Talking Chicken

by Katherine Dalton on June 25, 2009 · 18 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire

chicken

New Castle, Kentucky.  “Simplify, simplify,” said Henry David Thoreau in one of his more peaceable moments, and I repeat it through gritted teeth as I watch the layered complexity that is Mr. Obama’s solution for all the many crises he has inherited.  We want to think that added regulation means added controls and safety.  We want to think perfect security is possible—that fraud can be legislated out of Wall Street, thus protecting our 401Ks, and that mad cow disease can be controlled by radio tagging every American bovine, thus protecting our summer cookouts.

Life doesn’t come with guarantees, though, and in this Great Game we play the presiding rule is often the Law of (Officially) Unintended Consequences.  It is not just that many regulations eat up time and resources that could usefully be spent elsewhere.  Too often, regulations not only fail to protect us but actively work to imperil us, by centralizing responsibility, giving those in power some plausible cover for wrongdoing, and giving those without the illusion of safety.  This is as true of some health regulations as it is of anything else.

If we want a truly secure food supply, we need to grow more of what we eat, grow it closer by, and diversify our sources.  This means a country dotted again with human-scale family farms, complete with farmers.  Health regulations almost invariably work against that scale, however, because regulations are generally in favor of bigness and singleness.  Yet as any tobacco farmer battling blue mold will tell you, or any wheat farmer struck by stem rust:  crisis loves a monoculture.

So here I want to talk about health regulations, and with a nod to Kenneth McIntyre, about dead chickens.

When we think about counterproductive legislation we typically point to the federal government, as I did above.  But with food it is often the state health department that prevents farmers from selling directly to customers, or doing the value-added work that will earn them a living wage.

Chickens are a good example of a farm-raised food that could be simply (though messily) farm-slaughtered and sold, if only the state health department would allow it.  The federal government does allow it.  To its credit, the Department of Agriculture has a series of exception regulations that permit small growers legally to sell chicken they raise and slaughter themselves.  But many states do not recognize those exceptions.  Virginia is one state that does, and hence the irrepressible Joel Salatin (of Pastured Poultry Profit$ and now documentary fame) raises, butchers and sells his chicken to his neighbors, who are welcome to come watch the operation and see its cleanliness for themselves.

Because Kentucky does not recognize these exceptions, farmers here have the legal options of 1) trucking their birds to Bowling Green–down in the corner of my long state–to the sole Kentucky plant open to independent flocks of birds, or 2) renting Kentucky State University’s Mobile Processing Unit, a mini-slaughterhouse-on-wheels.  Currently there is one such unit, in Frankfort, and it must be used on a specially designed and expensive-to-build pad, of which statewide there are two.  (Most grocery store chickens are grown on contract and slaughtered in company-dedicated plants that are not open to independent farmers.)

I’ve spoken to my area’s health inspector for processed foods–you couldn’t deal with a nicer man—and naturally he takes the view that what isn’t overseen closely by regulators is by definition riskier to the public.  Yet it is very hard to credit the argument that small-scale family farms, whose income depends on their reputation for not poisoning their customers, are more likely to cut corners or make mistakes than the large, company-owned plants, with their time-pressured production lines, low-paid workers, and distant relations to their consumers. The contaminated chicken, peanut butter, and pet chow recently in the news were all foods processed in highly-regulated facilities.

Part of the problem is our official insistence that we can prevent food contamination if we just have the right systems and enough inspectors.  We can’t.  Where there is humanity there is error, so much so that some of us are convinced we are born into it.  We can limit the occurrences of contamination, and we can limit their scope, and obviously we can do the latter much better by getting our food from many small plants and slaughtering sites rather than a few enormous ones.  Think of how far the recent peanut butter contamination went.  I am safer eating Joel Salatin’s chicken–raw.

I try to see the chicken’s point of view, too.  Field-raised birds slaughtered on the farm suffer just three seconds of astonishment in their own barnyard, after a pretty entertaining eight weeks of living.  That is much better than the long day of fear they have otherwise, being trucked to a strange place, crowded together, and subjected to the noise and smells of a plant.  Even the smaller plants with slower production lines like Bowling Green’s can’t spare them those stresses.  And any factory-raised chicken lives under stress from egg to knife with no relief

To change Kentucky’s health regulations would take a bill in our highly inefficient state legislature, and while there is no bill pending, it could come about.  Lobbying in recent years by Community Farm Alliance and others resulted in a bill that allows farmers to sell farm-canned goods such as salsa and applesauce.  There are limits as to where farmers can sell these products (not grocery stores), they must take a required training course in canning safety, and they must have an inspected kitchen separate from the household kitchen. Still, these somewhat relaxed regulations mean farmers can earn the additional profit of their value-added processed food.

I have friends in Henry County (generally nice former Louisvillians) who say they could never eat one of their own animals.  I understand somewhat.  People will generally come to care for any creature they tend, unless it’s a rogue, and most animals are not.  But my own view is that the most ethically justifiable meals I serve are the foods we’ve raised ourselves.  The last cow of ours we ate breathed his final breath beside his own barn and never knew what hit him.  I’ve eaten that beef (and our neighbors’ beef, lamb and chicken) with a clearer conscience than I’ve eaten any other meats, because I know how these animals lived and died.  I don’t have to wonder.  You should be able to have that knowledge, too.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Weasly Pilgrim June 25, 2009 at 7:19 am

Minor correction: Joel Salatin lives and farms in Virginia.

avatar Bob Cheeks June 25, 2009 at 7:30 am

Ms. Dalton, thank you, I’ve been looking forward to something from you and you’ve not disappointed. I do hope our liberal friends on this site will take notice.
I do think that by the time the Gnostic Prince is finished with us, we will look back fondly to these days when you were permitted to write such an essay.

avatar brierrabbit3030 June 25, 2009 at 8:03 am

We have a society now made up of “watchers, watching watchers” and still we can’t get our food system to be safe. My own experience with these things is that a set of limited, but sharply enforced laws, works better every time than a great tome of a book of laws that nobody understands, work at cross purposes with each other, and require 100 lawyers and a linguist to figure out. I’ts getting so bad that we all probably break some law every day, and don’t know it.

avatar Katherine Dalton June 25, 2009 at 8:16 am

Mr. Pilgrim is quite right and thank you for the correction.

avatar Dave Chirico June 25, 2009 at 8:33 am

http://www.westlibertyfarm.com/blog

Thanks for a great post. PA follows the USDA exemptions so its a great state for pastured poultry. As a chicken farmer, I take extra care processing all my own chickens. My own family will be eating a large number of these chickens. Many of my customers are my friends, have small children, infants, or are pregnant and I meet them face to face and shake their hands. I answer their questions and explain how I raise the chickens, I’ve even explained the messy details of the butchering process to customers who want to know.

Transparency in processing is a big safeguard on most small scale farms- we allow visitors anytime. Try getting into a federally inspected poultry slaughterhouse.

The results need to be addressed as well. How much bacteria is on a finished pastured bird vs an inspected bird? Joel Salatin mentions this in his book “Pastured Poultry Profits”,

“Also two years ago, two microbiology students from James Madison University took skin samples to measure bacteria contamination. Measured in Colony forming units per milliliter, the conventional supermarket birds (which had been chlorinated multiple times) averaged 3,600CFU/ml and ours were 133, a 25-fold difference!”

Some folks were visiting my farm from Vermont or Mass. and in their state they were trying to approve a mobile processing unit. The inspectors sounded very much against it because it could spread disease. The couple related that the inspectors had said, “even if just one feather spread from one farm to another it could spread disease”. One wonders if the inspectors ever saw a tractor trailer on the interstate full of chickens going to a processing plant, occasionally a feather or two leaves the cages…

avatar Weasly Pilgrim June 25, 2009 at 8:52 am

brierrabbit3030: There are those of us who break some law, and know it. For instance, in my state of Pennsylvania, it is not legal for a farmer to sell raw milk to the public unless they have a state-issued permit to do so. There are very few permitted raw milk operations in this state. I do not happen to live near one. But I do know a farmer who is perfectly willing to sell me raw milk, straight from the bulk tank (and usually still warm from the cow).

We have a legal fiction that we maintain where I pretend it’s for my dogs and cats (I have neither) and he pretends to believe me (3 gallons of milk a week—hungry dogs and cats, yessir). Actually, that’s just a joke—we’re quite upfront about what is going on. But the fact of the matter is this farmer sells his milk to a big dairy conglomerate for a price which hardly covers his cost of production. Mil prices are regulated, by the way. By word of mouth, he has managed to collect a small but very loyal cadre of local customers who will pay quite a bit more for his raw milk, and who are interested in other farm products as well. He has branched into pastured eggs and poultry and is considering adding a pig and lamb operation.

Sometimes, the only adequate response to idiotic laws and regulations is to just ignore them as an act of civil disobedience.

avatar Dan June 25, 2009 at 8:57 am

“If we want a truly secure food supply, we need to grow more of what we eat, grow it closer by, and diversify our sources.”

Is this not what we have in much of the third world and developing economies? Is that food supply secure? How do we know that such agrarian longing is not, also, merely an attempt at perfect security?

avatar Kate Dalton June 25, 2009 at 9:13 am

Dear Mr. Chirico:

Thank you for writing, very much. The Mobile Processing Unit is managed by Kentucky State University in Frankfort, and perhaps their experience could help your friends in other states. As far as I am aware, we have had no problems here. Farmers must take training on butchering to use it, and as I said, it requires a special pad and a also a place and certain techniques for dealing with the offal.

But my friends here who used to butcher their own (there was a period when health regulations didn’t actually forbid it) used their own equipment, did it well, had all the kids involved and took great care, as you say. For one thing farmers are much more likely to notice and set aside a sick-looking animal.

Good luck to you.

avatar Katherine Dalton June 25, 2009 at 11:33 am

Granted, “truly secure” is too strong. No supply is truly secure, and an all-local supply is subject to the painful vagaries of the weather. Many readers will well remember the drought three summers ago.

And in one case I looked at in-depth last year–Britain during and after WWII–the government found it could not fully depend on its locally grown food supply for consistent quantities as well as sheer amount. Throughout the war the country remained partially dependent on imported food (and afterward, when Europe had no hard currency and bad harvests, on giftboxes from America for any luxury). Still, Britain could not have eaten sufficiently through the war without the increased production at home, either. And it is a small country compared to ours.

The word “security” can mean many things. To unpack a bit here, if I mean more healthful (vitamin rich, fewer pesticides, fresher and less contaminated by fecal matter), I am confident we are more secure with a local, family-farm based food economy. If I mean less subject to bioterrorism, or the massive die-offs due to a certain disease hitting a monocrop, ditto. But I would agree with others than the ability to import food makes a country more secure from drought and other possible massive disruptions of our own ability to grow things.

I would also argue, however, that complete dependence–the direction we are headed–on imported food is potentially more dangerous than complete independence, even in a country as large as ours, and with as much coastline and our long international borders. We live as though nothing could possibly keep us from getting the gasoline we use to truck, ship and fly our food hither and yon. But it is not a paranoid fantasy to think that some disaster could stop the flow of oil, or that another world war could disrupt shipments of all kinds. If we are going to talk about security as in National Security, then we have to look as such worst cases.

avatar D.W. Sabin June 25, 2009 at 12:48 pm

I seem to dimly recall that Wall Street was Regulated too but it would appear that fines shall not be imposed because we’re just too busy printing money to bail them out so they can pay us back in time to hand out raises.

Never get between a petty Bureaucrat and his Book of Regulations because he envisions an apocalypse with every non-compliance. The non-compliant are to be pilloried and are a favorite subject of the local newspaper who enjoys the character assassination required for the violation of an august Open Burning Law or perhaps some other catastrophic event.

Drinking raw milk not long ago has renewed my interest in that refreshment since I put a Fatwa on it during College after eating cereal every dangblamed morning of my childhood. For some reason, though one has to agitate a cream floating on the surface after a couple days, Raw Milk never gives me the feeling of some slug-slime crawling over the back of my mouth and into my gullet after quaffing. It actually tastes clear and light instead of like used motor oil with White Dye # 24.

Salatin’s descriptions of “chicken hands” in industrial food service workers is enough to disabuse me of ever touching another Industrial Chicken.

avatar Dan June 26, 2009 at 9:10 am

Katherine,

I appreciate the thoughtful clarification. Still have a couple of questions though:

“I would also argue, however, that complete dependence–the direction we are headed–on imported food is potentially more dangerous than complete independence, even in a country as large as ours, and with as much coastline and our long international borders.”

I’ve never heard this argument before. My experience with agriculture is limited but I was always under the impression that the United States was a net agricultural exporter. What is the current situation?

“We live as though nothing could possibly keep us from getting the gasoline we use to truck, ship and fly our food hither and yon. But it is not a paranoid fantasy to think that some disaster could stop the flow of oil, or that another world war could disrupt shipments of all kinds. If we are going to talk about security as in National Security, then we have to look as such worst cases.”

I think at this point it does rather seem a paranoid fantasy. Even with oil depleted to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome levels it seems food could still be readily transported with either other fossil fuels (Coal) or alternative energies. This may lead to higher prices but it seems this would be one of the last transportation networks to dissolve.

As for war disrupting shipments I’m not sure a blockade could be accomplished across two oceans and the Gulf of Mexico.

There are good reasons for locally grown food. Celebrate your consumption discussions, tell your friends and neighbors, but stay realistic. The world, for better or worse, isn’t going to end that soon. And if it does local agriculture will be the least of our worries (See the Humongous in Road Warrior.

avatar Katherine Dalton June 26, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Dan:

There were a few months in 2004 when the US was a net importer of food. It was an anomaly for now, but an astonishing one given our history of being a bread basket. I would guess imports are significantly down now due to the recession, but haven’t been following the numbers.

We do export tons and tons of food as raw commodities but a great deal of what we actually eat is imported. This is especially true for produce, of course. And there are many people in the ag business who actively argue that farmland is too valuable for other uses (say housing developments or golf courses) to be restricted to its less valuable use as a site for growing food, and hence we should delegate our farming to other countries.

One example is Stephen Blank who is, of all things, an ag extension economist at the U. of California at Davis. He has argued several places that “the U.S. economy no longer needs agriculture and is rapidly outgrowing it.” The amount of farmland is holding somewhat steady in the US, but lots of these acres are underfarmed or largely fallow, and we are losing farmers.

A complete breakdown of our transportation system is unlikely, yes, but it is possible, if there were some kind of nuclear horror or multiple strikes on oil transport pipelines or shipping routes. I can see your point about coal, but not about alternative technologies (not enough power). At the best we’d be talking about far fewer routes (train lines vs. highways, for ex) and long lead times–months or years–to bring online new coal, nuclear, wind or whatever plants. Less extravagantly, if you like, I would argue that a huge surge in gasoline costs would make transporting food very expensive, and that then we might have some third worldish hunger problems–which are due to cost rather than supply–right here at home.

If I sound like Polyanna’s negative opposite, it’s because we are getting an awful lot of Pollyanna from official sources (Dept of Ag, major newspapers, Farm Bureau). No one argues in a vacuum.

Best to you.

avatar Dan June 26, 2009 at 1:45 pm

Katherine,

Thanks for the information, really interesting stuff. Not quiet ready to see “Break a deal spin the wheel” or “Two men enter one man leave” on the horizon but truly great food for thought (Pun intended)!

avatar D.W. Sabin June 27, 2009 at 12:00 pm

The United States Department of Agriculture is the last bastion of Soviet Socialism.

Only an economist…an academic economist to boot would be so utterly daft as to suggest that the nation “outgrow” agriculture. Did he say this before or after the ooze of suburban McMansions went belly up in the Sac. valley and Delta?

avatar Mark Shiffman June 27, 2009 at 7:24 pm

Not to give away too many secrets to the all-seeing eye of the Ag Depts., but states don’t often seem to have laws against buying a pet piglet and then deciding that you want it butchered for food. These changes of heart are known to occur quite suddenly.

avatar Empedocles June 28, 2009 at 4:51 am

This raises an important conundrum for those on the left who are in favor of localized food, but are always in favor of centralized political power. This post does a great job of illustrating why you can’t be for one but against the other.

avatar rex June 28, 2009 at 12:36 pm

Katherine I enjoyed your article, but I think you are missing a huge part of the motivation for these regulations. Corporate lobbying encourages regulations that make it difficult to private farms enter the market. Corporations don’t want to compete, they want secure investments. Keeping private entrepreneurs out of the market is an excellent way to insure those investments.

Typical of corporate manipulation, the selling of chickens is controlled at the state level because it is easier to lobby at the state level especially if your corporate farm does not have a national presence. However, on a federal level The National Chicken Council PAC is very active lobby trying to make sure that regulations limit competition and guarantee investments for large corporate entities. Food safety and security are merely smokescreens for the real intent of those laws.

avatar butcher July 28, 2009 at 6:06 pm

I appreciate your position and understand where you are coming from as I am a small farmer myself.

However, I must say that I am also a butcher and there are food safety issues at risk on farm slaughtered poultry. While some farmers are perfectly capable of performing these tasks with adequate sanitation, not all would be included. We have been butchers our whole lives and it has been imbedded in us how to care for meats properly from life to harvest to packaging and storage. These traits do not appear overnight. I do believe that this is possible, but would require a great deal of oversite and education.

IMO, of course.

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