The locavores' dilemma
July 20, 2010
If demand for locally grown beef, pork, chicken and lamb is skyrocketing – and it is, according to several measures – why aren’t small, local packinghouses and processing plants springing up like the proverbial mushrooms in the warm rain of this demand?
Several factors keep these mushrooms from sprouting. No one, it seems, wants a slaughterhouse in their town or even outside their town, no matter how much they say they want to support local ranchers and farmers. In state after state, county after county, parish after parish, town council debates on proposed local meat plants have brought out citizen complaints about the smells, the pollution issues, the increases in noisy truck traffic, and, uglier, the assumed inevitable influx of meat-plant workers “who don’t look like us, don’t talk like us.” Then there are the conspiracy theorists: the big bad multinational meat companies don’t want any local meat plants, they say, because the ginormous baddies want to keep the market all to themselves so they can control prices and keep ranchers and farmers in their place. But in conversations I’ve had with executives at those big, bad meat corporations, the executives are pretty much in uniform agreement that a bunch of new plants buying livestock from local small-scale producers and serving pockets of demand for locally raised meat would be a good thing for the industry as well as for the big companies.
The factor that’s rarely mentioned by anyone is the issue that may be the biggest obstacle of all, however, for entrepreneurs hoping to take advantage of the “locavore” market: the cost of food safety. With the few remaining state meat inspection programs headed into extinction as a result of bloody red state budgets, new meat plants of any size must think in terms of operating under a grant of federal inspection. And as every manager at a federal plant knows, while the cost of inspection is paid by taxpayers, the cost of meeting inspection regulations must be borne by the meat company.
That cost has become increasingly higher since 1993, when the watershed Jack in the Box outbreak of E. coli
O157:H7 caused an overhaul of the old system of inspection (without quite throwing it out) and introduced HACCP. Controlling pathogens at critical-control points has become increasingly expensive: for example, carcass-washing machines to remove mud, manure and pathogens from hides, can cost as much as a million dollars each with installation. Steam-vac systems, electronic vision systems that can “see” pathogenic contamination, acid washes and rinses, testing equipment for the lab, the cost of individual tests – it all quickly adds up. The “test-and-hold” protocol that the major ground-beef processors use (and their customers require) ties up valuable inventory, an expense that only the best-funded, high-volume packers can bear. Moreover, training and keeping a workforce that knows how to operate all this sophisticated equipment is expensive, too.
The cost of food safety means the federal government itself is an obstacle for new, small plants. But who is all this food safety really for? Consumers, of course; food safety is for the protection of consumers, who have proven time and again they will not settle for less food safety when more is possible. So the perfectly natural consumer expectation of safe food is also, strangely, an obstacle.
A choice between food safety and locally raised meat is a strange choice indeed. Perhaps the government could subsidize the cost of food safety technology for small meat plants, but that’s not fair to the big companies now paying millions of dollars a year just to maintain existing food safety systems. Bringing down the cost of food safety would be a great help, but that’s not really fair, either, to the industry suppliers spending millions of dollars developing new food safety technology.
Is there another solution? I don’t know. What I know is that our economy ought to allow consumers the choice of buying locally raised food without risking safety and wholesomeness. But then at the same time, our society ought to allow entrepreneurs who want to begin new meat businesses the opportunity to do so without a lot of noisy, racist complaints about the “undesirable elements” meat companies supposedly attract. We live in an imperfect society with an imperfect government implementing imperfect regulations – yet the search for better ways continues. Thank goodness for that.