Well there has been another major food contamination issue with meat. The largest ever beef recall for E. coli contamination. I want all of you to look a bit behind the headlines to see the system that allowed that to happen, what problems it presents for small farmers and how you can help keep your food safe.
No one disputes that the actions and contamination are serious and the animal welfare issues are significant. But why did they occur? The American consumer must share the blame for the problem. The huge push to get their food cheaper and cheaper has led to the systems breakdown that caused the problems. By wanting really cheap food the consumer has set a limit on what they will pay for. Yet the demand is there so the companies look for ways to cut costs to meet the demand. A lack of government funding for inspectors led to inspection delays. No real good traceability of the individual animal into the constituent parts means that if there is one bad one it affects and contaminates many thousands of pounds of meat.
I think the issue all started when we decided that in pursuit of low cost we’d let our manufacturing jobs go overseas. Globalization is nearly always a disaster when it’s for basics and staples. When we lost those highly paid, skilled jobs the workers in the service industry had lower incomes driving food prices down. A factory worker in the early 1950’s with a high school education could afford a car, a house and good food. But when you lose the manufacturing you move to service industry work which is lower paying, less skilled and the jobs are less reliable.
The push for bigger houses, more cars, more consumer goods at an ever decreasing price puts pressure on the companies to cut corners and costs. Open borders to basic goods from other countries mean we are forcing our workers to compete against places where the wages, standard of living and benefits are all much worse than in the US. That’s why big companies want to move to other countries, lower costs, but at what price not only to our own workers but to the workers there.
The speed with which a big slaughter plant is forced to move nearly requires that workers push animals faster than they want to go. Any fearful or slower animal can get hurt or go down and yet there is no provision for working the animals calmly. To their credit many big plants have worked with Dr. Temple Grandin to develop less stressful handling systems but not all do and if the workers are not allowed the freedom to slow the process down or stop it if necessary all the good design in the world goes down the tubes. When faced with one very fearful and belligerent steer holding up the line the temptation is to move it along no matter how it gets done because the company will not accept a slowing down of the slaughter line. And with fewer and fewer people active in or living on farms there is a significant lack of knowledge by many people in how to move and behave around animals in a way that provides a calming influence. Anyone raised on a farm learns rather quickly the best way to get the stock to do what you want with a minimum of fuss, but we don’t train our slaughter workers in stock handling but treat them like assembly line workers dealing with a car body.
Now come the calls for change, increased regulation and the like.
Well I have a very different idea of what we ought to do. I doubt if any politicians will support it yet I am convinced that it would make our food supply safer.
First : We need much more slaughter capacity. The regulations are so onerous now that only a huge plant processing hundreds of animals a day can support the overhead. I am willing to agree that more inspections are good, but I also know that it is possible to produce safe healthy meat products in ways that do not meet the USDA regulations. Any hunter knows that a carcass can cool over a longer time and still be safe. It’s possible to process an animal in the field in the open and yet never have a contamination problem. In fact one of the best disinfectants known is sunlight but the US will not allow any processing to be done outside at all. At a minimum we should allow that any plant that is considered safe to process game meat for human consumption, or do custom processing of livestock should be allowed to package the meat for wholesale and retail sale. Ideally any farmer willing to maintain a food handlers license should be allowed to process and sell both retail and wholesale his or her own animals both as whole animals and retail cuts. We have to schedule our slaughter dates 12-18 months in advance. Think about it. I have to guess at the water, the grass growth, the lambing rates and figure out how many animals I will have finished and ready to slaughter before I have even finished butchering last years crop. I cannot get additional dates so I tend to schedule lots of them and then cancel dates if the animals are not ready. If I have a special customer request for a particular special cutting order I cannot accommodate it unless there is a slaughter date coming up soon. With such long lead times I and other farmers end up booking the butcher in advance and yet they are never sure if we will be ready for them and exactly how many we will bring on any given day. The excess dates I have to reserve make accurate scheduling a problem for the plant. More choices and more capacity would mean that I could schedule slaughter a month or a few weeks before the animals go and allow me to be more accurate to the plant on exactly how many are coming in on a particular day.
Second: Increase the identification requirements. I would like to see every single package of meat include the animal tag number on it and a place to track back to where that animal was born, raised, fed out and slaughtered. If the animal is processed on-farm under the rule above then the farmer address and contact info needs to be on every piece of meat sold. There is no reason we cannot implement that requirement especially in the smaller plants. Custom butchers are already skilled in processing a single animal at a time and keeping each and every carcass identified. With that level of tracking there is no reason why any current custom butcher cannot produce food that is at least as good a quality as the big plants and I would be willing to bet a sheep that it would test out cleaner with less bacterial contamination than even the best big plants.
Third: Replace inspection with testing. Instead of requiring an inspector have samples taken randomly of products and they must meet the contamination regulations. If you meet the rules you can sell your meat to any consumer, restaurant, wholesaler or store.
Fourth: Eliminate the restrictions on selling meat across state lines. If it’s processed in a safe fashion there should be no restrictions on where it’s sold.
Fifth: Eliminate the restrictions on how meat is packaged and who can buy it. Right now a farmer can process at the farm a certain number of poultry and sell them as whole birds only to direct consumers. If it’s safe to do that, and the thousands of birds eaten annually that are processed that way prove it is safe, then that same farmer should be allowed to cut up the chicken into pieces and sell pieces individually both to consumers and to restaurants and other wholesalers. The birds or parts must be identified with the name and farm of the person who raised and slaughtered the bird. All the same options should also be available for the processing of all livestock species not just poultry. It’s just as easy to properly process a sheep or a steer if you have the right equipment.
Sixth: Require the same level of care and regulations for any species that is eaten. Bison, rabbit, elk and all other alternative species should be held to the same regulations as their standard domestic counterparts when it comes to slaughter handling and safety but they are not. Some are more restrictive, elk must be tested for CWD before the carcass is cut while some are less restricted. All species should be treated the same. If there are individual disease issues that only affect a single species then address those individually but the basic regulations should be identical.
Seventh: Allow for any additional testing that any specific farm or processor want to do. The big hassle that occurred when a company wanted the right to test every steer for BSE is ridiculous. It doesn’t matter if the USDA says it’s not necessary, if the farmer or processor has customers who want the assurance of individual testing it should be allowed not prevented.
Eight: Eliminate the restrictions on what parts can be sold. Right now it’s not legal for most plants to process sheep intestines for sausage casings. Or to provide the caul fat or many of the offal cuts like lights, sweetbreads etc. if someone wants them. Why not allow any part of an animal that the consumer wants to buy be available?
Implementing these changes would serve to distribute the food processing system. A distributed system is more stable and robust and less subject to catastrophic failure. If one plant has a contamination issue the labeling requirements would allow for the quick and simple identification of the affected meat without affecting other plants in the area. Increasing the slaughter options means that fewer animals have to be processed at any one place thus both limiting the time constraints and the contamination possibilities. Standardizing the regulations across all species eaten is just common sense. Why there are different regulations is beyond me.
Give farmers the tools we need to provide meats in a safe manner in a variety of ways and the consumer will have more choices.
However there is a cost, a big one. This is much more expensive than the lowest cost approach of the big plants. Smaller plants have to have workers skilled in a variety of jobs not just how to efficiently make one or 2 cuts on every carcass that passes them. That means training them in meat cutting science and it’s not cheap. Small plants will also process fewer animals in a day so that means their prices will be higher on a per animal basis and those costs must be passed on to the consumer. However we will gain in less transportation costs as animals are slaughtered closer to their finishing farm and meat sold locally as well so the total dollar increase may not be as much as the big plants would have you believe.
So do write your various government officials about the problems but propose new and innovative solutions like mine rather than more of the same. We should have learned by now that verticle integration and big plants is a disaster when it comes to food safety. Our worst contamination problems come from large plants not small ones yet the small plants are going out of business under the weight of ill conceived regulations that do not prevent the safety issues they are designed to address.
We need a new system and the consumer will have to require it.