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Judy Montero

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Safer Food Comes From a Fair System: Why Denver Citizens Should Care About USDA/DOJ hearings in Ft. Collins This Week

Posted: 08/24/10 01:27 PM ET

As a City Councilperson I am often reflecting on the health of the communities in my district. Lately I find myself struggling mostly just to help citizens meet their basic needs - fostering safe neighborhoods, planning for and funding basic infrastructure, and making safe, healthy foods more accessible. This last point is of particular interest to me this week as we witness two historic events.

First is one of the biggest egg recalls in American history, leaving thousands sick across the country. Second, on Friday, we welcome U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Antitrust Division Christine Varney to Colorado to listen to the concerns of the ranchers, farmers and other industry stakeholders about the lack of competition in the livestock industry. These two events are more interrelated than you might think. The egg recall is an example of why the consolidation of our food supply puts consumers at risk and why I am such a proponent of local, sustainable food producers.

The imbalance of power held by huge corporate food conglomerates can lead to unfair practices that can put farmers and ranchers, workers, and consumers at a disadvantage. This is what independent ranchers, sustainable food advocates, labor leaders and concerned citizens will be telling the USDA and DOJ this week. Government action, like new regulations to clarify and strengthen protections provided in the Packers and Stockyards Act, is long overdue. The USDA has a responsibility to clarify and enforce rules that protect us from unfair practices that benefit a handful of multinational companies at the expense of American small business and jobs. Since 1980 over half a million ranching operations have been eliminated from the U.S. - a 41% decline.

It is sad to me that smaller, local food producing operations like FeedDenver and GrowHaus struggle so hard to find subsidies. Yet we fund industrial producers that hide behind layers of bureaucracy in order to keep you in the dark about the food they want you to buy and consume. Both FeedDenver and GrowHaus have made it part of their mission to offer educational programming that teaches the community about how they produce their food.

Throughout my career in Colorado, I've been around the state and have been invited to visit with farmers and ranchers who are proud to show off how they produce our food. But these aren't the food producers who get big tax breaks and subsidies. Instead, our tax dollars go toward financing conglomerate operations that result in problems like a recall of over half a billion eggs.

Protecting small and midsized independent ranching and meatpacking operations keeps our food system geographically dispersed, which is critical for food safety and security. It's also more environmentally sound and consumers are increasingly looking to eat as local as possible. Scares like the current egg recall are creating a rush to local food providers. Sadly, not everyone feels they can afford to shop at farmer's markets. Food from subsidized industrial food operations appears to cost less in the grocery store. But, it is a deceptive way to consider the cost of food because those prices don't reflect how much we pay in taxes to corporate food operations.

Further, we don't even reap the full savings we should from using our tax dollars to subsidize corporate food. For example, the beef packing industry has also expanded beyond slaughter and processing and now large packers own their own cattle and operate feedlots, controlling supply through all stages of production. In the U.S. only four firms slaughter more than four out of every five beef cattle. This allows meatpackers to drive down cattle prices while keeping consumer beef prices high. Over the past decade, real consumer prices for ground beef have increased by 24%. Over the same period, prices for beef cattle rose by 8.5%, only a third as fast as retail prices increased.

The 2008 Farm Bill required that the USDA spell out how the protections contained in the Packers and Stockyards Act apply and are to be enforced. It's 2010 - two years later - and we need the USDA to act now to ensure that producers and growers receive fair, equitable, and nondiscriminatory treatment in marketing and contracting arrangements involving livestock. In June 2010, USDA released a proposed rule to help reduce unfairness in the cattle markets caused by consolidated meatpacker power, but many feel it doesn't go nearly far enough.

In an effort to encourage the USDA to do more, a group of Denver's local food producers is heading up to Fort Collins, Colorado on Friday to attend one of five joint workshops being held by the USDA and Department of Justice to "to explore competition issues affecting the agricultural sector in the 21st century and the appropriate role for antitrust and regulatory enforcement in that industry."

I will continue to support efforts in Denver to help the communities I represent have access to safe, healthy local foods and am encouraged that the USDA and Department of Justice are looking into how to address these important issues. I hope that these workshops result in real reform to support our local rural and urban farmers, ranchers and their staff.