Price setting, Part 1

The past few months have been a whirlwind of journalism conferences and travel. The last stops were Sicily and Istanbul, to places that made me think a lot about food, where it comes from and what we do with it. It’s hard to write about the experience and not sound like everyone else who visits Italy. But I’ll say it anyway: fresh, local food is paramount and available and, most importantly, affordable.

Here is a daily market in Palermo where the clams are so fresh they squirted water at me when I peered into the tub of water they floated in.



In Ortiga, an island off of Syracuse at the eastern tip of Sicily, we stopped at a market stall for fresh oysters the size of a grown man’s palm and a glass of sparkling white wine — for €1.50 a person.


The next day, they were splitting open sea urchins and scooping them out of their spiny purple shells, dousing them with a squeeze of lemon and serving them up. They were bright orange and salty.  We found a ricotta cheese that was baked, called ricotta infornata, braised brown like a loaf of bread on the outside and creamy on the inside. It was perfect with a stack of broiled peppers another merchant was selling for a few euro.


In Lipuri, a tiny island off of Sicily, four custard and ricotta filled pastries and three cappuccini for breakfast cost €11. A lobster freshly cooked at Filipino’s cost €9. I kept wondering why the wine was expensive until it occurred to me that the prices were for bottles not by the glass. Even at one of Syracuse’s busiest restaurants, Sicily in Tavola, a fantastic white cost €13 for a bottle.

Here, you can get a glass of wine for that price and even one cappuccino would be nearly half that. Actually, we ordered two cappuccini and a pesto/hazelnut morning bun at Verve in Santa Cruz a couple days after we got back from Sicily and the price was $15. The morning but cost $5.50 alone. “We could have three arancini for that,” I muttered walking out to a table the cafe had set up in a parking lot. Everything felt bland and big after being squeezed into streets so slim two people have to brush up against each other to pass by.


The Slow Food movement had a lot to do with the marketing and revitalization of Italy’s food traditions, as well as improving the quality of products like olive oil and balsamic vinegar. But the movement was working with an infrastructure. Every morning in Canetto, a hamlet of Lipuri, a fish vendor would roll up in his mini-truck with the day’s catch. He parked outside Sisa, Canetto’s only supermarket.


But food is less expensive than here everywhere I have traveled in Italy.  Even when the Euro was stronger than the dollar, we spent less money on food, whether in restaurants or from produce markets. Even in Florence and Rome. Subsidies play a part. But food in the United States is also subsidized and the quality is nowhere nearly as good. So why is our food so expensive in the United States? One argument is that we pay more for pasture-raised meat and organic produce, we are paying the real unsubsidized price of food. That the market is distorted because of ag subsidies and consolidation. But it’s not that simple. It’s not uncommon for growers to set their prices at farmers markets based on the income of the neighborhood. You can buy the same bottle of olive oil or honey for less depending on where the market’s located. So who sets the floor and ceiling of prices?


Why did Big Ag giant Cargill get $5 billion from Congress?

To my surprise, Cargill showed up on the list of the top 100 companies that dominate federal subsidies along with corporations like Bank of America and the Bank of Ireland.

Cargill ranked #93 on the list of corporations that receive federal loans, loan guarantees and bailout assistance and stands alone as the only ag-related company. Their total take was $5.1 billion. The closest neighbors on the list: #94 Synovus Financial. #92 is Best Bank.

I am just starting to check on the figures and why Cargill needed $5 billion in subsidies when the company boasts of being one of the world’s Pillars of Plenty

The story of how Big Ag fought Obama and won

Here is a transcript (and a recording) of the beginning of the end of what would have been the toughest challenge to mega livestock and poultry corporations like Tyson and Cargill.

It was July 20, 2010 and USDA officials were nervously defending legislation at a hearing of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry. Most of the congressmen come from farm states, had ranches of their own in the family and had filled their re-election accounts with money from the very companies fighting the proposed laws.

The controversy started when the USDA tried to level the playing field for poultry farmers and ranchers using the agency’s authority under the Packers and Stockyards Act, a 1921 law whose power to give growers a fair deal had been growing thinner by the decade. The congressmen bristled at the provisions, which members said usurped the power of Congress. Now those provisions were back.

It’s worth noting that at the time President Obama was looking at whether Big Ag was violating anti-trust laws. Even as the USDA officials were sweating it out, their boss, Tom Vilsack, was touring rural states across the country with the head of the Justice Department, Eric Holder, and his anti-trust chief Christine Varney. Obama had sent them out to hear from farmers and ranchers about how to restore competition and fairness to farming. The trio of the USDA and DOJ was the last combination Big Ag, the packers and producers, wanted to see working together. They quickly dispatched their lobbyists. You could hear echoes of the industry’s lobbyists in the comments and questions of the subcommittee on July 20. One of the lawmakers said he regretted that farmers were having to consolidate in order to stay on the land but that’s just the way it is. Get big or get out. uncle-sam-food-garden-mid As The Grist’s Tom Laskawy put it, “To say this was a lost opportunity is a vast understatement. After all, the top four companies control 90 percent of all beef processing. In the case of pork, four companies control 70 percent of the processing, while for poultry it’s nearly 60 percent. When you get that kind of market power,* abuse becomes rampant. Indeed, ranchers all around the country now agree that it’s impossible for them to get a fair price for livestock.”

Salty Food and Belching Cows Are Winners in Budget Deal

Farmers and ranchers came out smelling pretty Saturday in the massive $1.1 trillion spending bill on its way to the desk of President Obama even though they will not have to curb the emissions of their cows or report about the effect of said emissions on the environment.

And we’re not even talking about the Farm Bill.

Farmers and ranchers were spared having to report on pollution from manure in the $1.1 trillion U.S. spending bill on its way to President Obama, according to New York Times coverage.

The gift comes in the form of a provision that says the government cannot require farmers to report “greenhouse gas emissions from manure management systems,” the Times reported:

Nor can it require ranchers to obtain greenhouse gas permits for “methane emissions” produced by bovine flatulence or belching.

The spending bill requires the E.P.A. to withdraw a new rule defining how the Clean Water Act applies to certain agricultural conservation practices. It also prevents the Army Corps of Engineers from regulating farm ponds and irrigation ditches under the Clean Water Act.

“This is a major victory for farmers and ranchers, who consistently tell many of us that they are concerned about the potential of the E.P.A. and the Army Corps of Engineers’ overreach into their operations,” Representative Mike Simpson, Republican of Idaho, said.

Cow standing on top of an image of the earth

Meat and methane
Mike Licht,

In another food-related provision, the bill included a slap in the face to First Lady Michelle Obama’s push for higher nutrition standards by prohibiting the federal government from requiring less salt in school lunches and allow schools to obtain exemptions from whole-grain requirements for pasta and tortillas. “But they were a victory for food companies and some local school officials, who had sought changes in regulations that are taking effect over several years.”

USDA “setting the record straight” about inspectors

I was working on a story about how pasture-fed ranchers in California have been hit by the drought and the closing of Rancho. Accessibility to USDA slaughterhouses and especially USDA cut and wrap operators is creating a bottleneck. Consolidation, environmental rules, NIMBY (no way am I going to have a slaughterhouse in my backyard!) and federal regulations are part of the picture, according to a 2009 Food and Water Watch report, “Where’s the Local Beef.”

The authors wrote that USDA regulations are skewed to support corporate giants like Tyson, Smithfield and Cargill that can afford expensive techniques and equipment now part of government inspection requirements. USDA inspectors begin with a live animal and end with a carcass. But beginning in the 1990s, the USDA also required facilities to have food safety plans for each segment of their operation, which inspectors audit. The decision put food safety in the hands of the operators running the plants and reduced USDA oversight “beyond what was prudent and necessary for the protection of the consumer,” according to a 2000 review by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General. Here is the USDA’s Inspection 101 publication.

I asked Food and Water Watch’s Patty Lovera about how USDA staffing plays into problem. She said “They stand out in the budget,” she said, meaning the inspectors. “They have a target on them.”

Staffing is a problem, she added, “but it varies in different parts of the country. There are some USDA districts that suffer chronic inspector shortages and that’s where you hear about them having to visit multiple processing plants in a day, just to say they were there every day, but not spending a lot of time to really see what’s going on.”

I left all that out of my story. I knew nothing about the storm being kicked up by Food and Water Watch and a NY Times story, which elicited a strong response from the USDA. They refuted any suggestion that they are short-staffed and that staffing has anything to do with food safety concerns or the Rancho recall.  (It appears the NY Times has been a thorn for a while and just fyi, FSIS is an arm of the USDA.)

The question is how many inspectors are enough. Here are the numbers: USDA regulations are enforced by 7,800 inspectors responsible for overseeing the safety of billions of pounds of meat and poultry — 92.3 billion in 2011 — produced by 6,200 USDA-certified plants in the United States. (This, by the way, is all I ended up putting in the story. I  try to avoid getting stuck in the middle of arguments by considering the numbers, especially when I don’t have enough time to dig into the records and talk to operators at length before going to print.)

Here is the email from USDA and the response:

Good Afternoon – Recently, advocacy groups have alleged that fluctuations in food safety inspector staffing levels have led to food recalls and compromised food safety. FSIS posted a response to these false statements on the USDA blog at the link below. You are welcome to retweet this story as is or use the content in your own publication.

Here is what Aaron Lavallee, FSIS Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education, wrote:

Recently, the New York Times published an article claiming that job vacancies in the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are leading to more food recalls. That’s not true.  The fact is, vacancies within the agency do not mean there are less inspectors on the job in our nation’s meat plants.FSIS is legally required to have a sufficient number of inspectors present in every single meat and poultry plant in the country.  No plant in America is allowed to operate if it does not have the required number of safety inspectors in the plant at all times, and every plant currently operating in America has the necessary food inspection staff.The New York Times article was based on misleading and inaccurate information, and to the paper’s credit it ultimately ran at least a partial correction.  The article was supposedly based on data from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by an outside group called Food & Water Watch-but Food & Water Watch had not yet received that FOIA report.  Yet, they told the Times they had received it, and the Times unfortunately reported faulty information without verification.The FOIA referenced in the article is actually just being released today.  You can view it here. The report will show that, at the end of Fiscal Year 2013, there was a vacancy rate of 7.08% among FSIS’ inspectors. Food & Water Watch claimed, and the New York Times reported, that inspectors in the Raleigh District faced an 11% vacancy rate. In fact, the vacancy rate there is currently 8.27%.Like all organizations, FSIS has a vacancy rate that fluctuates as inspectors leave work or retire.  FSIS is working to fill open positions. FSIS always prioritizes food safety inspection and dedicates significant resources toward ensuring that all plants have the required number of inspectors.  Again, if a plant does not have enough inspectors, it is illegal for that plant to operate.It is irresponsible to attempt to confuse FSIS vacancy rates with plant inspector shortages and then imply that meat and poultry products are less safe as a result.  There is no connection between recent recalls and FSIS vacancy rates, and any claims that these issues are linked are false.

Gleason Ranch: the book and the blog

By Angela Woodall

Deciding to write a book is like getting engaged. It is at once exciting and frightening, and you have to be prepared to stay together for a long time. But the story behind Gleason Ranch is impossible to turn away from. Even food guru Michael Pollan had bestowed his benediction: “This doc goes beyond the romance of farming… [it’s] a hard look at the struggles…” So within 10 minutes of seeing a trailer of Morgan’s documentary about the Gleasons I could see the story unfolding on the page.

GRpigsIt was the scene with the sows that got me interested. Great big, bossy, Gleason Ranch sows in a pig barn built for them. They watched with curiosity and maybe a little amusement at the humans — Nancy Prebilich and her nephews — cleaning the stalls of messes the ladies had left. One of them rested her front paws on the gate of her stall for a better look at the hard and tiresome work being performed by the fourth and fifth generations, respectively, of Gleasons on the land. They looked nothing like the sows raised in the usual industrial system — enormous pale pink pigs kept pinned down in narrow metal crates with nothing else to do but eat. They stare blankly ahead. By now most people have seen those pigs either in person or in images. In contrast, the Gleason sows and their offspring had the run of the ranch with the sheep and the chickens and other animals.GRpigsmore

Morgan had been filming the Gleasons for four years so I had heard about the project, the twists and turns that barreled at him and the family. Nancy and I met for the first time at the fundraiser for the film, where I saw the trailer. A few days later I rode out to spend some time with her and Morgan, as well sheep, goats, dogs, horse, cow and guard llama, Ace. I wanted to make sure there was enough story and character for several hundred pages before committing. To be honest, my mind wasn’t made up until later that night when we stepped into the hall of the Sebastopol Grange #306. I needed something that put the Gleason story in context, something bigger than one family. Inside the pastel olive-colored hall, I started hearing the stories of other Sonoma County farmers being squeezed by big-time developers looking for land to feed the ever-growing wine business and Rousseauian fantasies of wealthy Bay Area dwellers. Sometimes the two overlapped.

The Sonoma County growers I met at the Grange that night were as libertarian, independent and contrarian as any of their farming brothers and sisters. But one of the youngest men there was dressed in an old 70s-era plaid suit, cowboy boots and a gnarled ranchers hat. The chaplain, a strawberry blonde in her 50s, wore a Medieval-cut tunic and Native American-styled accessories and opened the meeting with a prayer — a poem by Rafael Jesus Gonzalez. A middle-aged women in a black leather jacket, cargo pants and black ankle boots carried a chihuahua. A ring of tiny daisies crowned the head of a teenage girl. That night happened to be the annual election of officers to the Grange, which moved swiftly with no contests between candidates until it got to nominations for the three muses, Flora, Pomona, and Ceres. A competition sprung up for Flora, requiring a secret tie-breaking ballot. I never want to lose a group that idiosyncratic. I made up my mind by the time we started driving back to the Bay Area.

What you will read here on the Gleason Ranch blog is not verbatim from the book. Rather, the blog records discoveries along the way about the food, the land, the farms, the vineyards, the people. For one thing, I discovered a huge coincidence: My partner’s grandparents ran a dairy just down the road from the Gleason Ranch. In fact, his aunt Maria and Nancy’s mother, Barbara, were childhood friends since they went to the tiny one-room Watson schoolhouse in Bodega. Barbara was Maria’s model during her state cosmetology exams. In recent years, Barbara and her husband, Tony Prebilich, stopped by Maria’s housewares shop in Cotati on their way to the feed store. There were many other coincidences and connections. And nearly every day since I have learned something new about where we get our food, why we eat the way we do, what regulations are hurting or helping farmers and what the future is for them.

For starters I started to see the new iteration of greenwashing. Or, as I have to think of it, slow-washing.


By Angela Woodall

Berkeley Bowl is more down to earth than Whole Foods although at both locations shoppers line up to pay $20 for a Rosie broiler and more for Niman beef, depending on the cut. There are cheaper (relatively speaking), “conventional” options. But customers are willing to pay the extra in exchange for feeling like they are consuming meat provided by non-industrial ranchers who care about the earth and the animals, like at Gleason Ranch. Consumers are increasingly willing to pay for happy beasts and birds — and ones they trust won’t be recalled the next week. But the open pasture, grass fed, organic story that they’re paying for may not be all that it’s supposed to be, at least according to advocates. Actually, all you have to do is poke around a little at the farms or read up on the producer to see the new version of greenwashing — what I call slow-washing.

For example, Niman ranch advertises “Compassionate family farmers raising animals with respect for the land.” According to the website:

At Niman Ranch we believe that in order to produce the finest tasting all-natural meat in the world you must begin with the strictest protocols. That means working with small U.S. family farmers who are committed to raising the highest quality breeds and are dedicated to caring for their livestock traditionally.

I thought the price tag paid for meat raised on the Niman ranch, founded in the 1970s by Bill Niman and Orville Schell, former dean of UC Berkeley’s journalism school. The truth is Bill Niman won’t eat the meat that still bears his name but little resemblance to the idealistic story that lingers. He sold the name to Natural Food Holdings LLC, which was Niman’s chief investor (here is what seems like a pretty complete piece about it). Natural Foods is a holding company and is part of Hilco Equity Partners, a gigantuan private equity firm. Nothing about their team, advisers or portfolio indicates anything local or sustainable. Maybe that doesn’t matter.

However, Niman is not a Bay Area company headquartered in Alameda, as the company advertises on its website. Not really: Natural Food Holdings is based in Sioux City, Iowa. In 2011, LNK Partners in New York invested $68 million in Natural Food Holdings, according to reports. The cattle are raised by contract ranchers and finished on grain in feedlots. And the Niman use of “all natural” means next to nothing. Here is the USDA’s definition:

All fresh meat qualifies as “natural.” Products labeled “natural” cannot contain any artificial flavor or flavoring, coloring ingredient, chemical preservative or any other artificial or synthetic ingredient; and the product and its ingredients are not more than minimally processed (ground, for example). All products claiming to be natural should be accompanied by a brief statement which explains what is meant by the term “natural.”

Free-range doesn’t much much either, as customers of Judy’s Family Farm eggs found out when the Animal Legal Defense Fund filed a class-action lawsuit against the Judy’s Family Farm for false advertising. Judy’s denies any such thing. But this photo tells a different tale. The $4 price for 18 eggs at Berkeley Bowl was too good to be true but I didn’t expect Judy’s to be owned by Petaluma Egg Farm. The Cornucopia Institute offers several scorecards and a chart of major corporate owners of organic food products. This site gives a rundown of all the terminology or you can read the FDA’s Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book).