COOL – “What you don’t know can hurt you.”

A 2007 video on Country of Origin Labeling is relevant today – “In this case, what you don’t know can hurt you.”

  • The U.S. Congress repealed country of origin labeling (COOL) for beef and pork in late 2015, just ahead of Ag Secretary Vilsack opening the border for Brazilian fresh beef imports in August of 2016.
  • Why was COOL repealed for only beef and pork? The Brazilian company, JBS, the world’s biggest meat packer and criminal actor, is advantaged if Americans don’t know that what they’re eating is the cheapest source of beef in the world. The Chinese company, Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the world, also benefits if consumers don’t know.
  • After successfully repealing COOL, a law that 95% of Americans supported, House Majority Speaker, John Boehner, left Congress to join the JBS board of directors. The price U.S. ranchers received for calves was cut in half.
  • Why did Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) Administrator, Al Almanza, allow rotten meat from Brazil into our country for 90 days after it was made public? Following the rotten meat news in Brazil, cattle producers there were offered twenty to thirty percent of the former value for their cattle. Who is really paying JBS’s $3.1 billion fine for corruption?
  • Upon resigning as head of our nation’s food safety agency, Almanza went to work for JBS.
  • Shortly after Almanza joined JBS, a rat infestation forced the temporary shutdown of the JBS Souderton, Pennsylvania beef plant. Why wasn’t the plant officially suspended by FSIS, instead of the far more lenient temporary shutdown?
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St. Paul’s quote, “The husbandman that laboreth must be the first partaker of the fruits,” is cut in stone above the main entrance to the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington DC. Only one person I have talked to over the years in the USDA has known about the quote or where it was located on the building. Yesterday, my friend Greg Gunthorp and I met that person. She was a young security officer at the main entrance. She said the quote was right outside above the entrance, but she didn’t know what it meant. “What is a Husbandman,” she asked?

Greg and I informed her that a Husbandman was a farmer, and the fruits are what the farmer provides to us in the way of food, care of our animals, and stewardship of our land. We explained that today, the farmer and rancher were not being paid their cost of production, let alone being the first partaker of the fruit, like St. Paul said should happen. We explained that people who build houses, auto mechanics, and others who labor, are protected by laws that give them a first lien on the fruits of their labor, but farmers no longer have such protection and are being forced out of business by big corporations that are running our government. These corporations have repealed, rewritten and redefined our laws so they can cheat the farmer. We explained that more and more we are depending on foreign food from global food companies instead of food from our own farmers.

The young security officer was moved nearly to tears, and had to take a moment. Perhaps she was thinking about farmers and their families, or where she would get food in the future. Maybe she will wonder how different our country could be if farmers were paid a living income.

Hopefully, she will direct the many people who pass through her entrance, and a few of the over 100,000 people who work for us at USDA, what once was known as “The People’s Department”, to read and reflect on St. Paul’s message.

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Big Hunger

January 25, 2018

Recently I attended, “Rooting out Hunger: Strategies and Perspectives in the Anti-Hunger Movement“, held at Colorado College and featuring Andy Fisher, author of the new book Big Hunger.

Mr. Fisher seemed to present an open-and-shut case. Chronic hunger is a direct result of poverty, and poverty is the result of concentrated power and wealth. Companies like Walmart use unchecked monopoly power to drive down wages, while their employees, as a group, are the largest recipients of SNAP and other government welfare dollars. Mr. Fisher also described what he called a “hunger-industrial complex,” made up of numerous companies and organizations who are thouroughly invested in maintaining rather than eliminating hunger, as doing so is good for business.

His presentation was logical and persuasive. So, what was the community response?

Following his presentation, Mr. Fisher joined a panel of people representing local non-profit charitable organizations, and one for-profit reseller of food waste (Food Maven). Their discussion seemed to me a lost opportunity to look hard at some tough and critical issues.

One of our city leaders asked the obvious question, “What do we do about hunger?” The obvious answer — “stop feeding the root problem” — didn’t come. No one pointed out that the city of Colorado Springs seems to advantage Wall Street-based businesses over locally owned enterprises. No one asked why the city will build new intersections with stop lights, arrows and double turn lanes into Walmart stores, big box shopping centers, national chain fast food joints and gas stations. Or why so much of our population eats at restaurants that send local dollars out of town everyday on the Sysco truck. Or pointed out how ridiculous is it to hold fundraisers for Care and Share, the regional food bank, at the Broadmoor, which is not only the most expensive venue in town but also a major point of wealth extraction (it has not been locally owned for many years and buys very little locally.) Why is Venetucci Farm, the last working farm within 50 miles of Colorado Springs, being allowed to fail, despite the fact that it was gifted by Bambi Venetucci to the Pikes Peak Community Foundation, no doubt hoping it would remain an asset to the community?

Until we address the root problems that cause lack of opportunity for workers and business owners and a lack of self-reliance for our community, hunger will continue to be one of the few growth industries in our region and around the country.

Mike Callicrate
Ranch Foods Direct
Peak to Plains Food Distribution – “Building community around local food!”

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Shedding Light on Fast Food’s Dark Side

February 1, 2018

All American Meal Even Less American Now

It’s been nearly twenty years since Rolling Stone magazine serialized Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser’s story about how franchise food chains and their fake food were taking over Colorado Springs. From appearances, not much has changed: there is more fast food here than ever; farmers, ranchers and food workers are worse off; animal cruelty and valuable soil loss continues.

A stunning number of once private brands, like Colorado’s Coleman Natural Beef, Maverick, and Niman, have either failed or are now owned by big food companies, which are simply slapping these iconic names on the same old production practices. More large chain grocery stores are closing, due to predatory competition from Walmart. Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market promises more consolidation and centralization, offering even less market access for producers and fewer choices for consumers.

Forty years ago, it was inconceivable to most that small farmers, ranchers, and other independent food producers would vanish, but that’s what has been happening in every sector of agriculture and our food system. Despite Schlosser’s warnings, not only has our food system continued to deteriorate, but our nation’s food security is increasingly at stake.

As corporate controlled industrial farming and food production takes over, a small but committed community struggles to support the values of a local food system. What is fresher, healthier, better for people, animals, and the environment is becoming more expensive and increasingly harder to find.

It’s not just happening at fast food joints. Restaurants, food retailers, purveyors, and institutions of all sizes are getting away with slick and misleading marketing, claiming to provide local products when they don’t. Few people know enough to question what they see and hear. There’s a need to verify that what’s on the menu or on the shelf really is “local,” rather than an imposter. For example, JBS, the criminal Brazilian meatpacker, wraps its product in the local-sounding name, “Aspen Ridge.”

Powerful global food companies, from slaughter to food service to retail, are positioned between the world’s farmers and ranchers, and the consumers. They continue to pay less and charge more, leaving bankrupted farms, worn out soils, and dead rural communities behind. Individuals and independent small businesses are no match for the monopoly forces consolidating food and agriculture. A recent report shows farmer suicides at nearly five times the national average, and twice the number of our returning war veterans.

It’s no wonder that the average age of a farmer is approaching 60. It’s no wonder why young people cannot make a living income from farming. Since 1980, we’ve lost nearly half our nation’s ranchers, over 90 percent of our pig farmers, and over 85 percent of our dairy farmers, with the numbers continuing to worsen. Rural poverty rates are currently 30 percent higher than urban, with a 55 percent drop in net farm income since 2013. We’re now a net importer of food on a value basis and fully dependent on big corporations and their foreign food.

In the Colorado Springs community, a 25% shift to local food would increase local income by $100 million per year, and tax collection by $25 million per year, on top of reducing social costs. Industrially produced, highly processed food is making us sick. Our youngest are less healthy than previous generations. Additionally, the threat of antibiotic resistance is real and serious due to the overuse of drugs in industrial livestock production.

In today’s food economy, captured government agencies, like USDA and FDA, work for the global food monopolies and against local food. Anti-monopoly antitrust laws, designed to control market predators, are ignored. It’s up to consumers to support local through conscientious spending and by advocating for better local food policies.

Remember that every dollar spent on food is a vote for the kind of food system you want. When you shop or eat out, ask where the food comes from, don’t be fooled. Hold the restaurant or retailer accountable. Consider calling the farmer to express your appreciation.

Eric Schlosser sounded the alarm; it’s well past time we listen.

Mike Callicrate
Ranch Foods Direct
Peak to Plains Food Distribution – “Building community around local food!”

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Why would the San Bernardino County Employees Retirement Association trust their life savings with these crooks?

Farm and Food File: Fifth Avenue cowboys

by Alan Guebert

Maybe it’s a sign of our fast-changing times, but paradox and irony seem as common today as lunch and supper. For example, the world’s largest taxi company, Uber, owns no taxis and the world’s second largest air force is the U.S. Navy.

The same is true of the American beef sector. As of mid-January, the owner of the world’s largest cattle feedlot operation—a 980,000-head behemoth with 11 feedyards from Texas to Idaho—isn’t a rancher, a feedlot operator or even a meatpacker.

Instead, it’s Pinnacle Asset Management, L.P., “a private… alternative asset management firm,” based at 712 Fifth Ave. in New York, just catty-corner from Trump Tower and only three blocks south of Central Park. It became the nation’s largest cattle feeder Jan. 18 when it purchased JBS USA’s massive operation, known as Five Rivers Cattle Feeding, for “approximately $200 million.”

JBS USA is the American arm of Brazilian meatpacker JBS S.A., a global meat company whose majority owners, Wesley and Joesely Batista, are eyeball-deep in scandals in their home country. (JBS also owns the majority of Pilgrim’s Pride, North America’s largest poultry company.)

As previously reported here, the scandals gained traction last summer. Last fall, JBS S.A. announced a “divestment program” to finance a $3.2 billion fine levied against the brothers for an alleged bribery scheme in Brazil. Shortly thereafter, JBS sold the Canadian branch of Five Rivers, a 75,000-head feeding operation, for US$40 million. The most recent Five Rivers sale to Pinnacle marks JBS’s exit from all North American cattle feeding.

In fact, the JBS-Pinnacle deal marks the first time in decades that no major U.S. meatpacker—including today’s three major players: JBS, Cargill, and Tyson—own any cattle, a one-time hallmark of the old boys’ meatpacking club.

That’s a big deal because for decades cowboys and feedlot owners not “aligned”—or under some form of contract with a packer—complained bitterly to federal authorities that packer-controlled cattle allowed Big Meat to manipulate cash cattle prices. Those complaints led to successful efforts in Congress to require federal Mandatory Price Reporting by meatpackers and to unsuccessful cattlemen efforts in federal court to sue packers for collusion and price manipulation.

The current wave of divestitures, however, won’t prevent packers from having access to cattle in their once-owned feedlots. As part of their $200-million deal with Pinnacle, JBS noted that Pinnacle “will continue delivering fed cattle to JBS USA packing plants.”

So JBS USA, like Uber, and Cargill and Tyson, too, for that matter, has figured out it doesn’t need inventory in order to sell inventory. It only needs unlimited, no-compete access to inventory.

But it’s even more paradoxical than that. In its purchase announcement, Pinnacle explained that it was “excited to work closely with our operating partner, Arcadia Asset Management, and our strategic partner, Ospraie Management, to support… Five Rivers’ talented management team.”

So three new firms are now the functional equivalent of the former one and none have explained what their exact roles in America’s biggest cattle feeding company will be other than to supply cattle to its former owner.

In a presentation “prepared exclusively for San Bernardino County Employees Retirement Association” last Aug. 8, Pinnacle described itself as an “alternative asset management firm with a singular focus on global commodities market.” Its “AUM,” or assets under management, it explained, “is $2.4 billion, with a global investor base that includes public and corporate pension funds, insurance companies, endowments, foundations, and family offices.”

Does even one of Pinnacle’s “global investor base” know that their asset manager just bet $200 million on a business where, according to Iowa State University data, cattle feeders lost an average $51.57 per head per year from 2008 through 2017?

Now that’s a paradox. Despite the irrefutable, long-term unprofitability of cattle feeding, cattle continue to be fed and packers continue to make money. In fact, there seems to be so much money in cattle feeding now that even Fifth Avenue cowboys are getting in the game. How are they doing it?

Facts can’t explain it and it’s almost certain the federal government won’t question it. So it’s a rather safe bet something other than an actual paradox is at work here.

An even safer bet is that you and I are going to pay for it.

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