October 5, 2007

Safe Meat & the Farm Bill

Anybody who has read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation – except for representatives from the meat industry, that is – knows that the large, federally-inspected slaughterhouses where much of the country’s ground beef and steaks are produced are a worker and food safety nightmare.

One of the positive aspects of the Farm Bill that passed the House was some flexibility built into it that would help smaller farmers get their meat slaughtered at more modest, local facilities, and sell it across state lines, as long as those facilities meet federal standards. As Michael Pollan explained in Omnivore’s Dilemma, it’s hard for small farms that do the sustainable farming thing, e.g., grass-fed beef, to find slaughterhouses that are willing to take their cows because of their small volume.

Meanwhile, the feds really are only interested in the large production facilities. In the example Pollan cited in the book, one fellow who sunk millions into setting up a state-of-the-art slaughtering facility for farmers in Virginia producing mostly grass-fed beef was eventually rebuffed by the USDA: told that the agency couldn’t provide an inspector because there wasn’t enough meat flowing through the facility. In other words, it was a waste of their time because the plant “wasn’t industrial enough,” as Pollan put it.

That’s because, as Schlosser explained last year, only 13 slaughterhouses produce most of the meat consumed each year by the large majority of Americans. Those slaughterhouses probably move more cattle through their facilities in a week than a smaller facility servicing smaller farmers might in a whole year.

And let’s just say inspections haven’t been the feds strong suit. As Schlosser explained, how could they?

Cutbacks in staff and budgets have reduced the number of food-safety inspections conducted by the FDA to about 3,400 a year — from 35,000 in the 1970s.

Then, of course, there are the overlapping food inspection duties, with the FDA responsible for some things and the USDA responsible for others, based on seemingly arbitrary differences, such as whether suspect eggs have intact or broken shells. Seriously.

And then there is the efficiency thing. You know that recent recall of meat patties? When first announced, it was in the neighborhood of a few hundred thousand pounds. But then it was expanded to nearly 22 million pounds, the second largest in U.S. history. That company, Topps, the largest maker of frozen meat patties, is now going out of business.

But as we’re learning today, it took the USDA 18 days after they first learned about the contaminated meat to decide that, hey, maybe, you know, we should recommend a recall.

Which brings me back around to the Farm Bill. Now a lot of people are hoping that the Senate will make some serious improvements to the version that passed the House. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), however, seems to be going backwards.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she will block the Senate bill if it includes a House-passed provision that would allow some smaller meat processing plants to opt out of federal meat inspections in favor of state inspections. …

"In recent months, the safety of our domestic food supply has been called into question," Boxer said at a news conference Tuesday with food safety advocates. "Congress should be focused on more stringent food safety standards, not rolling back the federal government's crucial role in protecting our people."

Now, again, Topps, the second largest provider of frozen-beef patties, is a federally inspected plant! The provision in the House bill says the state facilities must meet federal safety standards.

The provision, supported by House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn. and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., would allow some state-inspected meat to cross state lines, provided that the state guidelines are identical to federal guidelines.
Yet, despite this, Sen. Boxer issued a statement, which her office forwarded to me when I called about this issue, that runs counter to this fact:

If the House provision becomes law, meat and poultry plants could choose to forgo federal inspection in favor of more lax and uneven state-run inspections — putting the health and safety of millions of Americans at risk.

I’m not sure what Sen. Boxer’s beef is, pardon the pun. But, as has been pointed out by many knowledgeable people, the tremendous centralization of food production in this country – where a company like Topps could even produce 20-plus million pounds of beef patties – leads to far greater dangers when something goes awry.

And why all of a sudden is Sen. Boxer so concerned about food safety? She didn't even mention it in her May 31 letter to the Senate Agricultural Committee, in which she laid out her priorities for the 2007 Farm Bill.

This is a reasonable provision to which she is objecting, one that could possibly enhance meat safety by bringing more beef from smaller, sustainable farms to market -- you know, from cows that have spent their lives grazing in a pasture and eating grass, not wallowing in their own shit eating corn and filler products that make them so sick that they need to be pumped full of antibiotics.

Something stinks here, and it ain't cow poop!

No comments: