Saturday, April 17, 2010

Local Meat Crisis

Marlo from Garden Gate just sent out this notice regarding restrictions on small meat processors. Local farms rely on small processors because they do not have enough volume to use huge industrial-scale slaughterhouses.

Guest post from Marlo:
I just got confirmation from Cooperative Extension tonight that the note I received from our organic meat supplier, Engelbert Farms, regarding a reinterpretation by USDA of existing regulations is indeed a crisis for our local butchers and subsequently for our farms and local meat customers. I'll start by saying that the public comment period has been extended to May 24 (previously it was Monday April 19th) and depending on when you get this, only three days away. If you have time to read this note and if you're so moved, please take action by writing to USDAso they'll know what kind of effect, good or bad, you think this will have on you and the farms you patronize.
RELEVANT BACKGROUND: Any meat sold by a farm to a third party like Garden Gate, Wegmans, Greenstar and even restaurants must be USDA inspected. The number of USDA plants in our area is limited (and shrinking) with farms having to book appointments up to one year in advance to ensure that their animals make it to slaughter when they're ready. USDA does not desire for there to be any more "small" processors like those our farms use. They want processors to be "big" because they're easier to monitor.
THE CURRENT TROUBLE: USDA is reinterpreting some regulations that have been in place for several years to mean that all butchers/slaughterhouses/meat processors with a USDA seal must significantly increase the amount of testing they do.
On the surface this sounds great. With all the bad news we've gotten about tainted meat I think there needs to be more oversight/education, better rules and heightened enforcement of the rules in order to protect consumers. The problem is that a broad brush approach is being taken with our small processors. They are being asked to adhere to the same regulations as immense processors even though they have a limited (financial) ability to comply and their effect on the public food supply is limited by their size and yearly meat output. Furthermore, it is not clear that increased monitoring of this sort makes our local meat supply any safer. The numbers that are being estimated by the trade associations are of a $500,000 initial investment by any single meat processor with $180,000 in maintenance yearly. If that's the case, shouldn't people eating meat in CNY be $860,000 safer by the end of next year? Do we have a level of danger that warrants putting almost $1,000,000 into a SINGLE PLANT within two years?
WHAT IT MEANS FOR YOU : For your purpose as a consumer this regulation reinterpretation means a few possible things. If we lose some, even one or two, of our small USDA processors we also likely lose some of our livestock farms which limits supply. As I mentioned above, most of our farms book appointments months to a year in advance to get their animals in to the limited space of our local butchers. Our farms can't compensate for the amount of money they lose by not getting an animal to slaughter on time because it eats into their already limited profit margin. (No kidding- I don't know one of our farms where the farmers make even minimum wage. Most have off-farm jobs to make ends meet. They farm because they love it and the lifestyle. They're not getting rich and they COULD end up bankrupt...)
For those farms that made it through the loss of a slaughterhouse or two, it would mean a price increase of $.50 to $1.00 per pound of meat sold. If you're currently buying local meat you know it already costs more than large (factory) farmed meats and such a drastic price increase is likely to scare away new converts to local foods, those with the lowest incomes, and even people like myself who want to eat locally but who have a limited food budget.
  1. Write to and tell them how this will affect you as a consumer. Feel free to be brief- it's enough to say what your position is and why you believe what you do. If you're able, let me know you sent a note so I can tell Engelberts about our response.
  2. Forward this note to anyone you know that will be affected by this change. Ask them to write a note to USDA too.
FOR MORE INFOWrite to me. I have a small pile of documents from Leona Meat Plant (who most of our farms use) that provides more information about the regs. I'm also willing to share the note I've written to USDA so you can borrow some of my bullet points if you'd like.

Thank You!
I know there's not much time to do this, especially on a weekend, so thanks for educating yourself about this, thanks for taking time to write to USDA, and thanks for supporting our local farms.  It's a chance to stand up for our food supply in a very real way.

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