July 21, 2008

All the Industrial Meat School Kids Can Eat

This is a story about meat. It is not good.

It is a story about the National Animal Identification System (NAIS). Under this voluntary program, participating farms and other “livestock premises” register any cows, chickens, etc. that they raise – even if not intended for consumption -- with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and place a satellite-tracked “tag” on them.

This system is designed to respond to a disease outbreak in such animals, a la the “mad cow disease” problems in the UK a while back. Apparently, some members of Congress think it would help in the case of a massive E. coli-related meat recall like those the United States has experienced in the last few years.

In practice, it would do nothing of the sort.

This program is precisely the opposite of what is needed to improve our food safety. Not only does it provide incentives for [confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)], but it fails to address the main source of food-borne illnesses – poor practices at the packing plants and food processing facilities. In the Hallmark/Westland beef recall, the problem was that the packing plant broke the law governing “downer” cattle and the USDA inspectors didn’t properly inspect the plant. In the Humane Society’s video, every time there was a clear shot of a cow’s left ear, you could see a tag! Changing the type of tag to an NAIS electronic tag would do nothing to address the problem.

The immediate issue? A provision in the House Appropriations Committee 2009 agriculture appropriations bill that requires the USDA to purchase meat products for the National School Lunch Program from livestock premises registered with NAIS beginning next July.

The National School Lunch Program, for those who don’t know, “provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children [in public schools] each school day.”

So, let’s revisit. What’s been the genesis of the U.S. meat recalls? Questionable meat as a result of questionable practices at massive packing/processing companies like Hallmark (meat that is then distributed by other large companies like Westland).

Where do they get their meat: the big CAFOs. So what? Under the said provision in this appropriations bill...

Confinement operations and massive corporate operations get essentially a free ride through provisions for “group identification,” which would not be available to most family farms. The industry organizations who helped create the program carefully provided that group or lot identification would only be allowed where animals are managed as a group from birth to death and never commingled with animals outside of their production system, a practice that is essentially limited to CAFOs and vertically integrated corporate operations. Family farmers stuck with tagging every animal (in most cases, with electronic identification) and reporting their movements would quickly be crushed by the expense, paperwork burdens, and potential fines for any failure to comply with this complex program.

[Quick aside to define something. From the comments to this op-ed, a family farmer provides a good definition of “vertically integrated corporate operations.”

The consolidation in the food animal industry, as well as the continued growth of completely integrated operations (where the processor owns the farm, the animals, and the processing plant), has led to a situation where independent producers, whether contracting or selling on the open market, are beholden to big corporations.]

I don’t know how many smaller-scale farms provide meat products to schools. I suspect it’s not many. But this requirement seems to have the sole purpose of driving any meat from small farms out of the school lunch game -- or, more likely, never letting them get started in the first place.

And, again, it would do nothing to address the problem raised by Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee Chair Rep. Rosa DeLauro in describing this bill:

This proposal would increase participation in the animal ID program. Also, in a case such as the historic Hallmark/Westland beef recall earlier this year, we would know about the history of the animals involved which could help address public health concerns.

Based on my own reading, most small farms do not rely on the same large meat processing plants that the big CAFOs do, mostly because, even if they wanted to (which at this point, given what’s been exposed in books like Fast Food Nation and in other reports about the inhumane way workers are treated and the foul conditions in many of these allegedly federally inspected plants, you wouldn’t think would be the case), they don’t provide enough volume for the plants to accept their business.

And, even more frustrating is that many small farms have a hard time finding processing plants they can work with, and the small processing plants – according to a recent report from the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (to which I can’t track down a link at the moment!) – have their own serious regulatory and workforce issues that are threatening their ability to continue operating.

What’s the bottom line?

Contact your member of Congress and let them know that 1) this proposal sucks, and 2) make it go away. Just say it nicely. Something along the lines of…

In the wake of the recent Hallmark beef recall, I appreciate any effort to ensure meat safety, particularly any meat intended for consumption by our school children. However, this NAIS provision in the House 2009 Agriculture Appropriations bill will do little to nothing to address situations like this, while effectively ending the participation of small- to mid-size family farms that engage in sustainable practices and provide what many consider far superior meat products to those that come from large confinement operations and meat processing plants.

It occurs to me that if Rep. DeLauro is really concerned about meat safety and our school children, she would take steps to provide some help to smaller farms and processors, directing the USDA to specifically purchase a certain percentage of organic fruits and vegetables, and pastured/grass-fed meat from said farms, and offer grants to help processors with their challenges.

I guess that’s too much to expect, though.

In the meantime, hopefully this lawsuit will stop this legislative atrocity in its tracks.

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