Sunday, July 29, 2012

Knowing Your Local Farmers

Photo by Watershed Post

Meat recalls... I get bulletins almost every day from FSIS (the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service) about meat recalls. It's disgusting. This month, Cargill recalled 29,000 pounds, (more than 14 tons) of ground beef as a salmonella outbreak sickened dozens of people in seven US states. 

I follow a blog about permaculture written by a medical doctor serving in the US military, and he also writes for, where he posted some interesting comments about beef recalls.

"First, this is a lot of meat. I wondered how many steers (or old dairy cows) it takes to make 14 tons of ground beef. This is not such a simple question to answer. Was the beef made from mostly old dairy cows, which would be used almost entirely for ground beef, or was the beef from large-breed, healthy steers, which would be used for steaks, roasts, and other cuts, with a much smaller portion going into ground beef production? Let’s for arguments sake pick a weight number somewhere in the middle of the two realms… 500 lbs. This would mean that it would take 56 animals to produce 14 tons of ground meat.

Unfortunately, this recall pales in comparison to the 71,500 tons of beef recalled in 2008. Using our math, that would be over 280,000 animals “wasted”.  
I also thought about how these types of recalls are really a product of large scale agriculture. Is there anything inherently wrong with large scale agriculture? Well, I don’t know. I do know that there are a lot of problems that arise from the practices associated with it. I know that there is a lot of waste. I know that there is a lot of environmental damage. I know that the product being produced is typically far inferior in flavor and nutrition. I know that when a mistake is made, that mistake is proportionately as large as the corporation behind it. So, yeah, maybe there is something inherently wrong with large scale agriculture.

Now, I also had to admit that there can be contamination and illness issues from small, local producers. However, these issues are going to be significantly smaller. They will affect substantially fewer people. In addition, when it is a smaller operation, fewer mistakes are made. This is just logical. When you are only processing five animals from your farm, you will have much greater attention to detail. Your mind won’t start to drift and daydream because you are doing something new the whole time. You will not be lulled into autopilot as you do the same thing over and over again. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happens on the factory floors of the large animal processing facilities. Of course I understand that the small scale beef producer rarely processes his own meat, but the point is that smaller is usually safer."

His point is well taken by me. I buy beef from a man who slaughters only half a dozen beef a year. I know how he raises them, and I know how he amends the soil that grows the grasses they eat. I don't much like the processing facility he uses, but it's the only one for many, many miles around. (The USDA inspector has a permanent office there.) They make as much money from the non-meaty parts (offal, hides, hooves, etc.) sold to outside buyers as they do processing the meats for local farmers.

This leads me into our drought conditions and the price of feed for CAFO beef, which are mostly grain-fed, but that's for another post. 

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