To The Point

by Caren Cowan

Without a Shot Fired . . .

For well over the past decade as our country has been at war ostensively to rid the world of terrorists . . . but also to protect the world’s energy supply. During this time we have preached about the ills of putting food production for our nation in foreign hands. It seems that food wasn’t even an issue worth warring about.

Today a large percentage beef production and the majority of pork production in the U.S. are in the hands of foreign companies.

Labor costs and over-regulation began driving the growth of fruits and vegetables outside our borders some time ago. It was only a matter of time before meat became involved.

Trade agreements started with allowing cattle to move back and forth US borders with Mexico and Canada. There was an attempt in the late 1990s to “naturalize” Australian cattle in Mexico and then move then into the US. That was foiled.

It wasn’t long after that the debate about country of origin labeling (COOL) started and continues to rage today on a world basis at least in the beef community. Read on to see how the steaks (I know) are getting higher.

The erosion of US protein production started much more subtlety over the past few years. Foreign companies figured out that they could simply buy meat companies in the US. It began with Brazil’s JBS purchase of feedlots and a packing plant. In the past year China has purchased Smithfield, the major producer of pork products.

It is a major thorn in my side that the Meat Export Federation is bragging about its programs in China to get the Chinese to eat more pork. Dah . . . the Chinese just bought Smithfield . . . shouldn’t China be spending its own more to improve pork consumption?

But it gets better. On December 23, USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) published a proposed rule in the Federal Register that seeks to allow regionalization among states in Brazil and to allow the importation of fresh beef from certain states into the U.S. provided certain requirements are met.

According to the notice, the USDA is proposing to amend “the regulations governing the importation of certain animals, meat, and other animal products by allowing, under certain conditions, the importation of fresh (chilled or frozen) beef from a region in Brazil (the States of Bahia, Distrito Federal, Espirito Santo, Goias, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Minas Gerais, Parana, Rio Grande do Sul, Rio de Janeiro, Rondonia, Sao Paulo, Sergipe, and Tocantins). Based on the evidence in a recent risk assessment, we have determined that fresh (chilled or frozen) beef can be safely imported from those Brazilian States provided certain conditions are met. This action would provide for the importation of beef from the designated region in Brazil into the United States while continuing to protect the United States against the introduction of foot-and-mouth disease.”

There is a 60-day comment period on the proposed regulation and extensions have been requested to extend that to 90 days. We will be doing a lot more research on what “certain conditions” means in all cases.

Other Chinese Eating Habits

Wal-Mart has recalled a donkey meat product in China after tests showed that it contained DNA of other animals, according to the BBC. Wal-Mart says it will reimburse customers who bought the “Five Spice” donkey meat and the US firm is also helping local authorities with an investigation into its local supplier.

The Shandong Food and Drug Administration said the product contained fox meat.

Donkey meat is a popular snack in some parts of China.

Food safety is a sensitive issue in the country where recent scares have undermined consumer’s confidence in the food supply chain.

Sales at KFC owner, Yum Brands, were hit when one of its chicken suppliers in China was found to have used excessive levels of antibiotics.

Wal-Mart is taking action to reassure shoppers, including setting-up a team to investigate the incident and strengthening its food safety rules.

It also intends to take legal action against the supplier of the tainted donkey meat.

The chief executive of Wal-Mart’s Chinese operations, Greg Foran, said: “It is a deep lesson (for us) that we need to continue to increase investment in supplier management.”

Not real sure how this fits into the whole horse slaughter plant battle, but interesting none the less.

Definitions . . . narrowed by the scope of our own views

Recently the Livestock Market Digest Facebook page received two comments on a post that were by our definition HATE SPEECH. Most of the time we leave those posts up because they stimulate discussion and we can count on someone else putting the commenter in its place.

These particular comments were so foul and hateful that we took them down, blocked the commenter and reported them to Facebook. However, when we were presented the box to note the reason for the report, for “hate speech” we were limited to speech that addressed race, gender, religion, orientation and disease.

Hate speech goes well beyond those areas . . . Facebook, why are not all citizens protected from hate speech?

Say it isn’t so . . .

It isn’t. You may have heard on television or read in a newspaper that it is now the law of New Mexico that agricultural businesses now have to pay workman’s compensation to their employees if they employ more than three (3) people.

The law hasn’t changed. The New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty Inc. (Center) would have you believe differently.

Forgive me, the story is a bit long but it is important. In the past the Center has tried to amend the workman’s compensation law as it relates to agriculture in New Mexico. The fights were bitter and sometimes ugly from Worker’s Comp Advisory Board to legislative committee meetings but New Mexico’s ranch and farm families prevailed. Things are generally not that difficult if you have the truth on your side.

The Center failed in the Legislature. Frustrated that their efforts were foiled, the Center then embarked on a different path.

They filed a lawsuit in State District Court in Bernalillo against the Workers’ Compensation Administration (WCA) on behalf of three workers claiming to be injured on dairies. That suit should be been dismissed on its face because it was filed in the wrong venue.

Part of the state’s workers’ comp law is a separate workers’ comp court to handle all matters dealing with these issues. It is perplexing that the case was not thrown out . . . until you consider who defended the WCA.

With the state under a previous regime, the WCA was directed to and happily allowed the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office handle the case. Not only was there not a motion to dismiss filed, there was absolutely no defense of the case whatsoever.

The Center presented more than 370 “facts” to the Court. The AG’s office, without contacting anyone in the agricultural community, stipulated (agreed) to those statements. Clearly they are too numerous to list here, but an all time favorite was that the agriculture had been routinely abusing its’ works for the past 100 years.

With literally no defense of the WCA, the District Court ruled in favor of the Center and the three workers. The Court went even further and found that the ag portion of the state’s workers’ comp law was unconstitutional. However, the Court, perhaps because it had not heard anything from agriculture, stopped short of issuing an order to the WCA to being enforcing workers’ comp on agriculture.

About that time regime change took place. The new folks at WCA decided they must appeal the case and represent themselves. An appeal was filed in the matter of the three workers, but not on the constitutionality of the law.

It took some years, but the Court of Appeals acted on the case in late November dismissing the worker cases. Although the constitutionality of the law was not at issue, unfortunately the Appeals Court felt the need to make a comment about it anyway.

They wrote “Having chosen to focus their appeal only on the jurisdictional and authority issues . . . (WCA) cannot escape the effect of the unchallenged parts of the court’s decision.”

Several lawyers have several opinions on just exactly what that means. The Center, run by lawyers, says this means that agricultural employers now must pay for workers’ compensation insurance. But they have been saying that in press releases and op ed pieces for years. It is disappointing that the news media has chosen to run those items without even questioning their validity.

The Center has used the ruling for another 15 minutes of fame and has written bullying letters threatening legal action to agricultural trade organizations as well as individual farmers.

Other attorneys believe that it doesn’t really mean anything. There has been no order of enforcement ever filed against the WCA.

Here is one perspective that seems to sum it up well: “Our interpretation of the letter is as a warning that the Center on Law and Poverty (and Legal Aid as their free attorneys) will begin to sue based on this court case. I don’t believe that anyone believes that the claims that they outlined actually mandate worker comp for Ag workers. They will sue based on this case making it very costly to defend and hope that they can get the growers that they sue to “cave” before it gets to court. One of the conditions that they will require to settle with anyone they sue, is for the grower/dairyman to purchase workers comp for their workers.”

So what is the course of action now? Agriculture has never had its day in court.

And why wouldn’t we want to pay workers’ compensation insurance. We say that we care for our workers, right?

There is a short answer and then a longer answer to both of those questions. Let’s start with the answer on why this is an issue for agriculturalists.

For ranching the cost of worker’s comp insurance is simply costs too much. Ranchers who are currently choosing to pay the price are paying from 20 to 25 cents on every dollar of wages. Those who have looked into it have received estimates up to 35 cents on the dollar.

The rates are different for every field of endeavor and ranching is at the top end of agriculture. But with today’s economy who can afford to add even 10 percent to their cost of doing business?

So what happens to injured ag workers? Do they receive care? Just like everything else, there are bad apples in every bin, but the ranchers and farmers that I know see that they employees get medical care. Until the cost of insurance went through the roof, some carried health insurance policies for their employees. Others carry liability policies that cover worker injuries.

This wasn’t good enough for the Center during the legislative debates and mandated working group discussions. They refused to even take into account that on ranches housing and other amenities are part of the benefits package for employees so there is a roof over an injured worker’s head and their family.

Although the media pundits tell us nobody cares about the reality of their cheap and abundant food supply, the fact is that this country has had in place a cheap food policy for decades. The return for growing food in a risky environment (Mother Nature) at a price cheap enough for everyone to afford was a break on laws like workers’ comp.

Ranchers and farmers do not have the luxury of pricing what the selling. They are selling a commodity. They take the price offered on the day the commodity is ready for market. You cannot stack cattle and wait for there to be a better market. The price they sell at doesn’t reflect the cost of inputs. Ranchers and farmers do not have the option of passing on the cost of production to the end product consumer.

At every level government is re-evaluating that cheap food policy and cutting programs to assist farmers and maybe that isn’t a bad thing. But how do you insure that we have food growers in our country?

As to agriculture having its day in court on this issue, we are looking for it. But in the mean time here is another place YOU need to be talking to your elected officials. Explain to them what the issue really is here. Help them understand how your business works.

Legislature

The 2014 New Mexico Legislature is just days away. As usual, and maybe more than usual, your help is needed on every front. This is a 30-day Session that is supposed to address budget issues as well as whatever the Governor puts on The Call.

We won’t know what is on The Call probably until the Session opens, but we do know that there have been requests for the “right to farm” issue to be put on the call. This is another issue that will make or break New Mexicans’ ability to produce food and fiber.

If you can find a day to come up to Santa Fe, that would be grand! If you cannot, please sign up to be a bill reader and help sift through the hundreds, if not thousands, of bills that will be introduced. Call the NMCGA office at 505/247-0584 or email nmcga@nmagriculture.org and let us know what you can do.

The NMCGA Legislative Board of Directors meeting is scheduled for February 10 and 11 at the Hotel Santa Fe. Ag Fest will be the evening of the 11th. Please join us if you can! n