Category: law

What chicken cages have to do with pork

hen house

Photo by Flickr user robotika, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Frank Morris recently produced a great piece for NPR about opposition to California’s efforts to improve the living conditions of egg-laying chickens. As he describes,

most U.S. hens live crammed into very close quarters, according to Joe Maxwell, with the Humane Society of the U.S. And he says that’s just wrong.

“There are some things we should not do to animals,” says Maxwell.

California voters felt the same way, and six years ago they passed Proposition 2, requiring California producers to provide cages that are almost twice as large as most chickens have now. The Legislature followed that with a law requiring that all eggs sold in California be raised under those conditions.

Six farm-country states have joined a lawsuit against California over the issue, with support from other parts of the animal-ag business. As Morris details,

Don Nikodim with the Missouri Pork Association calls it “a clear violation of the U.S. Commerce Clause.”

Now, why would pig farmers care about henhouse restrictions?

Because when a huge state like California slaps restrictions on food it imports, farmers all over the country become alarmed. And Nikodim says this won’t likely stop with eggs.

“Logically, the next step is, we should extend our authority on how you produce pork to other states as well,” he says. “Then is it dairy, is it beef, is it corn — go down the list.”

Nikodim is worried that restrictions on cramped pig stalls, called gestation crates, may come next.

Check out the full piece here.

Breastfeeding in a restaurant? Shocking!

Photo by Flickr user Jared Klett, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Thanks to HuffPost, I recently read Tony Posnanski’s essay titled, “You Can Breastfeed in My Restaurant Anytime.” An assistant restaurant manager, he describes a recent Valentine’s Day dinner rush when a customer complained about bad service, bad drinks, and bad food, and then went one step further: He complained about a breastfeeding patron nearby, who had the audacity not to hide her feeding child under a blanket. As Posnanski describes,

let’s forget the fact that breastfeeding (or feeding a child for that matter) is important for the development of a child. Let’s forget the fact that Florida has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in America. Let’s forget the fact that it is a law that mothers can breastfeed their children in any public location in Florida without any ridicule, covered or not…

Do you think I would ask a mom to go to her car or somewhere away from her family because a man or woman is offended by a breast and nipple? A nipple and breast designed for feeding a child, not for pornography or the satisfaction of admiring them?

I would never make a scene about it nor would I ever allow anyone I work with to do so…. A mom has every right to feed her child anywhere public in Florida. Most people do not know that. Everyone should. It is a law. Moms should know that as well.

I was reminded of a similar story here in Madison that caused a bit of an uproar last summer when a well-meaning-but-in-the-wrong staff member at a just-opened restaurant didn’t respond in the quite the same way. As Jessica Vanegeren reported for The Capital Times,

A breastfeeding mother dining at a new pizzeria in one of Madison’s most progressive neighborhoods was asked to leave her table and move to an area free of customers [after another patron complained], setting off a backlash against the owners that continues to spread on social media….

According to 2009 Wisconsin Act 148, or the right to breast-feed law that took effect in March 2010:

“A mother may breast-feed her child in any public or private location where the mother and child are otherwise authorized to be. In such a location, no person may prohibit a mother from breast-feeding her child, direct a mother to move to a different location to breast-feed her child, direct a mother to cover her child or breast while breast-feeding, or otherwise restrict a mother from breast-feeding her child as provided in this section.”

In other words, the restaurant patron who is uncomfortable should be asked to move, not the mother and child.

The Madison incident is detailed in full here, the owners’ apology here, and photos of their “free pizza for moms and kids” peace offering here. (For the record, the Grampa’s Pizza is apparently well-worth a visit, despite the early law-breaking.)

Who pays for diners that dash?

GRAZE, Iowa City

Photo by Flickr user Alan Light, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

A couple months ago, Luke O’Neil penned a story for Slate about the practice of restaurants requiring servers to pick up the bill when one of their tables skips out on the check. As O’Neil details,

Many servers are forced to perform two jobs at once: delivering food and working as a severely undertrained and underpaid security force.

The dine-and-dash is often looked on as a harmless prank, without any serious consequences. Restaurants anticipate the occasional walkout as part of their business plan, right? They should, but instead they often pass the buck to employees—and when you learn that servers can be required to pay for the losses out of their own pockets, it doesn’t seem all that funny. The problem is that there aren’t strong protections against the practice in federal labor laws, and state laws prohibiting wage deductions for loss and theft are too often ignored by employers and unknown by workers….

[I]n many states, restaurants may legally dock wages from servers who’ve already been victimized by dine-and-dashers…. Even in states where the practice is technically illegal, the threat of being retaliated against … is so great that servers don’t stand up to bullying tactics from managers who see workers as disposable, precisely because they’re not required to pay them an actual wage, says Vincent Mersich, a labor lawyer in Pennsylvania. “Restaurants can transfer so much of their operating risk onto employees by paying them significantly less than minimum wage,” Mersich told me. Employers in these scenarios are essentially saying, “ ‘You haven’t assumed enough of that risk; you also have to assume the risk of people walking out on their checks,’” Mersich added. “At that point it seems exceedingly exploitative.”

The restaurant industry is messed up in many significant ways, as the recent fast-food workers strike has reminded us, but problems like wage theft, sexual and racial discrimination, and reliance on undocumented workers are at least explicitly illegal. Docking wages for walkouts should be illegal across the board, too, either via an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act or via more progressive laws at the state level.

Check out the full post here.

Wisconsin water resources strained by competing demands

Kate Prengaman of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism recently produced an in-depth report looking at important water use issues in the Badger State. She writes,

In a state with about 15,000 lakes and more than a quadrillion gallons of groundwater, it is hard to believe that water could ever be in short supply. Experts say, however, that the burgeoning number of so-called high-capacity wells is drawing down some ground and surface water, including the Little Plover River and Long Lake.

In the early 1950s, there were fewer than 100 high-capacity wells in the Central Sands, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Today there are more than 3,000 — 40 percent of the state’s total — in the six-county area.

Officials at DNR say that legally, they cannot block new wells based on the impacts from existing wells. And lawmakers want to keep it that way.

Prengaman effectively details current political battles over whether and how to protect water resources, alongside consideration of the competing demands being placed on Wisconsin water.

Experts say the implications of overpumping are on display across the state.

In the Madison area, the deep aquifer is down almost 60 feet. Waukesha’s withdrawals have pushed the deep aquifer down 600 feet. Green Bay had to tap Lake Michigan after depleting its groundwater in the 1950s.

In the Central Sands, scientists say that a rapid expansion of irrigated agriculture may be largely to blame — setting the stage for a water fight between farmers and those who fear for the region’s lakes, rivers and wetlands.

“We were all raised with the sense that this is Lake Superior underneath us, and it’s not,” said Justin Isherwood, a farmer with about a dozen high capacity wells for irrigating his 1,400 acres of potatoes and other vegetables in Portage County.

Tensions have sprung up over how to allocate a finite water resource to many legitimate uses: municipal water supplies, industries, irrigation, private wells, lakes and streams.

To some, it comes down to this: Who needs the water more — the potato plants or the trout?
For those, like Isherwood, who love both, finding a solution involves hard questions.

The full story is outstanding; find it here.

Pesticides should speak español

Harvest I/Salinas Valley

Photo by Nathan Walls [base10] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Yesterday NPR’s Dan Charles posted about efforts to help protect Spanish-speaking farmworkers from the chemicals they regularly come into contact with. As he notes,

Pesticides carry warning labels that spell out health risks and how workers should protect themselves — but those labels are usually in English. More than 80 percent of the workers in the “salad bowls” of Salinas, Calif., or Yuma, Ariz., are Hispanic. Many have difficulty communicating in English.

Farmworkers “are frustrated about their lack of knowledge about these chemicals,” says Virginia Ruiz, director of Occupational and Environmental Health at Farmworker Justice. Her group, along with many others, submitted formal to the EPA arguing that “without bilingual labeling, today’s Spanish-speaking agricultural workforce is at great risk for pesticide exposure.”

Find the full post—and some informative links—here.

Saying no to the (who knew?) national raisin reserve


Photo by Mariam via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

David A. Fahrenthold at The Washington Post penned a fascinating story recently about one farmer’s decision to opt out of a decades-old federal farm-support program. As he describes,

In the world of dried fruit, America has no greater outlaw than Marvin Horne, 68.

Horne, a raisin farmer, has been breaking the law for 11 solid years. He now owes the U.S. government at least $650,000 in unpaid fines. And 1.2 million pounds of unpaid raisins, roughly equal to his entire harvest for four years.

His crime? Horne defied one of the strangest arms of the federal bureaucracy — a farm program created to solve a problem during the Truman administration, and never turned off.

He said no to the national raisin reserve….

It works like this: In a given year, the government may decide that farmers are growing more raisins than Americans will want to eat. That would cause supply to outstrip demand. Raisin prices would drop. And raisin farmers might go out of business.

To prevent that, the government does something drastic. It takes away a percentage of every farmer’s raisins. Often, without paying for them.

Horne’s refusal has landed him in court. In fact, the legal wrangling made it all the way to the Supreme Court this spring, but the saga isn’t over yet. For the full story, head here for Fahrenthold’s article as well as a short video version of the story.

International trade agreements and the future of food safety

Valley Farm, West Wratting

Photo by Andrew Stawarz via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Yesterday, Katherine Paul and Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association analyzed at AlterNet the possible effects of two international trade agreements currently in the works. As they explain,

Designed to grease the wheels of world commerce, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would force the U.S. and other participating countries to “harmonize” food safety standards. That means all countries that sign on to the agreement would be required to abide by the lowest common denominator standards of all participating governments….

Both the TTIP and TPP could have dangerous consequences for food safety in the U.S., and around the world…. From day one, negotiations for the TTIP and TPP have been shrouded in secrecy. The public and participating governments, including the U.S. Congress, have been shut out of the negotiating process, denied access to everything from early proposals to final draft texts….

If the public is shut out, and Congress gets no say, who gets a seat at the table? Corporations. That’s right.

The article is written with the urgency of folks who care deeply about the state of our food supply; even though the rhetoric gets a bit heated at times, it makes for pretty compelling reading. Find the full piece here.

Finally, lest you doubt Paul and Cummins’ analysis that these agreements favor corporations, see what the folks at The Economist had to say in this op-ed from February:

[A]s the cautious Mr Obama’s willingness to gamble on this shows, the best time to push [for the TTIP] is now. Some of the most obstreperous lobbies have been giving ground. The EU recently opened its market to imports of live pigs and certain types of treated beef from America, suggesting that it may at last be possible to make progress on trade in genetically modified products…. The only reason for business not to throw everything it has behind TTIP would be if there were a bigger global trade pact to be had. Sadly, there is not. Done properly, a US-EU deal could even create a bit of momentum for other pacts, including agreements with Asian trading partners. And that potentially might lead to a new round of global trade talks.

Just say “no” to plastic bags

Plastic Bag Bail at Allied Waste

Photo by kuow949 [KUOW 94.9 Public Radio] via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Elisabeth Rosenthal had a piece in The New York Times over the weekend on the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag. She writes,

Many countries and a handful of American cities have more or less done away with this supposed convenience item, by discouraging its use through plastic-bag taxes at checkout counters or outright bans. Walk down the streets of Dublin or Seattle or San Francisco and there is barely a bag in sight. Life continues.

“It didn’t take people very long to accommodate at all,” said Dick Lilly, manager for waste prevention in Seattle, where a plastic-bag ban took effect last summer. “Basically overnight those grocery and drugstore bags were gone.”

Similarly, a newly inaugurated bag ban seems to have gone off without much of a hitch recently in Eugene, Oregon. The patchwork of dozens of local ordinances across California banning this “urban tumbleweed” may soon be supplanted by a statewide ban.

Nevertheless, across most of the country, the bags multiply at a seemingly exponential rate. This is problematic, to say the least. As Katharine Mieszkowski wrote a few years back in Salon,

The problem with plastic bags isn’t just where they end up, it’s that they never seem to end. “All the plastic that has been made is still around in smaller and smaller pieces,” says Stephanie Barger, executive director of the Earth Resource Foundation, which has undertaken a Campaign Against the Plastic Plague. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. That means unless they’ve been incinerated — a noxious proposition — every plastic bag you’ve ever used in your entire life, including all those bags that the newspaper arrives in on your doorstep, even on cloudless days when there isn’t a sliver of a chance of rain, still exists in some form, even fragmented bits, and will exist long after you’re dead.

Or to put it more succinctly, let me quote Alan Weisman again: “Polymers are forever.”

Rosenthal notes in her piece that old habits die hard:

“We have to get people to start carrying reusable bags,” [Ron] Gonen, [New York City's deputy commissioner of sanitation for recycling and waste reduction] said. “We’re going to do what we can to start moving the needle.”

“The question,” he continued, “is do we use a carrot or a stick to change behavior?”

So far New York has used carrots, to little effect…. Unfortunately, most experts believe it will take a stiff stick to break a habit as ingrained as this one is in the United States. (In many European countries, like France and Italy, the plastic bag thing never fully caught on.)

For more, check out her full article here, along with Mieszkowski’s still highly relevant piece.

Raw milk in Wisconsin headlines again

Real Milk Time

Photo by Chiot’s Run [Susy Morris] via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Raw milk is making headlines again in Wisconsin. As Jessica VanEgeren reports for The Capital Times,

Former Gov. Jim Doyle may have banned raw milk sales in 2010, but that didn’t end the debate over the controversial dairy product in Wisconsin.

Indeed, as the trial against defiant raw milk seller Vernon Hershberger is set to resume Monday in Sauk County Circuit Court, state Sen. Glenn Grothman has revived the issue on the legislative front with his announcement that he will try again to legalize the sale of raw milk.

Grothman, R-West Bend, has been an advocate of legalizing raw milk for years, including speaking out against Doyle after he abruptly vetoed its sale despite earlier signals that he would approve it….

About a month after Doyle’s veto, state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) officials raided Hershberger’s property in Loganville and shut down his on-farm store. The store sold raw dairy and other farm-fresh products.

He was subsequently charged by the state with four misdemeanors: distributing milk from a dairy farm without a milk producer’s license, operating a retail food establishment without a license, operating a dairy plant without a license and selling raw milk.

Find the full story here, which includes a number of informative links.

One of those links is to Rick Barrett’s recent article for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Grothman’s efforts. As Barrett describes,

With little exception, state law prohibits the sale of raw milk to the public. Those who want the law changed say that fresh, unprocessed milk contains nutrients that are destroyed by pasteurization – and that consumers should be able to decide for themselves if they want it.

Public health and dairy industry officials say unpasteurized milk may carry pathogens that cause food-borne illnesses. They also worry that any illness outbreak associated with raw milk would tarnish the reputation of Wisconsin’s dairy industry….

Details of Grothman’s new bill aren’t yet available, but it’s expected to be similar to what he proposed in 2011.

Raw-milk advocates say they’re hopeful it will be passed by the Legislature despite opposition that’s likely to come from Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest farm association, and dairy producer organizations.

Check out Barrett’s full piece here.

Ag Gag bills silence would-be whistleblowers

Pigs confined in metal and concrete pens

Photo by Farm Sanctuary via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I posted previously about undercover videotaping on factory farms to document mistreatment and abuse of animals (and workers). I also noted that the practice has led to efforts in several states to pass “Ag Gag” bills on behalf of large-scale agribusiness that outlaw unauthorized capturing of farm images.

Civil Eats recently shared a post from Sarah Damian of the Food Integrity Campaign that looks at the role of these laws in silencing would-be whistleblowers. As Damian notes,

Wyoming’s bill – which was introduced mere weeks after undercover video footage revealed inhumane handling of pigs at a Tyson Foods supplier in the state – threatens agriculture whistleblowers with jail time and a fine if they use a recording device on the facility’s premises.

Many similar bills introduced last year that explicitly banned the act of video recording at agricultural operations without consent failed to pass, due to free speech concerns. Others like the one in Iowa (which did pass last year, to our dismay) kept out language involving video, yet included problematic provisions that still enable a culture of silence behind factory farm doors….

One such provision is now also included in the Nebraska bill, penalizing workers who gain access to farm facilities by false pretenses or with the broadly defined “intent to disrupt the normal operations” – clearly directed at individuals who utilize video to expose abuse. It would have a chilling effect on industry whistleblowers, even established long-term employees, who witness serious violations and wish to speak up. The bill also requires animal abuse reports to be filed within 12 hours, a provision similar to New Hampshire’s proposed legislation requiring whistleblowers to report animal abuse and turn over videotapes and other documentation within 24 hours or face prosecution.

Why are these provisions problematic?

For the answer (and some great links), head to the full post at Civil Eats or the FIC website.