encourage you to get to know your farmer. Many consumers choose to do just that.Local food advocates and the USDA both
But what if USDA regulations make futile the time and effort and money that a farmer and a consumer put into building this acquaintance?
That's exactly the case when it comes to USDA mis-management of the process for slaughtering the animals we eat, a fact that recent events have hammered home.
Early last month, the USDA shuttered the lone slaughterhouse in Northern California, Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma, for unspecified violations, and ordered a staggering 8.7 million pounds of beef processed there in 2013 to be recalled. While the USDA has been tight-lipped on the reasons for the shutdown, word leaked late last month that the plant had been closed because it processed some cattle that were suffering from cancer.
If true, the USDA action makes sense on its face. Cancer is an adulterant and shouldn't be in the food supply.
Looked at more closely, though, the Rancho closure is a stark reminder that the USDA's own policies are largely to blame for this food safety problem. After all, the agency is responsible for channeling animals from farmers and ranchers of all sorts—from the smallest grassfed beef farmer to his largest competitor—into a limited number of USDA-approved slaughterhouses. According to USDA data, California has just four approved slaughterhouses. Texas has but one. Many states have none.
Why so few slaughterhouses? The "processing, marketing and distribution networks that once made small farming viable... disintegrated in the last 30 years as U.S. agriculture went through a dramatic consolidation," reported the Washington Post in 2010.
"The decline of small-scale USDA-inspected slaughterhouses comes as the demand for pasture-raised niche meats is soaring," noted USA Today in a 2010 article.
In other words, the increased demand for niche meats is being suppressed by a dearth of slaughterhouses.
A report last year in Washington State's Spokesman-Review detailed the problem. Farmers and ranchers are free to use slaughterhouses that are not inspected by the USDA. But meat from animals slaughtered there "must be sold to the consumer before it is butchered."
"Since a steer yields about 400 pounds of meat, that’s often too much for a single family," reported the Spokesman-Review. "Several families can go together to purchase an animal, but that’s more hassle for the rancher. And it doesn’t address the needs of individuals who just want to purchase a few steaks or some ground chuck."
The result, as NPR reported in 2012, is that "many local meat products are sent to slaughterhouses hundreds of miles away, across state lines."
The impact of limiting where animals can be slaughtered have real-world consequences—including the Rancho recall.
When the USDA announced the Rancho recall, for example, that recall ensnared not only allegedly cancerous cattle from an unknown culprit or culprits but also that of every other producer who's had an animal slaughtered in the Rancho Feeding plant in the last year—out of what the San Francisco Chronicle termed "an abundance of caution... to make sure none of the cancerous meat commingled with healthful beef."
That includes cattle sent to Rancho by famed grassfed farmer Bill Niman, who told the Chronicle that he's out almost $400,000 even though his 427 cows were cancer-free and he could prove to the USDA that those cattle were not commingled with the diseased meat.