Meet your newest meat safety problem


#1

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#2

So why is the USDA planning to expand this program nationwide?

Because profit solves all problems.

(No, I don’t understand it either, but Ayn Rand’s ghost assures me it’s true.)


#4

Pfff. Why do we need food inspectors at all? Let the people have the freedom to decide who they want to buy from. Let the market decide you commies!


#5

This may be said in jest, but in a way, you’re actually right. I know lots of meat farmers who hate the FDA, not because they want to be left alone to screw the world over with bad meat, but because the FDA is a corrupt, wasteful behemoth of an institution that doesn’t help anyone but bigAg. On the big end of things, the FDA gives us what this article points out- a shitty regulatory system for America. And on the small end of things, for which I mean little, local farmers who raise their meat on outdoor pasture instead of confinement and corn diets, the amount of paperwork and regulatory expenses they have to go through to comply with everything puts them at a big economic disadvantage. They don’t have the infrastructure the big Ag companies have to deal with all that B.S.

So with the FDA, you get a system that sucks on both ends of the scale. When, frankly, I would rather deal with local farmers that are part of my surroundings who have to answer directly to their customers. If they aren’t raising their animals in a proper way, the market will actually decide because people will get sick and not trust them. They’ll go out of business. They have nowhere to hide, no giant corporate wall to get behind. I’m not a free-market-loving, Atlas-Shrugged disciple. But that doesn’t mean there’s no merit to the concept of letting consumers and food providers work it out by themselves. When you keep things small, personal, and transparent, it actually works really well.

so yes, I agree with the article and am disgusted by the FDA’s actions, but the truth is, I’ve found a much better alternate food system that bypasses a lot of that B.S. I don’t have to worry about ecoli or any of the other food scares. Sure, something can happen to our farmers, too, and we can get sick- but the odds are lower, and I actually have the power to do something about it if it does happen. In the current system, we have no power, and have to trust in the FDA to protect us. Which is really stupid, because they haven’t, don’t, and won’t.


#6

Welcome to The Jungle
It gets worse here everyday
Welcome to the jungle
Watch it bring you to your knees, knees


#7

I actually have the power to do something about it if it does happen

I don’t mean to be crotchety here, but what, exactly, do you have the power to do in this system? “Just don’t buy again from somebody who made you sick” seems like a not particularly powerful power, to me. I honestly don’t see how there’s any good protection happening here, just because it’s a small farmer who deals directly with consumers. You can’t fine him. You can’t jail him. You can’t make sure he changes practices to prevent it from happening again. If you get sick, you don’t even have any way of proving where the sickness came from, because who’s there to test it? It becomes a “he said/she said” sort of thing, which means it would probably be difficult to even organize a boycott of the farm’s customers. You don’t necessarily know those customers and, like you, they all “know” that local farmers they deal with directly are totally trustworthy and won’t make you sick.

To my mind, this is a situation where the correct answer is neither “woo, the FDA is great!” nor “woo, get rid of all regulation and rely on personal relationships to police behavior!” The correct answer is that some regulation is done well and some is done poorly, and we need to change how our regulation is done.


#8

Let me know how that works out for someone living in an apartment without room for a large freezer. A farmer doesn’t want to sell you a few pieces of meat, he wants to sell you a whole animal. And the farmer probably doesn’t want to butcher that animal either. You’re going to need a butcher. Now you’ve got a lot of beef in the deep freeze in your small apartment. Six months go by, you’re out of good cuts of meat and eating the tongue. You get sick and go to the hospital. You have e-coli. Once you manage to get off the toilet, do you go to the farmer or the butcher? How can you find out who’s at fault?


#9

And exactly how many people have that option? The last time I knew exactly where my meat (or any of my food) came from was forty years ago when I lived on a farm and we raised it ourselves. Now I live in a city 250,000, and the Farmer’s market is twice as expensive as the supermarket and you can only get there on foot. You are proposing something that, while it may be ideal, is entirely impractical.

The solution to the actual problem is not to do away with the FDA, but to do away with the corruption.

Which could also be said of government in general.


#10

From your link:

After reading The Jungle, Roosevelt agreed with some of Sinclair’s conclusions. Roosevelt wrote, “radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.”
. . .
Public pressure led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906; the latter established the Bureau of Chemistry (in 1930 renamed as the Food and Drug Administration).

I think we’re on the down swing of some sort of Ironic Oscillation.


#11

As some guy recorded at the Porcupine (read: Libertarian) Festival in New Hampshire said on a Planet Money, “If [a food vendor at the festival] poisons me, I just won’t buy from him any more!” (No word on what he’d do if it kills him, or kills his kid, or how he’d pay for the doctor/ER visits since this was pre Socialist Obamacare. Or what all the other people who in the meantime were buying from the same vendor should do.)

http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/06/29/137478762/the-tuesday-podcast-libertarian-summer-camp


#12

Well the good news is that in this “just don’t buy again” world, if you get sick enough that it kills you, nobody has to do anything at all.


#13

I hate to tell you this, but plenty of places around the world have been doing just fine with little government oversight for eons. Here in the states, we’re stuck in a vicious cycle of continually creating more complicated systems that are larger, less personal, more streamlined, and catering to a centralized bottom dollar than individual needs. The result is that you need government oversight, because there’s no way a person or even small group of people can begin to tackle this issue alone. The U.S. did not always have an FDA, or most regulatory things, because there was no need for them. As money and power became concentrated, such a need arose and people like Teddy Roosevelt started fighting big business with governmental watchdogs.

I’m not against that, given the system we’re in. But I have seen firsthand in other countries, cultures, and societies a completely different way of living that works, in many ways better than ours. I know we’ve been trained to be scared of every possible evil that lurks behind every possible germ and microbe, but the reality is much less scary. But there’s no way I can convince anyone who grew up in this country of that- it’s too ingrained in our cultural attitude.

However, in this country, farmers like Joel Salatin ( Omnivore’s Dilemma hero… look him up) have created alternate economic systems based on moral principles that they stick to, which include being as transparent as possible in their practices and knowing their customers personally. They deliver directly to their consumers, are 100% accountable to them, and have to deal with the repercussions. Salatin’s farm has been going on for several decades now without a hitch. If you go to their farm and see the way they process chickens, it might scare you- outside in the open air, just a few interns and rubber gloves. They conform to specific government regulations because they have to, but talk to Joel and he will point out the multitude of problems that large processing facilities have because of how they do things, despite being 100% in compliance with the government. Point being, what is legal and what is best are not the same.

So getting back to your question, no, I don’t need the cops to come jail a farmer that gets people sick. Nor do I want that to happen. But if the Vermont farmers that feed me and my family with their beef, pork and chicken get a bunch of us in their CSA sick, people will know about it since we’re all part of a community- especially with the internet. Since I know the farmers personally, it’s as simple as a phone call or email to ask them what is up with their meat. Because I know them personally, I have a fair amount of deserved trust that whatever happened was not due to negligence on their part- at least, not the kind motivated by trying to cut corners and make a quick buck. If such a thing were to happen, they would do everything they could to “pay us back” as it were, depending on what exactly that entailed- but if someone were to get really sick, I doubt they would just turn their backs and say “too bad”.

But even if they did, they would lose their customer base in one quick swoop. It would take nothing more than a few emails sent around to New York City’s CSA’s and CSA umbrella group to alert them of the farmers’ practices, and pretty quickly, folks would stop buying their products. It’s not even a boycott, it’s simple interpersonal relationships and economics. They lost our trust, so we don’t buy from them. It really is that simple and feasible. We have a lot of power in a system like that because it’s kept at a level where everyone is on equal footing- the farmers and the customers.

But I’m not afraid of that happening, not in that way, because our farmers do recognize their accountability and their responsibility. This kind of relationship gets eroded when food systems become centralized and remote. But they don’t have to be- that’s my point. Like I said, I’m in complete agreement that the FDA needs a huge overhaul and that our current meat system needs strict regulation, given the system it is. I appreciate you blogging about this- I wasn’t aware of the story and I agree that it should be told. But there are alternatives. I’ve found them, lots of other people have as well, and the more folks that realize they exist and support them, the less dependent we’re going to be on the FDA. Because the reality is, and you can dig into the FDA’s history if you wish- the FDA is completely in bed with our industrial agriculture system, as this article points out. They are not going to change. And even if they kill this program because of bad press, they’ll just start it up again elsewhere under a different name.

We can all agree that this is wrong, and email the link to each other in anger, but in the meantime, we need to eat. And our food system isn’t changing anytime soon. Thankfully, a lot of people have been working hard to give us an alternative.


#14

I’m not sure what you’re referring to. Every farmer I deal with sells cuts, not whole animals (though they do that as well to local restaurants.) I live in an apartment in a big city. I don’t really have trouble with what you’re talking about.


#15

How many people have that option? A ton! And if you live in a city, even more so- cities are where these options exist the most because of the concentrated number of people. I’m sorry that you’ve lost touch with your farm roots, but guess what- it’s really easy to get back in touch with them if you live in a city. Tell me what city and I will find you some options.

If you don’t like farmers’ markets, there are CSA’s and food buying clubs that are literally farmers selling direct to folks like you and me. Yes, of course they’re more expensive than the stuff coming out of the meat companies in Maggie’s article for obvious reasons. If you want cheap meat, then you get exactly what the article is describing. However, the CSA food clubs offer cheaper meat than what you’d find at Whole Foods because they are cutting out a lot of middle-man expenses. And you can get cuts of meat that aren’t the most fancy ones and are still tasty, healthy, and affordable. You just have to look.

My friend, the FDA is corruption. I agree with you, but you’re not going to do away with either one for a while. And in the meantime, you’ve got to eat. I’m offering an actual alternative.


#16

Welcome to the Botox Age.
We seem to be getting closer to the “Gilded Age” era everyday… Food protection; worker protection; etc seem to be returning to the baseline.


#17

There’s one argument that says “health policy should be evidence based”. And there’s another argument which asks, “who donates more to my re-election campaign ?”

The principle of weighted utilitarianism then says that, in the absence of a corrupting influence from the industry, the government official will be able to make the right call, but, in the presence of campaign contributions (which provide a 100% certain benefit to the politician), the lobbying position will trump following best practice in food safety (a path that poses a small increased risk to lots of people in the future, but those people don’t matter so much and it’ll probably be OK for most people anyway)


#18

It seems you would have far more power than in the current corporate farming system… for one thing, you could go down there and set the farmer’s roof on fire, and murder his family one by one as they came out the door. That’s what used to happen in medieval Scandinavia. And would it be wrong, if the farmer fatally poisoned all your children? Under the current system, the corporations of the super-wealthy could poison a thousand people and never suffer any significant repercussions - maybe lose a few summer homes or a spare yacht, boo hoo, send an underling to jail for a year. Their victims can’t ever really touch them.

You might scoff or accuse me of various idiotic political views I don’t have, but there is such a thing as personal accountability. When the government has not just abdicated its position of regulating the marketplace for fairness, but is instead actively intervening to corrupt the marketplace in favor of known malicious players, finding a local source of food and drink gives you a greatly increased ability to control the quality of your food supply. Because there’s something and somebody you can personally interact with, physically. Claiming you’re more likely to be harmed is just more “raw milk is poison” anti-science nonsense.

I have to agree with you, though, that the best path forward is not to destroy the system, but to repair it. It worked when I was a child, after all! But you haven’t really thought this through if you think that someone who has found a local CSA has less power over their food sources than a utterly powerless “regular consumer.”


#19

It seems you would have far more power than in the current corporate farming system… for one thing, you could go down there and set the farmer’s roof on fire, and murder his family one by one as they came out the door. That’s what used to happen in medieval Scandinavia. And would it be wrong, if the farmer fatally poisoned all your children? Under the current system, the corporations of the super-wealthy could poison a thousand people and never suffer any significant repercussions - maybe lose a few summer homes or a spare yacht, boo hoo, send an underling to jail for a year. Their victims can’t ever really touch them.

Um. Woah.
I’m going to be honest here. I would much rather live in a society where the power lies in regulation and legal systems rather than in burning down a farmer’s house and killing his family. In fact, I’d like to actively avoid living in any utopia where the preferred means of dealing with safety problems was vigilante violence.


#20

Obligatory!

Surely there is some sensible middle ground between “no regulation at all!” and “the government must approve every action everyone could possibly ever make!”


#21

Well, then perhaps we should focus on my last paragraph rather than my first, eh?

Without effective, fair government vigilantism is inevitable.