There's no question that the American food system is constantly changing for the better, with recent moves to improve animal welfare, reduce consumption of sugary beverages, and label GMOs. But while these policies should certainly be applauded, our methods for affecting change deserve a closer look.
The European Union boasts bans on neonicotinoids and battery cages, not to mention strict rules governing GMOs. These regulations (and more) are all the results of government legislation. In America, however, while governance over the food system doesexist, it's achieved in a completely different way.
Two Distinct Ways of Changing the Food System
The European Union's default policy, especially when it comes to food, is to legislate.
“We have a more reactive approach in this country,” explains Leah Garcés, President at Mercy for Animals. “The EU has more of a precautionary approach, where if there is any doubt, they protect the citizens’ interest first.”
In the U.S., meanwhile, change usually comes from the marketplace rather than the Senate floor.
“We have been more successful, in the U.S., in convincing companies to change their processes than we have in passing legislation,” explains Margo Wootan, Vice President for Nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
This isn’t to say that legislation can't be passed in the U.S., but rather that a two-pronged approach tends to produce superior results: instead of passing an overarching law that drives the quality of food up, a combination of national, state, and local legislation compounded with individual company policies has provided Americans with improved food quality.
The necessity to fight the battle for a better food system on all fronts is, in large part, due to the fact that in the U.S., “the industry is in the driver’s seat,” explains Wootan.
“Corporations and their owners have gotten intimately involved in electing people who are sensitive to their needs,” says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute.
Lobbying spending is much higher in the U.S. than in Europe. In 2016, Garcés notes, $31 million was spent on food and beverage lobbying in the U.S. In 2017, the National Restaurant Association spent $1.4 million on lobbying, whereas a similar EU organization, the Branded Food and Beverage Service Chains Association, spent around $50,000 (35,000 Euros).
“As a result, corporate interests in the United States can have a greater influence on where to draw the line regarding food safety and quality of food,” explains Garcés. “The line is drawn by a person, and who and what influences the person matters.”
“Regulatory agencies like the USDA and FDA tend to be highly skewed towards favorable decisions on behalf of corporate agribusiness,” explains Kastel. “Whereas in Europe, these fights are much harder for businesses to win.”
The Case of Cage-Free Eggs
This huge discrepancy in the way in which each region manages its food system can be illustrated in a variety of ways, but one recent distinction can be found in their cage-free egg policies. While battery cages have effectively been eradicated in both regions, the journey there was very different.
Beginning in the 1970s, in northern Europe (where, in his "EU Ban on Battery Cages: History and Prospects," Michael C. Appleby notes it is "well recognized" that concern for animal welfare is stronger than in the south) individual governments had begun funding work to develop more humane alternatives to battery cages. In 1999, the European Parliament, under influence from Germany and the UK, passed a directive to ban barren battery cages by 2012, requiring 550 square centimeters per hen by 2003 and 750 square centimeters by 2012.
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In the U.S., meanwhile, the transition away from battery cages took place 15 years later – in a completely different context. While USDA organic has always meant cage-free, conventional eggs took that route beginning in 2015 when, following a slew of consumer demands, McDonald’s decided to phase out eggs from battery-raised hens, committing to selling exclusively cage-free eggs by 2015. This led to a frenzy of similar commitments from other retailers like Walmart and Costco and restaurant chains like Denny’s. Soon, battery cage-raised eggs had all but been eradicated – with very little legislation.
“The consumers have raised their voice, and now the major companies have said, OK, this type of cruel treatment is enough,” noted Josh Balk, senior food policy director of farm animal protection for the Humane Society, at the time.
Neither policy is perfect – and people are still fighting to improve both the enriched cage system in Europe and the crowded barns in the U.S. But each region improved the conditions of the hens using the tools at its disposal.
Changing the Food System, One Purchase at a Time
The structures of the United States and Europe are not wholly dissimilar, something that the United States can use to its advantage when it comes to legislation within the food system.
"The United States," writes Appleby, "is a single country, but as a union of semi-autonomous states, it has much in common with the EU. Individual European countries were successful acting alone, and these actions finally led to communal action. Similarly, single American states could take the lead, and persuade others to follow, on hen housing as on hog factories."
Thus far, two states – Massachusetts and California – have enacted laws requiring that all eggs sold in-state be produced without the use of cages (legislation that has led 13 states to file lawsuits challenging them). And the cage-free egg fight is not the only one where individual states can make a difference.
In 2016, Vermont introduced GMO labeling legislation that led many companies, including The Campbell Soup Company, to go back on their previous GMO labeling policies and indicate GMOs in their products. While this legislation never went into effect, it brought about change, including the establishment of a national standard for the labeling of GMOs.
The American law is not likely to be nearly as strict as the GMO legislation in the EU, widely seen to be some of the strictest GMO governance across the globe, but it's certainly a start, especially given the "tidal wave of money" Kastel notes that lobbyists and food manufacturers threw at the problem in an attempt to stop the legislation from passing.
But American consumers also have another weapon in our arsenal: our dollars. Even as we await the implementation of this law, American consumers can still opt out of GMOs by choosing the Non-GMO Project or USDA organic labels or using resources like the Cornucopia Institute's scorecards to make informed decisions.
"These are voluntary programs that really can't be banned," says Kastel. "They haven't figured out how to crush us on that."
Combining both legislation and consumer choice is the ideal way to motivate change in the American marketplace.
“Consumers have the power to change the practices of companies through Tweets and emails and by reaching out to their member of Congress or by voting with their food dollars," explains Wootan.
And the more voices, the better.
"If one person Tweets at a company, that's probably not enough," she says. "But if we can organize thousands of people to Tweet at the company, we can probably make some big changes.”
Legislation to regulate the American food system for the better may be an uphill battle, but an individual's ability to affect change is very powerful tool to lead us to success.
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