Rep. Rosa DeLauro knew she had a problem when her colleagues began asking her on the House floor about her bill that was going to put small farmers out of business. Her own offices in Washington and back home in Connecticut are getting bombarded with calls from angry constituents demanding she stop her assault on backyard organic farms.
What, they want to know, does she have against organic heirloom tomatoes?
"It was substantial and it wasn't just my office," DeLauro tells the Huffington Post. "All of my colleagues -- I have colleagues who come up to me on both sides of the aisle and they say to me, 'Rosa, what's this about 875?'"
H.R. 875, the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, has become an Internet phenomenon, the subject of alarmist e-mails warning gardeners that Congress is plotting against their plots, that the vote is coming any day, and we must take action! The outraged constituents span the political spectrum.
The bill, it's argued, is being pushed quietly by big agribusiness, herbicide and pesticide behemoths such as Monsanto, who want to outlaw organic farming using backdoor food-safety rhetoric. The richest irony, for anyone who has followed DeLauro's career, is that she's as far from a friend of Monsanto as can be conjured.
The anti-875 movement latched onto DeLauro's definition of a "food production facility" as "any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation." The bill makes such facilities subject to safety inspections, leading to fears that clipboard-wielding bureaucrats will soon be strolling through your lettuce patch.
"Didn't Stalin nationalize farming methods that enabled his administration to gain control over the food supply? " recalled one libertarian blogger at CampaignforLiberty.com. "Didn't Stalin use the food to control the people?"
Yeah, Stalin did. But DeLauro has no plans to collectivize agriculture in the United States. The opposite, actually.
"The intent of the bill is to focus on the large, industrial processes such as the peanut processing plant in Georgia that was responsible for the salmonella outbreak that killed nine people," she says. She emphasizes that the Constitution's commerce clause prevents the federal government from regulating commerce that doesn't cross state lines. DeLauro says she's open to making technical changes to the bill if any small farmers remain concerned that the bill is aimed at them.
Currently, 15 separate federal agencies are involved in regulating food safety and there is no system in place to get to the source of an outbreak once it happens. We still don't know what contaminated the tomatoes leading to a previous salmonella outbreak, one which was originally blamed on spinach -- to the great detriment of spinach growers. DeLauro's bill would put one agency in charge and try to organize the chaos that is the current system.
"This notion that we're destroying backyard farms is absurd. It's ludicrous," she says. "I chair the agriculture subcommittee of appropriations. Why would I be putting farmers out of business?"
DeLauro says she has been told that the disinformation campaign "was a libertarian operation somewhere in the country, but we're trying to figure it out."
In the meantime, she sent a letter to all of her colleagues explaining what the bill does and is planning a more public campaign to clear the air. She has marshaled organic farming organizations in her defense. Her homepage directs people to "get the facts on H.R. 875."
For a long time, DeLauro figured that the campaign was too absurd to take hold - similar to the assumption John Kerry made about charges he lied about his war record. The bill wasn't even new, she reasoned, having introduced the same thing the year before.
"I made an assumption, maybe it was the wrong assumption, my God," she says. "I guess it was naïve in a way." As the calls and questions from colleagues mounted, she decided she had to respond. "It was significant enough that I said to myself, 'Whoa, this is beyond anything I'd dreamed could catch on.'"
Watching a viral Internet campaign take shape can be a bizarre experience, she says. "You have a sense of who you are and what you're about. But that may be thinking too much about who you are and what you do. You have to explain to people; you have to tell them; you have to retell them."
UPDATE: A couple legal minds have written me noting that DeLauro's reliance on the interstate commerce clause to circumscribe her legislation and exempt backyard gardens won't be enough, because the Supreme Court has stretched the reach of the clause to absurd lengths. Here's one. I've actually written about the reach of the commerce clause in the past and tend to agree with the critics that DeLauro's bill does need some technical corrections, which DeLauro had said she'd be willing to make if needed. DeLauro's office says that those clarifications are in the works and will be ready in the next few weeks.