BERLIN — When Upton Sinclair got the country and its politicians all atwitter about the conditions under which meat was produced, America was a radically different country. Gasoline wasn’t even really the main fuel for moving things around the planet and the notion of highly-centralized production being the best way to handle all commodities was a fact accepted on the same level gravity was.
It was the heyday of the agricultural practices that would turn the middle of the country into the Dust Bowl. A country where the life expectancy was a full 30 years shorter than it is today. A country that had just ushered in the 20th Century, the end of which would complete a total disconnect between the people growing the food and those eating it.
That disconnect began with the decision that, rather than crack down on the huge slaughterhouses that were perpetrating the bulk of the fraud, straightfacedly selling inferior meat to an uneducated public, the government would regulate local producers out of business. To be fair, the prevailing worldview eschewed the old ways in the name of progress, one of the few things that haven’t changed since the beginning of the modern era.
While almost everything about 1906 would be unrecognizable today, the laws developed under the premise that all food had to be mass produced are still, for the better part, intact. So too is the dominant belief that the same standards that apply to food killed for use in fast food joints must be applied to small family farms. This is why, if you want to participate in the local challenge this summer, it will be next to impossible to have a hamburger.
The federal law governing the production of beef and pork explicitly states that no producer may be excepted from the rules. Practically, that means if you drive out to Greenbranch Farm, in Salisbury, you can purchase bacon, steaks, and even hamburger made from animals that were raised on the property but processed in Dover, Del. the most convenient processing plant for FDA approved meats.
As it stands, the few regional plants that can process meats — here we mean cows and pigs — are not running anywhere near capacity, so the demand for more plants is non-existent and the political will to make changes is even less so. The question of how to localize the country’s meat supply doesn’t even make sense, let alone have traction.
Of course, meat that was raised locally is a perfectly acceptable candidate for a local challenge meal, but the sustainability aspect of the challenge is undermined by rules that, at their core, outlaw sustainability.
Sustainability, however, wasn’t a consideration when the rules were penned. They were written in good faith to keep those who would endanger people’s lives rather than behave honestly when it came to their product in check.
Ted Wycall, who owns and runs Greenbranch Farm said the law only has one aspect that could even be considered a loophole. If you go to his farm you can purchase, say, a cow. Then you can have him kill and butcher your cow for you. But you must take the entire beast and cannot resell it.
The oddity is that nothing like this applies to fowl. Small growers have can have special exemptions under the federal regulations provided they kill fewer than 20,000 chickens — or ducks, geese, or rabbits — annually. This was a power left to the states in the meat regulations.
The laws were also written in a much less litigious time. For today’s small farmer, there is literally no difference between selling chicken, eggs, beef or spinach. If they sell a product that makes someone sick they will almost certainly lose their entire farm. Looking their customers in the eye is the only regulation they need to keep their practices sanitary and safe.
Wycall pointed out that, regulations or not, there are still regular recalls from agribusiness associated with e-coli outbreaks while sicknesses traced back to a farm stand are almost unheard of. There is no margin for error on the small farm, no actuarial tables that explain the worth of taking extra care with the food they are producing.
Beef and pork, assuming they are cooked correctly, propose no greater health threat than do chickens and the like but the there is almost no chance of small farms getting a similar exception for producing small quantities of them.
While beef and pork are slowly being eliminated as sustainable food choices, those animals that fall under the exception appear to have a future when it comes to sustainability. Although some producers find many of the regulations odious or cost prohibitive, over the last several years Maryland has made some strides toward fowl and game sustainability.
For example, although federal rules prohibit crossing state lines to sell farm-killed fowl, Maryland has lightened the restrictions on selling from the farm. Anything other than pork or beef killed on a farm may be sold there.
The idea is that the consumer can make their own choices about a farm’s sanitary practices if they actually visit the farm. Selling at farmers’ markets, however, is a different story. The state requires a permitting process which includes a class in identifying avian diseases and best sanitary practices and an annual inspection of the production facility.
The state expects to offer the all day class online before too long but for now, participation means a day away from the farm — or two depending upon the distance — for the privilege of being able to sell at farmers’ markets.
It’s a quandary for many local producers. In the age of social networking and the emergence of a strong core of sustainable living-conscious shoppers, there’s not a lot of incentive for the small local farmer to go out of their way to sell at farmers’ markets. Last season, for example, Wycall had all of his Thanksgiving turkeys spoken for by the end of October.
Given that the quality of that product makes store-bought turkeys nearly inedible, with the exception of trying to meet a growing market, there’s not a lot of incentive for local producers to make the regulatory effort.
Except that the demand for fresh local poultry continues to grow. Just as with the turkey, locally grown chickens pose a real threat to the consumer’s ability to settle for the pallid specimens in the grocery store, even though they’re often more than twice as expensive.