Article: Small butchers wary of USDA’s food safety plan

From: The San Francisco Chronicle Online By Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau "Chris Johansen works the line in the tiny Glenn County slaughterhouse that his grandfather opened in 1914. He is one of a dozen small butchers left in California who can turn a local farmer's live cow, sheep or goat into packaged meat. Johansen has no pretty farm story to tell. Slaughterhouses are not a pretty business. He doesn't own a cow or a goat. But he provides a vital link between farmers who raise niche livestock - antibiotic free, grass-fed, humanely raised and the like - for a growing number of people seeking alternatives to factory meat. But farmers like Johansen, from California to Virginia, fear that food safety guidelines proposed by the Obama administration could put them out of business. They accuse the administration of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to food safety. The administration is furiously backpedaling. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service served notice in March that all meat plants should validate their existing safety plans to ensure they are preventing E. coli, salmonella and other contaminations. The draft document, part of a raft of new food safety actions stemming from the President's Food Safety Working Group, calls for microbial testing.

High-tech, small farms differ

While small meat cutters do some testing now, they worry that the proposed rules would require them to do much more, at far greater expense. The draft plan is open for public comment until June 19 and has raised a storm in the industry.

“This is typical of food safety regulations over time,” said John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. “There’s a fundamentally different relationship between processors and farmers who sell in the local community and big, impersonal operations that are bringing in livestock and shipping those products all over the country.

“Very different kinds of operations require very different rules to ensure the safety of the product that comes out of both,” he said.

The small plants are survivors of a rapid industry consolidation that in one generation has left four behemoths – Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill and National Beef – in control of 80 percent of the U.S. meat supply. The giant factories have come under fire for their treatment of animals, workers and the environment. They have been hit with huge recalls, although the industry points to a sharp decline in contaminations.

Small slaughterhouses provide an alternative to farmers who do not want to sell their animals into this system. But without the USDA inspection stamp that Johansen and other butchers provide, farmers cannot sell their meat to anyone.

Ikerd said the government’s proposed rules could pose “a serious setback for the local food movement.”

Top USDA officials acknowledge that a shortage of small slaughterhouses is a key bottleneck for local foods. They are promoting “mobile slaughterhouses” to fill the gap and are seeking ways to retain existing plants and open new ones. On Friday, the USDA issued maps showing vast areas, especially in the West, where small livestock growers have few small butchers to turn to. Wyoming has no slaughterhouse at all.

Part of first lady’s initiative

The project is integral to the administration’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, part of a push for more healthful foods by first lady Michelle Obama. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the seeming conflict between that effort and the proposed safety guidelines is the result of misperceptions.”

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