-highway” are legion – as is, apparently common sense – but take a look at how the logical solution to the nation’s challenges has given way to the political.

Both sides of the aisle on both sides of the Hill are taking up arms for what looks like a summer-long battle between parties and between the Hill and the White House over climate change. This week President Obama, as part of his executive climate action plan, released a national climate assessment, a most dour document predicting climate change is the first sign of the Apocalypse. No one denies last winter was rough nationally; some contend it’s a return to the olden days of snow measured in feet and wind chills in double digits. The lingering drought in California and Texas is the focus of many, while others contend it’s warmer, colder, rainier, drier, windier than ever and significant “adaptation” is necessary. If weather extremes are uglier, rather than debate how to cope, expect a lot of attacking/defending coal, plugging or denigrating wind, solar and biofuels, proposing/opposing heavy-handed regulation or, if you’re a doubter, pushing for a wait-and-see approach and voluntary actions to protect agriculture, shipping and the rest of the infrastructure.

On immigration, House Speaker John Boehner (R, OH) is all over the map, but seems to be sliding to the side of his GOP stalwarts. He says he wants to get immigration reform completed before October – much to the dismay of many of his caucus running in tough races – but has yet to make any progress. He refuses to take up the bipartisan Senate reform bill, and says the issue for the House GOP is an abiding mistrust President Obama will enforce the law as it’s passed. Until he gets a public commitment the President won’t manipulate the law through the magic of executive orders, he’s not moving.

Over on the Senate side, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D, NV) is convinced the way to pass legislation is to foreclose on floor debate and amendments. A bipartisan, wildly popular energy conservation bill authored by Sen. Jean Shaheen (D, NH) and Sen. Rob Portman (R, OH) is about 100% sure to die a second death because Reid won’t allow GOP amendments be offered. Last summer the bill was sailing through the Senate until Sen. David Vitter (R, LA) tried to hamstring it with an Obamacare amendment. At that point Reid was justified in yanking the bill, but this time energy-related GOP amendments – admittedly not popular with Democrats — have been refused and Reid would rather pull the bill than allow open debate. Energy conservation loses.

In both chambers, what’s become a biennial event – reauthorizing 55 expired federal tax credits – has become the quintessential partisan political/physical football. I won’t suck time explaining why this laundry list of tax breaks – business (R&D), personal (childcare), energy-related (biofuels) – some authorized as long as 50 years ago, needs to be extended each year. Congress knows they’ll expire, allows them to expire, then six months later easily re-extends the list with benefits retroactive to their expiration date. This year the extension effort is all about the haves and have-nots, at least to House Democrats. The House and Senate tax writing committees agree the road to comprehensive federal tax reform in 2015 begins with the tax break extension. Once again, the Senate’s bill was approved in committee on a strong bipartisan vote. In the House, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D, MD) says because the business-friendly extenders package isn’t paid for – no appropriated money or offsets from savings elsewhere – he’ll block floor action until the expired unemployment benefits extension gets floor time, pointing out the hypocrisy of the GOP and silence on the package’s cost in the process. He threw in action on immigration reform action as a sweetener, alleging the savings from reform pays for the tax package.

Not only will the summer bring more of the same legislative intransigence, it will be liberally spiced with politics and electioneering. Think of it as the DC equivalent of those unending candidate television ads spouting noise and little substance.


Organics exposed!

I’ve used this space over time to rail against the organic industry for two things. First, I have a serious beef with the lack of full marketing disclosure when it comes to the assumed or alleged health and safety benefits or organic foods. Second, I’ve got a problem with any product or service which touts itself only by trashing its competition.

Now my crustiness is confirmed by a third-party academic group in the form of a review/study entitled the “Organic Marketing Report,” released in late April by Academics Review, a non-profit for scientists, educators and researchers dedicated to the value of peer review in science. The Review was founded by Dr. David Tribe, a University of Melbourne (Australia) senior lecturer, and Dr. Bruce Chassy, a University of Illinois professor emeritus of food microbiology and nutritional sciences.

Bottom line: The organic food industry built its U.S. market — $290 billion last year, for a 3,400% increase in 24 years – on “fear-based marketing.” The $35-billion organic marketing industry uses surveys showing 65% of consumers see organic as healthier, 70% as safer, and 46% as more nutritious. Consumers also assume the “USDA Organic” seal on the package means all of those things. The review found consumers routinely deceived – the review’s word, not mine – about organic “benefits,” the organic folks know it and do precious little to correct the record, and the misperception is perpetuated by advocacy groups – the Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, the Environmental Working Group, among others.

USDA comes in for a drubbing as well if only because it doesn’t remind the public what the federal certified organic program is really all about. When launched in 2000, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said about the USDA organic seal the following: “Let me be clear about one thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” The script is written; USDA need only repeat it or put it at the top of its organics webpage.

The organic marketing review was exhaustive, studying over 200 academic, industry and government reports on consumer purchasing, plus 1,000 news reports, 500 website/social media evaluations, marketing materials/ads, analyst presentations, speeches and advocacy reports released during 1988-2014. The report was reviewed by an independent committee of food scientists, as well as economics and legal experts.

“Consumers have spent hundreds of billions of dollars purchasing…organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health…the research found extensive evidence that widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing (is) a primary cause of these misperceptions. This suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of…intentionally deceptive marketing and paid advocacy,” the review states.

I will cut the organic producers some slack. Organic is a legitimate niche market segment in the food industry. I fully understand organic production is more labor intensive, ergo more expensive to produce than conventional crops and animals. I also understand there is that segment of the population who, no matter the hard evidence, will buy organic because it assuages guilt or just makes them feel better. This is all fine and good. There’s no such thing as good or bad foods.

However, just as I can’t raise an animal in the conventional way and claim it’s healthier, happier, Mother Nature-preferred and safer than organic, neither should the organic industry allow the public to wander the wasteland of misinformation/misperception relative to food safety, health and environmental benefit.

Said the reviewers: “It’s our hope responsible members of the organic food industry and government…will use these findings to address consumer misperceptions about…food safety and nutrition. Accurate food safety, nutrition and health information combined with consumer pocketbook protections should be a threshold standard for any government program that cannot be co-opted by special interest marketing groups.”