Food Summit highlights food labeling disputes

Jan Shepel
Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Ben Brancel spoke at a PDPW-sponsored Food and Policy Summit in Madison last week. He talked about recent controversies including food labels for “non-GMO.”

MADISON — Considering the recent furor over food companies, including Dannon, that want to tailor their products with what they perceive to be qualities favored by consumers (GMO-free or rBST-free), last week’s Food and Policy Summit in Madison couldn’t have been more timely.

The two-day summit brought together dairy farmers with high-ranking staffers from food processors, consumer panelists and members of the animal rights community. The summit was organized by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW) a non-profit group that was formed 25 years ago which its executive director Shelly Mayer calls “dairy’s professional development organization.”

The group now has dairy farmer members in 39 states and last year held 80 days of educational programs for dairy farmers.

The lead speaker for the summit was Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection Ben Brancel, a Marquette County farmer with his wife and son. He was a dairy producer for 22 years and now raises Angus cattle on the family’s farm.

Brancel said he travels a lot as Secretary and interacts with a variety of people and he has noticed that today when “we talk about food there are many different voices.”

As more and more segments of society become involved and vocal about the food system, farmers need to think carefully about what they do, he said. “As farmers we’re in the food business. Many in agriculture don’t think about it that way. We think we’re producing corn or cranberries.”

The Angus Association, he says, made the connection from the farm to the dinner plate earlier than many commodity groups. “Hereford was the dominant beef breed but as the Angus Association made the dinner table the target they left Herefords dust and every beef breed has now tried to instill Angus into its color pattern.

“Farmers can’t produce food without customers at the other end.”

Trust between producers and customers is an added value, he added. “Consumers want to make choices that align with their core values. This trust can take years to build and seconds to break.”

Sustainability is a buzzword in the food business these days and many consumers want to choose their foods based on that kind of labeling. But Brancel said there are many ways to define sustainability and there could be as many definitions in the room as there are people.

He offered his definition of sustainable farming. “For me, sustainability is about doing the same thing over and over; making a profit doing it and when my time is done it’s in better shape for the next generation.” For him profit has to be part of the definition. “If you can’t financially afford to do it, it isn’t going to happen.”

In Wisconsin last year, 2.9 million acres – one-third of the state’s productive land – fell under producer-created official nutrient management plans. But Brancel said there are many more farmers who have their own nutrient management plans, like his father did, written down and used all the time in the management of their farms.

That spiral notebook of the elder Brancel had a personal mapping system of the family’s farm and each field was marked each year for manure applications, planting dates and harvesting dates. It was also a record of crop rotation and the Secretary said it taught him about nutrient management planning, even before that was a term that was bandied about.

“We hear about the time and effort that goes into nutrient management planning but if that plan collects dust on the shelf in the barn office it’s of no use. It’s important to use that information,” he said. A plan like his dad’s that is understood and used often in the operation of the farm is the goal of nutrient management and planning.

Brancel quoted an opinion column that ran in the pages of Wisconsin State Farmer about how the general public sees one kind of waste one way and another kind in a different way. The way livestock manure spills are noticed is quite different from the way sewage discharges from municipalities are dealt with. Discharges into Lake Michigan from the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District are a case in point. Livestock manure is seen as much worse, even though the amounts might be small compared to the sewage discharge.

GMO discussions

There has been much discussion of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and their role in food production this year. Brancel told the summit attendees that biotech firms have failed in explaining the importance of that technology to the consuming public and now that job falls to farmers. Some of these cropping technologies prepare crops to use less water through drought resistance or to resist pests without using insecticides.

“They have developed something that benefits farming but they never tell that story. They have never told the why story of genetic technology.”

In northern reaches of Wisconsin, he noted, farmers had never before been able to harvest corn and soybeans and today they can, thanks to the newer technologies. “It has changed the dynamics and their ability to produce more.”

Changes have also come in dairy production. In 1950 there were 2 million cows in Wisconsin producing 14.8 billion pounds of milk per year. Today there are 1.28 million cows producing about 30 billion pounds of milk. The average herd in Wisconsin is about 130 cows.

(He noted that in 1950 there were 2.5 million pigs in the state; today there are only 300,000-400,000 pigs.)

As consumers seem to long for the “good ol’ days” Brancel said he believes they are asking for things they really don’t want.

Farmers should become comfortable opening up their farms for a tour or an event or a visit from a local newspaper. “If you don’t you’re not telling your story.”

While some farmers sell directly to consumers at a roadside stand or a farmer’s market, most sell the food they produce through a processor. Today, many of those processors or their customers are using what he called “marketing gimmicks” to sell their goods. Slapping a label on a product that has no place there, simply to cater to consumer trends is a case in point, like “GMO-free bottled water.”

“That is misleading to consumers,” Brancel said. “Unsubstantiated terms are thrown out there without a thought as to how they affect people.”

Product labeling

Terms put on labels like “natural,” “grass-fed,” non-GMO and antibiotic-free are open to interpretation by consumers. He noted that meat and milk cannot have antibiotics in them and to call them antibiotic-free is just stating the obvious – what he called marketing fluff.

He noted that some major food processors are beginning to ask their farmers to produce raw products like milk without the use of GMOs and that is causing controversy. He wonders why hybrid corn – the best technology of its day – was okay but now today’s technology is seen as sinister by many consumers.

Even in Vermont, which passed its own GMO labeling law, they didn’t extend that prohibition to dairy feeds, he added.

Brancel said that those in production agriculture need to “explain ourselves and our farming methods” adding that “marketing fluff needs to be removed. There needs to be truth in marketing. Four out of four people eat; we are in their lives every day.”

The idea that “big is bad” pushed by a vocal few among consumer activists could result in the price of food being driven much higher.

About two-thirds of the world’s people live on the staples of rice, wheat and corn and 925 million people around the world face food shortages, he said. Nearly 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day.

“Food really is an international business. The world is full of consumers that need food and farmers are the only ones that can provide it.”

Brancel noted that when the self-proclaimed Islamic State wanted to take control in Iraq, they gained power by controlling the wheat supply. They put sharpshooters on top of the milling operation as a strategy to control food and thereby control the local populace.

U.S. Demographics

The so-called millenials – Americans born between1980 and 2000 have now or will shortly surpass the Baby Boomers; this younger generation is having a significant impact on the kinds of foods that are sold in the United States. Millenials find out more about products before they buy them.

“These consumers want sustainable, but in their definition of the term,” he said. Their definitions might include areas like animal welfare or fair labor standards.

As consumers and food processors increasingly clamor for added food “values” like “GMO-free” Brancel said they may not foresee or like the consequences of what comes next. “It may mean that their less fortunate brethren may not be able to afford it.”

Eventually these added requirements from food processors, which they say move up the chain from consumers, will add to the cost of food, as Brancel sees it. “I don’t think people have this perception of what will happen.”

“Food production is a big responsibility. We absolutely must listen to each other.”

The Secretary said he’s very critical of the biotech industry for failing to put any effort into educating the public about the benefits of biotech crops.

Brancel’s department includes the state’s Food Safety Division and he noted that rules and regulations promulgated there are not written because something might happen. “Every one was written because it has happened.”

The department, he added, has worked with PDPW and the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association on the “Food Armor” program and have shared the groups’ joint message with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – twice.