Welcome to the Ag & Food Law Blog

Welcome to the Ag & Food Law Blog, a comprehensive news, research, and information resource on agricultural and food law for the nation’s agricultural community. 

It is provided by the National Agricultural Law Center, the nation’s leading source of agricultural and food law research and information.  Located in Fayetteville, Arkansas the National Agricultural Law Center serves the nation's agricultural community and is a unit of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.  In addition, the Center leads the eXtension Community of Practice for Agricultural and Food Law.

Federal prosecutors seeking life sentence for Parnell brothers

Posted July 27, 2015

Federal court officers have recommended a life sentence for a peanut company executive convicted of selling salmonella-tainted food, according to a CNBC article available here.

Stewart Parnell, former Peanut Corporation of America owner, is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 21 by a federal judge in Albany, Georgia.

Parnell, peanut broker Michael Parnell and former plant quality manager Mary Wilkerson were found guilty Sept. 19th on 71 counts, including conspiracy, obstruction of justice and introduction of adulterated food, according to USA Today.

The contamination was the most deadly and expensive contaminated food-borne disease outbreak in the country, according to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) findings. Nine people died and 700 were sickened after eating the tainted food.

Because the Parnell brothers are middle-aged, the multiple-count convictions could add up to the equivalent of life sentences. Wilkerson’s conviction carries a maximum term of 20 years. Federal sentencing guidelines, findings of the pre-sentence investigative reports and prosecution and defense recommendations will all contribute, according to Food Safety News.

Stewart and Michael Parnell were briefly taken into custody after the trial, but they have since been free on cash bonds of $150,000 and $100,000, respectively. Wilkerson has been free on unsecured bond since the indictment.

In their court filing, prosecutors stood by their numbers for victims injured and financial losses — and insisted they possibly understate the impact, according to CNBC.

"Life in prison, especially in a food case, it's frankly unprecedented," said Bill Marler, who has represented victims of food-borne illnesses for two decades. "But the case itself, on a factual basis, is unprecedented." 

The government brief released Thursday is available here. 

 For more information on food safety, please visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s website here.

Missouri sues USDA over crop insurance deadlines

Posted July 22, 2015
Missouri filed a lawsuit pushing the federal government to extend a key agricultural deadline, which is necessary to keep many of the state's farmers eligible for crop insurance, according to a News Leader article available here. Insurance Journal also published an article available here and KSPR here.

Attorney General Chris Koster filed the federal lawsuit against Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

"Missouri farmers rely on the availability of insurance to guard their crops against events beyond their control," Koster said a press release. "The USDA should not punish farmers whose planting was delayed by unexpected rain and flooding by enforcing an arbitrary deadline. Millions of dollars in Missouri agriculture is at risk, and we will fight to make sure these resources are protected."

Sixty percent of Missouri farmers could be ineligible for crop insurance this year, because heavy rainfalls and floods will prevent them from meeting the reporting deadline.

The USDA requires farmers to report their planted acreage each year by a fixed deadline, which is July 15 for farmers in northwest Missouri. Rainfall over the past two months caused severe flooding so severe that the Governor declared a state of emergency. Many farmers were unable to plant their crops in time to get accurate acreage reports filed, even with the five-day grace period normally allowed by the USDA, according to KSPR.

His lawsuit asks a federal court to require that the agriculture agency give farmers 15 additional days to file reports, according to Insurance Journal.

The federal agriculture department says by law it cannot extend the deadline, but said it will work with farmers to help them maintain coverage.

For more information on crop insurance programs, please visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s website here.

Grain storage bins not taxable as property

Posted July 22, 2015

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled that grain storage bins are personal property pursuant to state law and may not be taxed as real property, according to a Court News Ohio article available here. Toledo Blade also published an article here.

The court’s unanimous decision confirmed a ruling of the Board of Tax Appeals (BTA), which determined that the actual value of property owned by Metamora Elevator Company in Fulton County was $738,240 instead of the auditor’s assessed value of more than $1.8 million that included the storage bins.

The court observed that historically the distinction between fixtures that were real property and those that were personal property was elusive. But, in 1992, the General Assembly clarified that storage bins are personal property.

Justice O’Donnell wrote that the General Assembly amended the definitions of “real property” and “personal property.”

“In promulgating R.C. 5701.03, the General Assembly has expressly defined the term ‘business fixture’ to include storage bins, and therefore, they are personal property not subject to real property tax,” Justice O’Donnell explained.

Metamora Elevator Company successfully argued that the bins were temporary business fixtures and not part of the permanent property subject to local real estate taxation, according to Toledo Blade.

How the county taxes the bins has historically been a minor issue, but in 2005, the state began to phase out its tangible personal property tax, an unpopular tax that targeted business equipment, inventory and fixtures. That tax is now gone for nearly all businesses in the state.

For more information on agricultural finance and credit, please visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s website here.

House ag committee approves anti-GMO labeling law

Posted July 20, 2014

The House Agriculture Committee has approved a bill that would ban states from requiring the labeling of genetically engineered (GMO) foods, according to an Agri-Pulse article available here. Food Safety News also published an article available here and Reuters here.

The Safe and Affordable Food Labeling Act (HR 1599), which was approved on a voice vote in a 15-minute meeting, could be on the House floor as early as next week. Opponents of the bill on the committee, led by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., did not request a roll-call vote.

Companies that wished to tout the fact that their products do not contain GMOs, such as with a “GMO-Free” label, would still be able to do so if the bill passed. That process would operate similarly to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification, according to Food Safety News.

Maine, Connecticut and Vermont have already passed laws that would require foods containing GMOs to be labeled, and GMO-labeling campaigns are underway in a number of other states.

Groups lobbying for mandatory GMO labeling said they are increasing their efforts to make sure that H.R. 1599, dubbed the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act, never becomes law, according to Reuters

"The real fight will be in the Senate," said Scott Faber, executive director of Just Label It, an advocacy group pushing for mandated labeling. "This is from over."

They say the bill is objectionable not only because it would overturn state GMO labeling laws, but because it also prevents state and local governments from regulating GMO crops, and would keep the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from creating a mandatory GMO labeling standard.

"Those states like mine, Maine, which has already passed a law that requires GMO labeling... we would be prohibited from doing it," said U.S. Rep Chellie Pingree, a GMO labeling supporter.

Opponents say mandatory labeling would raise food prices, confuse consumers without cause as GMOs are well regulated and are no less safe or nutritious than foods made with non-GMO ingredients.

As much as 80 percent of packaged foods in grocery stores contains GMO ingredients, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which opposes GMO labeling, according to Food Safety News.

The House is expected to vote on H.R. 1599 later this month.

For more information on biotechnology, please visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s website here.

Court date set for Des Moines water quality suit

Posted July 20, 2015

The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties over water quality is scheduled to be heard by a federal trial judge, beginning Aug. 8, 2016, according to a Des Moines Register article available here. Siouxland Matter also published an article available here.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett expects the bench trial in Sioux City to last up to two weeks.

The Des Moines utility is suing Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties claiming that the drainage districts present act as conduits for nitrates to move from farm fields into the Raccoon River, one of two sources of drinking water for 500,000 residents in the Des Moines metro area, according to Siouxland Matters.

Ag leaders have encouraged growers to adopt more conservation practices outlined under the voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to keep nitrogen and other nutrients on farm fields. In the last year, the state provided $9.6 million legislative session for conservation and water quality initiatives, according to The Des Moines Register.

Chris Hensley, a Des Moines City Council member and Iowa Clean Water Partnership leader, said the lawsuit is “not the right path forward.”

“Legal action will create a divide between rural and urban Iowa and do nothing to reduce nitrate levels. Collaboration will increase participation in conservation efforts, such as the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and make a positive impact on water quality.

Bill Stowe, the utility’s CEO, said the utility is confident the lawsuit “will lead to greater environmental protections in Iowa.”

Stowe criticized what he called farm propaganda on water quality, pointing to TV ads from the newly created Iowa Partnership for Clean Water. Instead, he said, the utility wants “substantive discussions about what will protect the quality of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.”

Stowe said recent high nitrate levels prompted the Des Moines utility to run its nitrate removal plant for more than 150 days, longer than ever before. It stopped using the plant late last week.

A final pretrial conference is scheduled for July 26, 2016, according to Siouxland Matters. 

For more information on water law, please visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s website here.

Justice Department: Food companies at risk for prosecution over outbreaks

Posted July 15, 2015

After several deadly outbreaks food, the Justice Department is warning food companies that they could face criminal and civil penalties if they poison their customers, according to a U.S. News article available here. MSN also posted an article available here and Mercury News here.

"We have made a priority holding individuals and companies responsible when they fail to live up to their obligations that they have to protect the safety of the food that all of of us eat," said Associate Attorney General Stuart Delery.

In a high-profile case last year, a federal court in Georgia found an executive for the Peanut Corporation of America guilty of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and other crimes after his company shipped out salmonella-tainted peanuts that sickened more than 700 and killed nine in 2008 and 2009.

Delery, the No. 3 official at the Justice Department, would not say whether the government has plans to pursue charges against Texas-based Blue Bell Creameries after listeria in the company's ice cream was linked to illnesses and three deaths. A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) investigation found that Blue Bell knew that it had listeria in one of its plants for almost two years prior to the recall, according to Mercury News.

"We're committed to staying on top of outbreaks and evaluating potential cases as the evidence warrants." Delery said of the Blue Bell investigation and other recent outbreaks.

Bill Marler, a food safety lawyer, says Justice's recent activity is especially notable because in many of the cases, company executives were not aware of the tainted food, but they were hit with criminal charges anyway, according to MSN.

"It's been very much of a sea change," said Marler. "Once you start down this road you have to decide whether you are going to do it all the time or selectively."

Delery notes the department has pursued some of these companies with laws that are not directly related to food safety, such as those prohibiting wire or mail fraud.

In his effort to warn food companies, Delery spoke to food manufacturers at a safety meeting in Dallas last month. He said the majority of American food is safe, but "even a tiny minority" can cause harm.

For more information on food safety, please visit the National Agricultural Law Center’s website here.