New Senate Food and Ag Committee not following the herd

One of the first things you'll see upon entering the office of Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, is a big stack of books by authors such as Michael Pollan, the Berkeley writer known for his opposition to large-scale agribusiness. Along the far wall is a poster for Proposition 2, the 2008 Farm Animal Protection Act.

"It looks a little different than most Ag committee chair's libraries," Florez said. He chuckled, then added, "I think the Ag industry comes in and looks at this and goes, ‘Oh.'"

They're also saying similar things about the bills coming out of his committee, Florez said. In January, he and Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, held a press conference announcing that Florez was taking over the committee and adding the word "Food" to its name.

This signaled a new direction for a committee that, according to many, has traditionally represented the interests of the agriculture industry. The committee held a hearing last week and passed out three Florez bills opposed by agribusiness groups. His SB 135 would ban the practice of cutting off cow's tails, while his SB 416 would bar antibiotics from meat served in school lunches. SB 173 imposes stricter responsibilities around food-borne pathogens. Florez is also carrying bills that would restrict agricultural crop burning and impose new requirements for food safety.

The makeup of the committee has also changed. Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Monterey, is still on the committee, but has lost his status as the only Republican committee chair in the Senate. Meanwhile, two urban Democrats have come onboard. Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, has a history of carrying animal rights and food safety legislation from her time in the Assembly, while Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Los Angeles, is the author of AB 32, the historic greenhouse gas legislation from 2006.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Merced, has left the committee-and doesn't like where it's going.

"As a legislator, he [Florez] is free to introduce whatever bills he thinks are in the best interests of the state," Denham said. "But completely changing the agenda of a committee from what it has historically done, I think is an issue. The Assembly committee has not followed suit."

That committee is chaired by Assemblywoman Cathleen Galgiani, D-Tracy. Florez said that he has yet to "sit down" with Galgiani, but noted the conflicts could arise.

"The Ag industry has put all their bills in the Assembly, they're going to come to us, and I guarantee to you that some are going to die," Florez said. He declined to name specific legislation.

Both Florez and Denham accused each other of playing politics over the direction of the new committee. Each is also seen as among the favorites to represent their parties in the race for Lt. Governor next year, pending John Garamendi's run for Congress. Florez said Denham's votes on the committee have shown that he is a big supporter of the industry and is "horrible" on food safety issues.

They also disagreed over the historical role of the committee.

"The Agriculture Committee has never been a committee that kills a lot of bills," Denham said.

Florez, meanwhile, said that numerous animal rights, worker safety and food supply bills have died there over the years-or not made it there with any teeth in them in the first place.

Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and one of the chief strategists behind last year's Prop. 2, said this was a big part of the reason for the revamping of the committee. She and her boss, HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, sat down with Florez in December to talk strategy.

"Twenty years of attempting to pass modest reforms on animal welfare have gotten us nowhere," Fearing said. "Does it really have to be this way? We posed that question to Senator Florez as someone who had really supported Prop. 2."

Denham isn't the only rural Republican concerned about the committee. Former Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa is running for state Senate next year with the expressed goal of getting on the Food and Ag Committee. As a farmer himself-he grows 1,700 acres of rice in Gridley-he wants to provide a counterweight to the new "urban" direction of the committee.

Certain segments of the agriculture industry are in trouble, he said, and food safety could be comprised if they give way to less-safe imports from other states and countries.

"Dairy in California is on its knees already," LaMalfa said. "Milk prices are way below the cost of the product. Dairy in California is the most regulated in the country. And they still want to add more hoops to jump through. We will soon not have a dairy industry in California the way it's going."

Michael Boccadoro, a lobbyist for the California Poultry Federation, said that Florez is trying to take Food and Ag beyond what a committee in a state legislature can reasonably do. He has been arguing against Florez's bill to ban antibiotics in school lunches. While he says Florez has done a better-than-average job as a committee chair in allowing a wide range of testimony, these issues need to be regulated at the national level, with input from the FDA.

"It's not a credible forum for a purely scientific discussion on some of these problems," Boccadora said. "Given the makeup of that committee, it's hard to have an honest discussion."

Florez countered that the committee has traditionally focused on only half of that industry-the owners' side.

"I've been on the other side of the equation," Florez said. "I've been on the workers' side."

His grandmother picked strawberries for 10 cents a tray in Shafter in 1939, he said. These days, workers make 17 cents a tray-and that 17 cents will buy a lot less than ten cents could back in the day.

Others members of his family also labored in the fields; Florez himself bagged potatoes every summer in high school, before later attending Harvard Business School. Starting in the Assembly, he has pushed reforms to the ways workers are treated-for instance, a ban on sideways-facing wooden benches used to pack field workers into vans, which he said sometimes resulted in multiple deaths from accidents that "should have been minor fender benders."

"Those are battles that should have been fought in the 50s or 40s," he said.

Fearing said that she hoped Florez's committee is a sign of things to come around the country.

"It remains wildly out of whack with every other Ag committee across the country," she said. "What he's done is fairly precedent setting."

When Florez started out in politics, he said, it was conventional wisdom that anyone from a rural California district-such as his, which covers a 300 mile swath between Fresno and Bakersfield, had to be in lock-step with the agriculture industry. His career, he said, has been partially focused on changing this notion, but it still holds true enough that people think he must have been an ag supporter at one point before breaking with the industry.

Public sentiment around animal protections have changed, Fearing said, while salmonella and swine flu outbreaks have focused voters' attention of the need for consumer laws. She said she hopes Florez is able to show others that his positions are safe ones to take.

"Everybody eats," she said. "It's a big constituency."

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