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Booker’s Better Food System

The Farm System Reform Act lays out the steps to a food system that works for people, not profits

“Cory Booker” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Farm System Reform Act

The Public Justice Food Project is the only legal project in the country that is focused solely on dismantling industrial animal agriculture and supporting a food system that works for people, not corporations. Today, we are excited to support Senator Cory Booker’s Farm System Reform Act — a visionary piece of legislation that spells out the steps required to achieving a humane and sustainable food system.

Booker’s bill includes a number of reforms that directly align with the work the Food Project has pursued on behalf of farmers and ranchers, rural communities, and consumers. We know that we have to engage people across the food system — producers and eaters alike — in order to make real change. Read on for an idea of what’s in the bill, and how the Food Project is currently fighting for the same change with communities nationwide.

If you agree that we need a food system that puts people over profit, ask your legislators to co-sponsor the Farm System Reform Act.

What’s in the bill?

Moratorium on new and expanding factory farms.

We know it’s time for a ban on factory farms. We’ve seen the many harms that come from raising animals in industrial, high-density facilities — including, but not limited to, how it impacts climate change, water quality, and the creation of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

We know this because we’ve fought for communities like Lower Yakima Valley, Washington, whose drinking water supplies were contaminated by nearby dairies mismanaging massive amounts of cow manure. We know because we sued Hormel for misleading consumers about their supposedly “natural” meat — causing Hormel to release more than 600 pages disclosing that they use the same harmful industrial practices as any of their other meats, and that they are well aware of the false image they’re selling to consumers: animals raised with access to the outdoors, and meat produced without antibiotics.

Booker’s bill recognizes the scale of harm posed by large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to public health and the environment, and poses the most logical solution: a ban on new and expanding factory farms.

While the Food Project has represented communities affected by CAFO pollution — as in Yakima, or currently with Iowans claiming their right to clean water — a moratorium on new and expanding large CAFOs like the one Booker calls for would meaningfully change the conditions for nearby communities, drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from CAFOs that are a major contributor to the climate crisis, and address growing concerns from consumers about the overuse of antibiotics that threaten a future public health crisis.

Protections for family farmers and ranchers exploited by corporations.

The current food system has been steadily pushing out independent family farmers and keeping contract growers (who raise livestock but don’t own the animals) in terrible conditions. With a handful of corporations dominating the processing of livestock and poultry, it’s become increasingly easy for these firms to control a system in which corporations thrive while contract growers absorb the risks and costs of the business, often incurring major debt along the way.

Among other protections, the Farm System Reform Act would prohibit the use of certain exploitative ranking systems for paying contract growers, like the “tournament system” implicated in our suit against Tyson Foods, wherein the company determines the quality of all the inputs given to a grower (the chicks, their food, any medicines), and then ranks growers against each other to determine how each will be paid. Charles Morris, the lead plaintiff in the suit against Tyson, said,

“When I found out that the company was providing me lower quality inputs, I was furious. I was trying my best, and I’d grown chickens for 25 years, so I knew what I was doing. I was doing the right thing, but Tyson wasn’t. When I asked the managers at Tyson about it, they told me that it would cost the company a lot of money to make it a fair system. So clearly, they are profiting from the abuse of farmers who are doing their best.”

The bill also addresses a labeling issue important to many U.S. famers: country-of-origin-labeling, or “COOL.” Currently, per USDA requirements, beef and pork products that are shipped to the U.S. and processed or repackaged here may bear the words “Product of U.S.A.” regardless of where the animals were raised. This deceptive labeling hurts consumers and independent farmers alike, as corporations can (and do) pass off any of their meat as domestic — driving down the prices they pay to independent farmers actually raising meat in the U.S. Booker’s bill would restore mandatory COOL labeling.

We’ve represented ranchers’ groups arguing that the USDA’s policy violates the Meat Inspection Act, which clearly requires country-of-origin labeling on imported steaks and chops. In fact, the department had “COOL” requirements in place for eight years prior to scratching them. We agree with ranchers and now with Senator Booker’s bill: If meat is labeled as a “Product of U.S.A,” we should be able to trust that it was raised here, by U.S. ranchers.

Integrator liability.

Underscoring nearly every issue associated with our current food system is that corporations get to force their practices onto communities, consumers, and farmers, and shrug off any responsibility for the harms they cause. As Senator Booker said in introducing the bill,

“We need to fix the broken system — that means protecting family farmers and ranchers and holding corporate integrators responsible for the harm they are causing.”

“Integrators” are vertically integrated animal agriculture companies that typically control all aspects of animal rearing from birth through contracts for sale of the final product. For example, in the poultry industry, integrators supply a contract grower with chicks and feed and later pick up the birds for slaughter. All that a grower owns is the waste — meaning family farmers are legally responsible for waste management, environmental impacts, and other harms, while the corporation makes off with the profits. Tyler Whitley, Program Manager for RAFI-USA’s Contract Agriculture Reform Program put it this way: “Essentially, everything that will create value and profit, the company will own; everything that creates debt and liability, the farmer will own.”

Booker’s bill would hold corporate integrators responsible for the pollution and public health harms associated with the type of farming they force on growers.

This past year, we recognized Public Justice board member Mona Lisa Wallace for her work to use the law for exactly this purpose. Wallace represents families living next to Smithfield’s hog farms in North Carolina — and has fought alongside those communities through five lengthy trials, as well as the company’s many efforts to quiet them by attempting to pass bills to block the suits, funding a proxy “grassroots” group against them, and threatening and intimidating clients. Rather than requiring intensive and drawn-out legal processes to seek justice, the Farm System Reform Act would hold integrators responsible for the pollution and public health crisis they are causing.

What you can do

If you’re as excited as we are to see a comprehensive bill that lays out the steps to a better food system, make your voice heard!

Tell your legislators that you want a better food system, and ask them to co-sponsor the Farm System Reform Act.

Want to do more? Become a Food Project Member to join in the fight for a better food system.

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We’re the only legal project in the U.S. focused solely on dismantling industrial animal ag— particularly, the structures that enable the consolidation of corporate power and extractive systems — and supporting a regenerative, humane food system owned by independent farmers.

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