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November 19, 2013

A Royal Pain

The relentless efforts of Rep. Steve King, R-IA, to incorporate a grossly overreaching amendment to the Farm Bill arrived at a significant juncture yesterday when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack added his voice to the growing chorus of opponents. Calling it “troublesome,” Vilsack said that the King amendment “would create legal challenges and confusion in the market place.” With the Farm Bill having hundreds of agriculture policy components, Vilsack said, “It’s one that we have a lot of concerns about.”

In a story today, Mary Clare Jalonick of the Associated Press said that Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow has “great concern” about the amendment, which The HSUS believes could affect as many as 200 state laws relating to animal welfare, food safety, environmental protection, worker safety and other issues.

Yesterday, the Iowa Farmers Union – one of the major agriculture groups in King’s home state of Iowa – also announced its opposition to the amendment. The IFU joins a growing throng of those who’ve publicly stated their opposition, including not only The HSUS, but also the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Association of County Executives, the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs’ Association.

Attorneys general in a number of major agricultural states have also weighed in. "Due to the provision's vagueness and overly broad language, it is unclear exactly what impact the King amendment could have on our state's ability to enforce its own laws and to protect Arkansas businesses and consumers," wrote Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. 

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In October, food safety groups, including the American Public Health Association, Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, National Consumers League, STOP Foodborne Illness and Trust for America’s Health, announced their opposition to the King amendment in a letter to Farm Bill conferees. “Rep. King’s amendment is overly broad and could undermine a state’s ability to protect its citizens from foodborne illness,” they wrote. “The amendment could result in the state with the weakest record for ensuring that food is produced safely setting standards for the citizens of the 49 other states. For example, California in 2003 banned contaminated oysters from the Gulf of Mexico unless they are processed to eliminate deadly bacteria. This law has resulted in clear benefits for California residents. Under the King amendment, Louisiana’s law that allows the sale of unprocessed oysters would supersede California’s law and restrict California from protecting its citizens.”

Indeed, King keeps low-balling the effect of his provision, saying his amendment will only affect “one or two” state laws – mainly California’s law to assure that eggs sold in California meet the state’s production standards. But few people not solidly in the King camp believe his interpretation; King has made a habit of espousing radical beliefs on a wide range of issues, including animal welfare and food safety.

The reality is, if just a single state, as the food safety groups above noted, wanted to sell an unsafe or inhumanely produced agricultural good, then every state would be at that one state’s mercy. It’s like the old language in the federal animal fighting law before it was fortified. When a few states still allowed legal animal fighting, cockfighters could ship fighting birds across state lines from places where cockfighting was banned to those legal destinations. It was a tail wagging the dog situation, until Congress amended the federal law to ban any interstate transport of fighting animals.

King claims he’s just protecting the Constitution, and states should not set up trade barriers. If King were correct, then the federal courts would strike down the state laws he claims are being used for protectionist purposes. But these state laws have been upheld time and again, as being within the historic police powers of the states.  That’s precisely why King is trying for a new federal pre-emption power grab, and seeking to override duly enacted state laws creating standards or conditions on agricultural practices.

With all of the arguments running in our direction, and so many groups opposed, the threat posed by the King amendment is still real, and the matter is unsettled. Today, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey lashed out at Vilsack for criticizing the King amendment. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas continues to support the amendment along with King, who is also on the Farm Bill conference committee. The American Farm Bureau Federation and other agribusiness groups are working hard in favor of the King amendment in hopes of wiping out the few state laws that restrict their reckless and irresponsible behavior.

This is no time to relent, and there is a lot at stake. Please be sure to contact your elected officials and urge them to oppose the King amendment. And let others know about this rash and cynical attempt to scuttle laws that all of us have worked hard to secure, laws that benefit and safeguard both human and animal welfare.

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