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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The End of Sustainable Meat?

Posted by Patrick Alan Coleman on Tue, Apr 27, 2010 at 10:30 AM

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Last summer I interviewed renegade farmer Joel Salatin. His Polyface Farms is regarded by many as the golden example of how small farmers can use practices that not only produce healthy livestock and vegetables, but actually increase biodiversity and rehabilitate over-used land. When our conversation turned toward politics and the industrial food system, he had this to say:

"The industrial food system is not willing to live in peace with a healthful alternative. Let’s assume that raw milk was deadly. If I want to drink it, that’s my prerogative. It’s just that the people who have sold their souls to the industrial food system are not willing to live with an alternative, they want to destroy it."

That quote seems particularly prophetic in terms of this week's news that the USDA is seeking new regulations on small meat plants that could devastate sustainable grass-fed meat production in America:

The new regulations, proposed by the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service will require an extensive battery of testing for meat processing products, intended for commercial retail, to validate each plant's effectiveness in assuring food safety.

On the surface, it sounds like a good thing. But for plant owners like Paul Bubeck, of Lewright Meats in Eagle Grove, and thousands more like him, the new layer of testing will be cost prohibitive.

Much more information and red-faced incredulity after the Jump.

It doesn't sound so bad, right? After all, this means that the beef you pick up at the Farmer's Market will be safer, right?

There's just a couple problems: Most health scares in meat production have come from industrial processors (see the WinCo e-coli recall of last week for instance), and most small processors are incredibly conscious about food-safety already. After all, a huge industrial processing plant can weather an e-coli outbreak. A small producer who slips up is much more likely to go out of business for good.

Also, it's important to note that these new regulation will not require some sort of new, better, sophisticated test. It's simply meant to validate that the existing safety protocols are being met. Those protocols are part of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) system, set up in 1996.

Here's a breakdown of what the new validation requirements would mean for a small processor:

The problem is that a large amount of meat products must be shipped to inspection labs for a battery of expensive tests for which the plants themselves must cover the cost.
In Bubeck's case, the initial tally for the extensive tests will cost $455,592. That would be followed by an annual ongoing series of tests tallying $140,182.

So what is the producer to do? Go out of business? Raise the price of processing? The first option would mean small farmers would have to go to industrial processors. The second would mean small farmers would have to increase costs to consumers, jacking up the price of an already costly product.

It's a frustrating issue, and one that concerns local chef Greg Higgins who spoke with Salon.com about the issue:

"What's always in the back of my mind is the industrial food lobby," he says. He suspects that the change in the USDA regulations, and the way they will affect small meat producers, was probably "fairly well thought out by the lobbyists." The popularity of small farms, grass-fed meats, and artisan products like salumi and prosciutto is expanding rapidly, and Higgins suspects that the industrial food lobby is trying to squeeze producers out so as not to lose a share of the market."They don't want any competition," Higgins says. "They're very powerful and I think they would relish the opportunity to keep the market closed."

Maybe that's a slightly paranoid view of things, but it certainly wouldn't be surprising if the industrial meat lobby was supporting the new regulations. After all, one very possible outcome of these changes might be the death of small processors. That's a very frightening prospect, mostly because it would eventually mean more concentrated feeding operations and industrial processors. Say goodbye to local, sustainable meat products.

Luckily, the new regulations have not yet been instituted. While the American Association of Meat Producers is engaging in a letter writing campaign to make sure the new regulations are not implemented, it might behoove you to contact your legislator and voice your opinion.

Tip o' the Hat to Extra Msg for the links

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