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Where’s the Beef? Portland’s Farm-to-Table Meat Suppliers Targeted by USDA

Well, the federal government continues its protection of the American people through its War on Food. Reader’s will remember last month’s “daring” raid on the Amish farmers’ raw milk cartel. (See “War Against Terror. War Against Drugs. War Against Raw Milk?”) Now that we are safe from the cows’ raw milk, the feds have moved on to addressing the danger posed by the bovine itself.

The June 2011 issue of Oregon Business features an article highlighting Oregon’s burgeoning local meat industry and its response to increasing demand for “farm-direct” meat (also known as “farm-to-table” or “farm-to-fork” meat). Local businesses are increasingly offering farm-direct meats to their clients, while also offering classes on butchering and meat preparation.

Support for the farm-to-table meat movement stems from concerns about the treatment of the animals and the ethics of certain slaughtering methods, as well as the local food movement. And then there’s plain old issues of palate – many foodies (locovore or not) are adamant that farm-to-fork products are simply the best in taste and quality.
And so we have it: ethics-driven consumer desires being met by innovative, local, family-friendly small businesses – what could possibly go wrong?

Well, as Oregon Business tells us, the hurdles are coming from decades-old USDA regulations. For example, the USDA requires an on-site USDA inspector in a facility in order to sell to meat to the public; meat processed in facilities without an USDA inspector can only be legally consumed only by the owner. These regulations have long plagued the farm-to-table devotees. See here. In a creative response to the problem, local farm-to-fork businesses have begun selling the animals (or shares of the animals) to the purchaser before butchering. In doing so, the consumer becomes an “owner” of the animal prior to butchering.

Ironically, while local Oregon farm-to-table businesses are jumping hurdles posed by USDA regulations, the same agency has just introduced new program called: “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food”. The new program seeks to “foster the viability and growth of small and mid-size farms and ranches, and wants to create new opportunities for farmers and ranchers by promoting locally produced foods.”

While it remains to be seen what changes, if any, will come with USDA’s new “Know Your Farmer” program, one thing is clear: as of today, the agency is having a net negative effect on the Oregon local meat industry – and would-be consumers. Of course, the USDA cites to reasonable policy concerns in support of their regulations (i.e. the prevention of food-borne pathogens that threaten public safety, etc.). But, even the feds have to admit that those health risks cannot be eliminated by their current regulations. The last decade has shown that USDA certified products can still lead to e.coli food poisoning, contaminated beef and eggs, and the like. And the scale of the fast food and super-mega-market industries means when USDA certified products are unsafe, a much larger percentage of the public will be impacted than would be threatened by an error at a small, local family farm.

Thus, the real problem seems to be USDA’s one-size-fits-all regulations. The current approach seems to be placing a disproportionate burden on the small, local meat producer. Which is ironic itself, as farm-to-fork producers often already have stricter screening policies in place based on the unique concerns and closer scrutiny of their target market (i.e. foodies and ethics-driven purchasers). Hard to imagine, but it seems the federal government has overlooked the salutary role of the free market in this debate. Meanwhile, the threats posed by the industrial meat producers may be underestimated.

In the end, it appears it’s the USDA that needs to face reality and craft regulations that adequately address meat safety in different contexts. Change is inevitable, and the USDA needs to adapt to the possibility that more and more consumers may get their foods from such an unlikely source as ... farms.