We live in strange times. The food system we have makes Twinkies and Coca-Cola a quarter of the cost of carrots and Kombucha. How did we ever get to a place where it makes sense for American-grown chickens raised on small farms to enjoy not one, but two trans-pacific crossings before arriving on our dinner plate? Even worse, why did Congress remove Country of Origin Labeling so that I wouldn’t even know basic info about my food like where it comes from? Why is beef from New Zealand less expensive than beef from my neighbor? Why did the USDA just remove grass-fed labeling rules for American beef?
Our Neanderthal ancestors didn’t have to truck their freshly hunted bison to a USDA butchering house for third-party inspection before they could throw a grass-fed beef party party with all their bros on the high plains. But small, sustainable, regenerative farms (like my family’s) that produce pastured beef have to take the poor animal on a trip in excess of 150 miles to a USDA-“approved” facility, adding as much as $2.00/lb to the final price. That’s $2.00/lb in mileage, gas, time, labor, expensive hauling equipment, and stress on the animals (including lost weight). It’s a trip we have to do twice: once to drop off the cow, and again in three or so weeks after aging to hopefully pick the meat up – and I do mean hopefully. All of that trouble just to sell the neigbors a pound of grass-fed beef.
The lack of inspected slaughterhouses in many regions often means long waits, poor service, and lots of problems for farmers. In some states, USDA approved butchers are a day’s drive away. With such a corner on the market, wait lists are often long, mistakes in butchering abound, and it is not unheard of for farmers to discover that the animal that they brought in is not the one that they took home.
I did a little digging and at least three states have no USDA inspected butchers open to the general farming public: Louisiana, Mississippi, and Wyoming. The USDA inspected facilities in these states appear to serve only industrial and vertically integrated farming operations. Some of my farmer friends thus have to travel 600 or more miles each direction to get their animals butchered to be able to offer meat by the cut at farmer’s markets, retail stores, or restaurants. Think this helps explain why local, pastured beef is more expensive than the CAFO meat at the corner grocery?
This is a very recently created conundrum. In 1965 farmers had roughly 18,000 options for getting an animal butchered, not including DIY and on farm slaughter. Nowadays, there are only about 2,000 left.
How we got here is a rather doleful tale involving a whole lot of government and corporate shenanigans, coupled with an equal amount of slick marketing and social engineering. In the 50’s and 60’s, the head of the USDA decided that farms needed to “get big or get out,” inaugurating an era of small farming annihilation and massive consolidation across the United States food system. Those policies slowly seeped into every nook and cranny of food and farming, from the quaint corner store that became the county Walmart, to the local bake sale where you now need a license to sell a cupcake for to raise cash for charity. This hugely changed the average American’s refrigerator, now filled primarily with products that are pasteurized, highly processed, slickly packaged, and nutritionally poor.
Farmers, processors, distributors, slaughterhouses, grocery stores; the government’s goal was less options, not more. Less players to keep an eye on, not more options for growers and eaters. A few mega players now dominate and control the entire nation’s food supply: over 3/4 of poultry, pork, and beef is controlled by just a handful of companies. Grocery stores and restaurants give us the illusion of choice when it comes to our carnivorous selves. Under the pretty labels and slick marketing is almost always the same confinement-raised, antibiotic and hormone laden, high-cruelty, low-nutrition meat.
The government helped the large players again and again, passing legislation that gave them major cost incentives and other advantages with regards to compliance and further industrializing meat production…who knew that a slaughterhouse needed a magnet to pull animals through? They’re so strong that if you walk by with a metal belt you will be treated to the Magneto effect and may need cut out of your pants to escape! A far cry from the old days. Over the past few years, the push to make small farming economically and legally unviable has continued. A few years back the USDA wanted to RFID tag every cow and chicken in the entire nation, unless they happened to be already collected at a CAFO via the NAIS initiative. The CAFOs and similar operations got a pass on such onerous and intrusive regulations, “for some reason.”
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) already is doing tremendous harm to smaller scale food produces and is a direct threat to the local, real food movement. The FDA released just the produce rules recently, and they totaled over 700 pages of new regulations alone.
If you try to buy a few pounds of ground beef directly from a farmer like me with no government middleman, you will quickly find out what it means to be a criminal cave-person – and that goes double for the farmer. Laura Bledsoe was forced to pour bleach on her farm’s farm-to-fork dinner because of an out of order health official. Vernon Herschberger was the recipient of multiple years and millions of dollars of government attention for providing nutrient-dense foods to his community. Mark Baker and his family have endured almost a decade of harassment at the hands of the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) in Michigan over legally providing people the option of truly pastured, heritage breed pork.
The moral of the story is that small-scale farmers need help to avoid getting trampled by big government operations. This is why the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund is grateful for the support of Keith and Michelle Norris, Robb Wolf, Diana Rodgers, and organizations like Paleo f(x)™. While groups like these teach people how to live more healthful lives and eat real foods, we work to make sure those foods and choices are available and affordable from farming families around the country. Right now, we are working to help pass food freedom legislation like FTCLDF member Frank Wallis worked to get passed in Wyoming. At the federal level, we helped craft and are supporting thePRIME act, the first ever roll-back to the federal meat inspection system, so that you can get back to your grass-fed beef party on whatever set of plains you find yourself and your friends.
Want to help the FTCLDF change the American food landscape? Consider joining us! We are a 501c(4) membership organization. Without members like Robb, Diana, Keith, and Michelle, we couldn’t do the work we do.
>>> Follow this link to learn more about becoming a member of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund <<<
We appreciate your support and look forward to seeing you at Paleo f(x)™ 2016!