Size Matters

Yesterday a bit of a blog brouhaha erupted over at Ethicurean regarding a certain provision in the 2007 House Farm Bill. Today, a really excellent post from Elanor at Ethicurean went more in-depth and explained the issue in question far better than I can, so if you want the respectable, reasonable, and all-around proper blog post, go there. When aggravated, I am not reasonable, respectable, or proper. Here we go.

A battle is currently raging between advocates of interstate shipment of state-inspected meat products and food-safety groups who claim that this will inevitably result in more people eating contaminated meat products, thus causing thousands of unsuspecting, well meaning local-foods purchasers to immediately drop dead.

Here’s what you need to know:

Current law- Meat products not originating from a USDA-inspected packing plant cannot be sold across state lines.

In the 2007 Farm Bill passed by US House of Representatives: A provision that allows meat products originating from state-inspected plants to be sold across state lines if the state inspection standards are at least as rigorous as the USDA standards.

Reason for proposal: Small livestock producers, often raising their animals in a more humane/environmentally friendly manner, have an extremely difficult time finding a meatpacking plant who will process their animals. Smaller meatpacking plants are that will process said animals are often state-inspected, but that means the producer can only sell their product in-state. So a producer in next to the home office in Lyons, Nebraska could sell to Scottsbluff, Nebraska- 503 miles away- but not Onawa, Iowa -21 miles away.

The House farm bill provision would fix this stupidity in the event Nebraska had a meat inspection program that USDA certified as equivalent or better. Makes sense. A win for family farmers, and a win for consumers who will have more access to healthy, humane, environmentally conscious meat products.

But wait! Food safety groups have found serious flaws in House farm bill provision. Among them: The plants eligible are too large, plants will go forum-shopping, etc. You can read a litany in the comments here.

And from one of those comments comes this juicy paragraph:

We need to find ways for small meat plants and the sustainable livestock producers they serve to get into more markets. A great start would be by making sure that USDA had enough inspectors to get to every plant that needs inspection by filling vacant positions that have plagued the agency for years and possibly working cooperatively with states to use state employees to enforce federal standards (a wonky, but important, distinction from the farm bill proposal.

BZZZZZT. WRONG. I feel obligated to point out that filling empty USDA positions and foisting federal standards upon states doesn’t necessarily increase market access for small producers. And the implicit conclusion here is that small producers are just going to have to live with getting screwed until USDA gets its act together.

Not only that, but the idea of using state employees to enforce federal standards is just wrong. What if a state wants to have stronger standards than the feds? What then? Is this going to be another instance of big corporations pre-empting strong state regulations by getting the feds to pass a law that says states can’t enact stricter standards than the federales? Food companies have a long history of opposing regulation until the very last minute- and then making sure those regulations are written to disadvantage their small competitors.

And this whole idea relies on USDA finally- finally- getting meat inspection right. That same USDA that food safety groups have been criticizing as inadequate, impotent, and generally worthless for decades. Yes, let’s put even more power in their hands. Great.

The House provision has flaws. They should be fixed. But stop with the objections that are just classic political arguments for inaction: “Well, we shouldn’t enact wonderful legislation X because agency Y stinks”. Work on fixing Y, not blocking X.

Raising livestock produces manure, and we all know that manure is good and great and wonderful in proper amounts. However, when you have too much, bad things are liable to happen. Meat safety is no different. The size of the packing plant is the problem here.

The food safety advocates might kill me for this, but I’m going to say it: Small meatpackers should face less onerous rules and regulations than the giant Smithfield/Tyson/Hormel/Whatever plants that kill hundreds of thousands of animals per week. The more small packing plants we have, the better off consumers, farmers, and society in general will be. When it comes to interstate shipment of state-inspected meat, the problem with the House farm bill provision isn’t that it provides inadequate protection for consumers. It’s that it provides too much.

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