Local Meat Needs Local Processors

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The USDA is drafting new meat testing regulations for small processors that could deal a serious blow to the local foods movement. If they go through, these regulations may force small meat processors to reduce the number of products they offer, increase prices for processing, discontinue processing under inspection, or worse, shut down altogether. Anyone who has bought meat directly from a local farmer knows how key of a link these state and federally-inspected small-town butchers form in the farm-to-consumer food chain.

“As drafted, these new regulations I believe will drive small meat processors out of business. Many will not be able to manage the financial or administrative burdens the new regulation will require. As a result, if these rules are put in place farmers’ options will be further limited,” says Mike Lorentz of Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls.

Over the years operations like Lorentz Meats have been key allies of farmers who are seeking to market their grass-based, antibiotic-free and organic livestock products straight to consumers. The Smithfields and Tysons of the world aren’t interested in butchering a few head of livestock for local families each week. In fact, they aren’t much interested in buying livestock from you at all unless you’re raising tens of thousands of animals in closed confinement and have signed exclusive contracts that not even topnotch lawyers can decipher. Small processors need family livestock farmers in order to survive, and vice versa.

These new rules would require small meat processors to go through a costly testing and “validation” for each type of product they offer. USDA is advancing these new guidelines in the name of “food safety,” yet the agency hasn’t provided a clear and supportable case for the existence of a food safety problem that this validation initiative will resolve.

In an April 9 Des Moines Register article, the American Association of Meat Processors estimated the initial cost could be as much as $12,000 per product line and then $3,600 a year to maintain. Under these new rules, if a small meat processor offers 10 types of meat products (bacon, ham, jerky etc. …), it could cost nearly $120,000 in testing and validation.

Many livestock farmers rely on small meat processors in order to help get their product to market as well as add value to their meat products. While clearly not all livestock farmers are using local meat processors, a growing number are, especially as mega-meat companies lock up the mainstream market using monopolistic methods that would make the Robber Barons blush.

There’s no reason to believe that these new rules will make meat products any safer, especially when you consider the majority of food-borne illness in meat products come from giant corporate meatpackers like Cargill.

Local and regional food systems are growing and the last thing we need is new USDA regulations that will put in place unnecessary roadblocks and result in higher costs for all parties involved in selling butchered or processed livestock—all in the name of giving the appearance the government is finally doing something significant about food safety. Small processors, and the local food system they support, could very well become victims of a government public relations campaign. Meanwhile, mega-processors continue to violate basic, common sense sanitation rules. When a steer is processed at the local meat locker, the consumer gets beef from one animal and one animal only. Such a single source system helps avoid uncounted food safety issues.

To say the least, that’s not how a mega-processor like Cargill does things. Get a load of this description from the New York Times:

“Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

“The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled “American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties.” Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.”

Yum. Yum. A local food system that treats meat like a tasty, nutritous food, rather than the source of a commodified ammonia-flavored  “mash-like product,” is part of the solution, not the problem. It’s time the USDA recognizes that. Officials need to hear from anyone who is interested in raising, processing or eating healthy, local livestock products. The Agriculture Department is accepting comments on the proposed rules through June 19. Click here to learn how to make your voice heard.

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