Last month may have been the most active--and worst--month for food freedom in recent American history. The month took off with Pres. Obama signing a subsidy-heavy Farm Bill into law, reached cruising altitude with rumblings of a nationwide lawsuit against food producers, and touched back down with a series of proposals--including a plan to expand the USDA's lousy school lunch program and a costly and misguided FDA proposal to change America's food labels.
Who's fighting back against this awfulness? Keep Food Legal, that's who. We've been a vocal (and quotable) opponent of this slew of regulatory challenges facing consumers and producers alike.
For example, Keep Food Legal executive director Baylen Linnekin has been quoted over the past week in two Politico stories on the proposed new regulations.
Asked to comment for a Politico piece that rightly paints the food industry as "under siege," thanks to the slew of new regulations proposed by the Obama administration, Linnekin urged the president to rein in his food-agency heads.
"'I wish the administration would take a step back,' said Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal, a food freedom advocacy group, and a professor at American University. 'I would imagine [the food industry] has the same whiplash as someone like me or you who has just been trying to keep up with these changes.'"
In another Politico story, Linnekin spoke out against proposed changes to the FDA's labeling scheme for packaged foods.
"Baylen Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal and a professor at American University, said he thinks the new labeling overhaul is misguided and will likely provide little or no benefit.
"'This is a case of pointy-headed academics thinking that their labeling changes are going to have an impact in the real world,' said Linnekin. 'While additions to the labels might make FDA and advocates happy, it’s likely the case that consumer behavior won’t change.'"
Linnekin also used his regular monthly appearance on Dennis Miller's popular syndicated radio show last week to speak out against the USDA and FDA actions in particular. Linnekin told Miller the proposed FDA labels were "likely to have little to no impact on consumers, just like the existing labels."
And in his most recent weekly Reason column, Linnekin describes how--when viewed as a whole--these and other recently proposed food regulations appear to be part of a pervasive new campaign against food freedom.
"February 2014 may go down as the worst month for food freedom since the New Deal era," writes Linnekin.
We will continue to fight to turn the tide in favor of food freedom. But we've got powerful foes in powerful places. Won't you please help support our work by donating today?
A recent Agence France-Presse report on possible FDA intervention into natural food labeling quotes Keep Food Legal and highlights our stance on the issue. Simply put, we believe consumer demand can and does yield better results than might FDA regulation.
Here's the N.Y. Daily News quoting us:
Baylen Linnekin, executive director of the non-profit group Keep Food Legal, said more regulation is not the answer.
"The idea that the FDA needs to define every word that has ever been used to refer to food is ludicrous," said Linnekin.
What happens when a consumer feels a company has deceived them? That's a question for the courts, says Linnekin, and it's none of the FDA's business.
"The occasional lawsuit helps keep companies honest and that has always been the case."
On the other side of the issue sits the Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose chief litigator Stephen Gardner wants the FDA to step in because--among other reasons--he says "[t]here are just too damn many 'natural' lawsuits."
In one sense, he's right. There have been a slew of natural-labeling lawsuits. CSPI itself has filed some of those, and threatened to file others. But the upside of these lawsuits is that courts have been reluctant to embrace them for lack of proof, because the labeling in question didn't hurt anyone, or--quite germanely--because the term "natural" is so vague to begin with.
After a debate with Gardner over the same issue on Southern California's largest public radio station late last year, Linnekin pointed out several inconsistencies in the positions of Gardner and CSPI head Michael Jacobson. Our point in doing so is not to highlight the mixed message that CSPI put out in this instance but, rather, to highlight the fact that if two key advocates of greater FDA involvement in "all natural" food labeling who work in the same organization can't agree on a definition of "all natural" or on whether or not a particular food is "all natural," then how can CSPI reasonably expect a massive and notoriously confounded federal agency to come up with a definition that makes the agency--or CSPI or consumers--the least bit happy?
Who should decide what the term "all natural" means in the context of food?
Last week Keep Food Legal executive director Baylen Linnekin appeared on AirTalk with Larry Mantle on KPCC Radio, Southern California's NPR affiliate, to discuss that controversial question. Appearing alongside Linnekin was Stephen Gardner, head of litigation for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group that often supports increased food regulations.
In recent years, class action lawyers and groups like CSPI have sued food companies over all natural claims. There's also been a renewed push of late by CSPI and others to force the FDA to define the term "all natural" once and for all.
But that would be a grave mistake, Linnekin told AirTalk host Mantle and his listeners.
The failures of the USDA organic program should stand as a warning to those who believe the federal government can apply some sort of one-size-fits-all definition to "all natural" foods, Linnekin told AirTalk listeners.
Even those who support mandatory labeling can't seem to agree how to define the term, or whether a particular use of the term is or isn't acceptable.
During the AirTalk segment, for example, CSPI's Gardner defined "all natural" as "something you could make in your own kitchen." Is he right? Maybe so. But he may first want to speak with his boss.
In 2010, CSPI head Michael Jacobson wrote that a product that contains chicken, salt, and water--something one can make quite easily in their kitchen--is not all natural.
"[W]hen you combine the three what you get is chicken that is anything but 'all natural,'" Jacobson claimed. Why? Because CSPI detests 100% natural salt, which Jacobson referred to as "probably the single most harmful ingredient in the food supply."
Unlike the FDA, the USDA has defined the term "all natural." Does CSPI support the USDA's definition? That also apparently depends who you ask.
Gardner said during last week's AirTalk segment that he supports the USDA definition of "all natural," stating that the agency "has defined it, and has defined it in a way that I think adequately summarizes how consumers view 'natural.'"
Yet Gardner's boss, CSPI head Jacobson, wrote in the same 2010 posting on the unnaturalness of chicken, salt, and water that "unscrupulous poultry producers, with the regrettable acquiescence of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have drained the meaning from those words"--referring to the term "all natural."
So it turns out it's not so easy to define "all natural."
Linnekin used the example of soy milk, one food that's often touted as "all natural" but that might not fit a definition of "all natural" should the FDA force one on consumers and food producers, to drive home that point to AirTalk listeners.
"You can't really milk a soybean," Linnekin noted. "Is that natural?"
What do we suggest as an alternative to one single FDA definition of the term "all natural"? Instead of an FDA standard that could take a decade to develop and would likely be little more than a wink and a nod to special interests, Keep Food Legal urges the FDA to “[o]pen up all food labels to any and all statements that aren't demonstrably false.”
We're not the only ones who think the FDA should stay out of the "all natural" game. Prof. James McWilliams pointed out a few more problems with a potential FDA definition of the term "all natural" in a recent column at Forbes.
A San Francisco city council proposal to enact a two-cent-per-ounce tax on all soda sales in the city would raise the price of a six-pack of soda by $1.20 if adopted. Not surprisngly, the tax hike has been met with stiff resistance from many, including San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders, who sought Keep Food Legal's opinion on the issue for a recent column blasting the proposal:
Who pays for this tax? Soda drinkers, of course.
Large businesses and tony restaurants won't feel much of an impact from a soda tax, said Baylen Linnekin of the antiregulation group Keep Food Legal. It's the "the small business, entrepreneurs, the taco trucks" that will pay. Linnekin believes that higher soda taxes will push sugar-lovers to buy other sweets, also high in calories.
In addition to her column, Saunders had some very kind words for Keep Food Legal in a recent Chronicle blog post, too.
Keep Food Legal, San Francisco
While working on my Sunday column on Supervisor Scott Wiener’s proposed sugary beverage tax, I chatted with Baylen J. Linnekin, executive director of Keep Food Legal.
In California, [attacks on food freedom include] the foie-gras ban, San Francisco’s Happy Meal ban, and other nanny state laws from politicians who think they know what’s best for you.
BTW, KFL is also big on promoting food trucks, and hell bent on ending federal agriculture subsidies that distort American eating habits. For example, Linnekin suggests that if S.F. pols want to decrease sugar consumption, they should pressure Washington to end ethanol subsidies and sugar price supports.
If you’re interested in KFL’s thinking, you may want to read this piece about California’s crackdown on food. I like the group’s emphasis about getting big government out of the kitchen and the stomach.
We're grateful to Saunders for the kind words. And we'll keep you posted on the status of San Francisco's proposed tax.
Keep Food Legal is making waves on a variety of national law and policy issues--including FDA regulation of caffeine and the ongoing debate over the costly Farm Bill.
Just a few days ago we were quoted in a good San Antonio Express-News article speaking out against a potential FDA caffeine crackdown--a shopworn game plan we've criticized before--and in favor of your right to eat and drink what you want.
While the article quoted senior FDA official Michael Taylor and regulatory advocate Marion Nestle in support of a crackdown, here's a bit of what we had to say:
"This is just the FDA overstepping its authority again and sticking its nose where it doesn't belong," Keep Food Legal executive director Baylen Linnekin.
"Certainly, excessive consumption of anything is a problem, and I'm not advocating for chewing caffeinated gum or drinking energy drinks or drinking soda," said Linnekin. "I'm simply advocating for the rights of adults to make those choices and make those choices, if they want to, for their children. I don't think it's appropriate for caffeinated products to be moved behind glass at the convenience store.”
And late last month, we joined with nearly 20 national conservative and libertarian groups in signing on to a letter urging House GOP members not to pass a bloated new Farm Bill.
While Keep Food Legal is non-partisan and welcomes members and supporters of all ideologies, we found it easy to agree with our fellow signatories that the proposed GOP House bill is "substantially worse on policy grounds than the legislation produced by the Democrat-controlled Senate."
House leadership didn't listen--passing the bill despite every Democrat in the House voting against the bill--but the widely panned House version of the Farm Bill now has little chance of becoming law thanks in part to our efforts.
If you support our tireless advocacy and status as the leading voice for food freedom in America, please consider donating to Keep Food Legal today.
Keep Food Legal executive director Baylen Linnekin took to print, radio, and TV this week to applaud Monday's decision by a New York State judge to overturn New York City's arbitrary ban of certain subjectively large sizes of sweetened drinks like soda. The ban was to take effect this week, but Judge Milton Tingling's welcome decision means the the city will move forward without any such ban.
Watch video of Linnekin above, appearing on Fox Business Channel's Markets Now show with host Dagen McDowell. Linnekin also appeared as a featured guest this week on the nationally syndicated Dennis Miller Show, Curtis Sliwa Show, Andrea Tantaros Show (audio starts at about 19:30), and on America's Radio News Network and Voice of Russia.
As Linnekin noted in each appearance, Keep Food Legal applauds Judge Tingling for rightly acknowledging the ban was a wrongheaded and arbitrary and capricious prohibition passed by an unelected health board whose members were each appointed personally by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The judge's decision is a great victory for consumers and consumer rights and for small and large businesses alike. It's also a stinging loss for a segment of the well-funded, powerful public-health apparatus in this country that seeks to limit food freedom.
Linnekin was also one of five legal experts asked this week by the National Review to comment on Judge Tingling's decision.
“The key thing is that this was an arbitrary and capricious action by the health department, and the court recognized that," Linnekin told NRO's The Corner. "It’s a victory. In general, I’d like to see the court being more vocal in defending people’s rights to make their own choices, but this is definitely a good first step."
Linnekin also spoke with Law360, the popular legal news service, and was quoted at length.
“'Rather than advancing public health policies, this [soda ban] is making people skeptical of public health policies,' said attorney Baylen J. Linnekin of the group Keep Food Legal, which advocates for freedom of food choice and opposes the Bloomberg policy."
While Mayor Bloomberg has already indicated the city plans to appeal the judge's ruling, Linnekin expressed cautious optimism at the prospects of the plaintiffs winning on appeal.
“As confident as the city is, the plaintiffs in this case should be very confident as well,” Linnekin told Law360. “They have victory on their side already.”
Read the comments Keep Food Legal submitted in July in opposition to the city's proposed soda ban, details about Keep Food Legal's oral testimony before the city's health department, and much more about our advocacy work on this issue here.
Keep Food Legal executive director Baylen Linnekin has appeared recently in a variety of media outlets to share our stance on many of the more controversial food issues today.
For example, Linnekin appeared on BBC Radio (audio starts at about 28:30) this week to discuss the state of the U.S. food safety system in the face of an ongoing scandal involving the misbranding of meat--in this case horsemeat being sold as ground beef--across the European Union. And earlier this month, a column by Linnekin critical of the FDA's newly proposed food safety rules appeared at Food Safety News, a leading food safety website. The column's fact-based criticism of the FDA's costly but ineffective proposals so riled many regulatory cheerleaders that it led Food Safety News to print a response by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI)--a multi-million-dollar interest group that advocates for dramatic increases in food regulations at all levels of government.
Because new soda taxes and bans seemingly are proposed on a weekly basis, Linnekin also appeared on News/Talk 760 WJR (audio runs about 10-1/2 minutes) in Detroit to present our arguments against a petition to the FDA by CSPI urging the agency to place a hard cap on the amount of sweetener that can appear in beverages. He also appeared on WVMT NewsTalk 620 in Vermont to discuss Keep Food Legal's opposition to a potential soda tax in the state. (See more on that story--including our written testimony before the Vermont legislature--in the blog post at left.)
Other media appearances have focused on a variety of issues--including everything from the popular Dodge "God Made a Farmer" Super Bowl commercial (which Linnekin discussed in his weekly Reason column) and an appearance on New York University's WNYU radio to discuss the unintended consequences of farm subsidies.
Stay tuned--quite literally--for more from Keep Food Legal! And make sure to follow us on Twitter, where we always announce our scheduled media appearances before they happen.