May 27, 2010

Processing: The Bottleneck in Local Meat

About three weeks ago it was pork chops in a brown sugar/chocolate/chipotle rub. Two weeks ago it was lamb, kabob-style, marinated overnight in a yogurt mixture, basted with an olive oil/lemon juice/oregano "vinaigrette" I guess you might say, as it cooked on the grill. About a week later it was a burger, grilled, topped with some sauteed wild mushrooms and a sunny side-up egg. Last night it was some (big-a#$!) grilled chicken thighs that had been marinated overnight in a mixture of fennel seed, dried oregano, crushed red pepper, salt, garlic, and olive oil.

In other words, we eat some type of meat about once a week (often with enough for leftovers the next night). All of the meat from the last month came courtesy of local farms. One is in Ohio, but it's a small family farm that sells a lot of product through Slow Food Pittsburgh's Farmers @ Firehouse market and Laptop Butcher, and it's within 60 miles I believe, so that counts as local to me.

Anybody who gets local, sustainably raised meat probably has some familiarity with a big issue that these farmers face: finding a processor. There were, at one time, a good number of small processors who could serve the needs of their like-minded small family farmers. That has changed.

For small meat businesses in America, catastrophic events result from changes high up in the regulatory food chain that make it very difficult for small plants to adapt. The most recent extinction event occurred at the turn of the millennium, when small and very small USDA-inspected slaughter and processing plants were required to adopt the costly Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety plan. It has been estimated that 20 percent of existing small plants, and perhaps more, went out of business at that time.

The HAACP, as Joe Cloud -- who operates T&E Meats and works with the uber-sustainable farmer Joel Salatin of Ominvore's Dilemma and "Food, Inc." fame -- explains in his Atlantic piece from which this little excerpt came, is supposed to keep meat free from nasty bacteria and other gnarly pathogens.

The problem is a common one: the regulations were written as if every meat processing plant is the same, whether it has 10 employees and a handful of regular customers or hundreds of employees, operates 24-7, and processes thousands upon thousands of pounds of meat each day.

And let's face it. They are very different. The way they operate and the level of risk they pose could not be more diametrically opposite. So the regulatory structure that ensures the safety of the meat they process must reflect those differences. It's that simple.

Which brings Mr. Cloud to the point:

On March 19, 2010, the FSIS published a draft guidance document on HACCP system validation, outlining new rules which would institute regular, year-round testing of all meats, whether or not problems have been identified. The proposal recommends testing for testing's sake, and it will cost small plants tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, every year. The financial burden appears great enough that this will destroy much of the remaining community-based meat processing industry, which is enjoying a renaissance and creating jobs.

You can learn more here about the new draft guidance and how to tell the USDA that the one-size-fits-all approach is ill-advised and will have multiple deleterious effects on local food and small farmers and processors.

And there is at least some hope that the USDA will listen. As part of the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program that so angered several Republican senators in the back pocket of big ag with budgetary concerns, the USDA completed and released the results of a survey of meat processors that are available to small farms (the big processors often won't serve the little guys 'cause they don't give them enough business, and the small farms, apparently, don't like to work with the big guys anyway: they do their best to raise their animals in a humane and sustainable fashion, and the big processors aren't necessarily known for their, uh, strong track record on safety and humanity). The agency concluded from its survey:

"To support consumer demand for locally produced agricultural products, meat producers need to have access to local or regional slaughter facilities, and the study we are releasing today shows that there is often a shortage of facilities needed to bring food to market," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "The 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' initiative is working to address various shortcomings in the food supply chain on behalf of our country's producers and consumers. If there is a stronger, closer link between production and consumption, there is often an economic benefit."‬ 

 I truly stink at reading charts and graphs and maps, so, based on the maps in the slides from the USDA that lay out the situation (starting around slide 7), I'm having a hard time coming up with a coherent analysis of how western Pennsylvania fairs with regard to access to slaughter houses/processors. But it looks like that, for beef, the situation may be all right; for pork, also possibly not too bad; and for chicken, downright terrible.

I'll have to make some inquiries to the folks I get meat from and see what their experience is like. I'll give myself that homework assignment for tonight and report back on what I learn.

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