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The One Thing You Can Do To Support Local Food

(post, Cristin Couzens)


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In the movie City Slickers, Billy Crystal’s character, ensconced in a mid-life crisis, stares at his raised index finger. Jack Palance’s curmudgeonly cowboy character, Curly, had just shared the secret of life.  

	“One thing. Just one thing.”  

	Perplexed, Crystal probes, “that’s great, but what’s the one thing?” Palance, in his black cowboy hat holding the reins of his horse, leans in with his cigarette dangling from the left corner of his mouth and says, “that’s what you gotta figure out.”

	At last week’s fundraiser for the Oregon Consumers and Farmers Association (OCFA) and Hollywood Farmers’ Market, Portland mayor Sam Adams asked farmer, author, and lecturer Joel Salatin, “what’s the one thing a city can do” to address food safety issues. Salatin had no problem telling Mayor Adams exactly what that one thing was.

	“Get your bureaucrats out of the way!”  

	With his southern drawl and preacher’s flair Salatin had just spent the last thirty minutes telling a packed house of concerned citizens that local food as they know it is at risk. He has to charge nine dollars per pound for his artisan bacon he sells from his farm, six-dollars of which go to cover the cost of government inspections and regulations.  Large producers can charge closer to five dollars per pound by mechanizing production and meeting only minimum quality standards. “Food safety regulations do not fit the scale of the small family farm.” 

	Using eBay as an example, Salatin posed a question to the audience. “How successful would eBay be if everyone who wanted to sell something on the site had to meet these requirements? Obtain a computer operators license, meet Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations, adhere to fire and building codes, and supply a handicapped entrance. The government tells me I have to have sprinklers where I process my chickens, even though THERE ARE NO WALLS.  If there’s a fire, I just step right outside!”

  	At Polyface Farms, Salatin’s farm in Swoop, Virginia, they process chickens in an open-air structure. Until the new division head of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service visited, Salatin had been processing chicken’s legally on a concrete slab with six poles and a metal roof. Ten years earlier, the head of meat and poultry inspection in Virginia had been impressed with their operation. Now, with the only change being a personnel change, Polyface’s chicken processing practices were suddenly being accused of being “unsanitary and adulterated.”  Salatin recounts the run-in with the new division head in his new book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal: War Stories from the Local Food Front. Trying to understand why the “chicken-police” were suddenly at his door, he asked what had changed.  

 	“Me. I’m the new division head.”
	“But you’re administering the same law, right?”
	“Yes. But I’m interpreting it differently.”

While it’s hard to argue that food safety is not a good thing, Salatin illustrated to the crowd that the definition of food safety can be subjective.  

	But it doesn’t have to be. In a recent comparison of bacterial counts in samples of supermarket chicken and Salatin’s chicken, Salatin’s chicken was twenty-five times cleaner.  “With those kinds of numbers, you’d think the government would shout it from the rooftops, study what we’re doing, and set a new benchmark for safe, clean food.  But NOOOOO, that’s not what they do.”

	The newly proposed food safety regulations will only do more to ‘marginalize, demonize, and criminalize” small farmers, Salatin continued. The food safety bill HR2749 was already passed in the House of Representatives on July 30th. Larisa Sparrowhawk, President of OCFA, points out the most troubling aspects of the bill in OCFAs Summer 2009 newsletter.  Prohibitive registration fees for small family farms producing batches of farmers’ market goods like bread, jams, pickles and cheese. Even more complex record keeping and warrant-less random searches by the Food and Drug Administration. And penalties ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 and a possible prison term of up to ten years for non-compliance with proposed regulations. The bill goes to the Senate this fall.

	If Salatin and OCFA had their way, there would only be two questions of any importance about food safety. “Is it clean?” And if it is “who cares how it got that way?” There are numerous creative ways we can monitor food safety, according to Salatin. First and foremost, he promotes empirical testing and setting benchmarks instead of cumbersome and expensive preventive practices and hazard tracking. Current regulations look only at the process, not at the end result. 

	To stop the new food safety regulations from squeezing small farmers even tighter, the National Independent Consumers and Farmers Association, OCFA’s parent organization, encourages us all to contact our senators during their State Work Period from August 10 through September 7. You can read the bill, and NICFA’s analysis on their website http://www.nicfa.org.  

	Despite being a libertarian, Salatin knows that getting rid of bureaucrats all together isn’t a realistic proposal. He encouraged simple action. “Just start somewhere,” he said. Whether it’s getting reacquainted with your kitchen, crockpot, and food processor, teaching fractions by cups and saucers, keeping a pantry with fewer barcodes, or having one meal a week that’s cooked from scratch, “there’s lots that can be done without a law or a lobby.”  

	Laying awake at night, worrying about how he will get his message to “supporters of local, heritage, artisanal, organic, ecological, sustainable, humane, biodynamic food,” Joel Salatin knows one thing, and it’s the one thing that drives him to speak at events such as this one.  “Informed people act on the information they have.”