Picking on the Little Guy

If seven friends and family members haven’t already emailed you the great piece by Michael Pollan in this week’s New York Times Magazine, check it out here pronto (requires registration). In the article, Pollan—one of the most vocal and thoughtful commentators these days on food policy and politics—outlines the “hardheaded, pragmatic” reasons for buying locally produced food. He also gives a riveting account of how federal response to the recent E. coli scares will probably hurt small farmers.

Since cow manure from nearby farms is the likely source of the contamination, Pollan explains, the FDA could easily decide that animals and vegetables don’t belong on the same farm. But to an old-school, preindustrial farmer, that rule would seem bizarre; “to think of animal manure as pollution rather than fertility is a relatively new (and industrial) idea,” Pollan writes. And that new concept creates some new and industrial problems:

Wendell Berry once wrote that when we took animals off farms and put them onto feedlots, we had, in effect, taken an old solution—the one where crops feed animals and animals’ waste feeds crops—and neatly divided it into two new problems: a fertility problem on the farm, and a pollution problem on the feedlot. Rather than return to that elegant solution, however, industrial agriculture came up with a technological fix for the first problem—chemical fertilizers on the farm. As yet, there is no good fix for the second problem, unless you count irradiation and [hazard analysis] plans and overcooking your burgers and, now, staying away from spinach. All of these solutions treat E. coli 0157:H7 as an unavoidable fact of life rather than what it is: a fact of industrial agriculture.

Pollan also touches on the issue of mandatory federal inspections, which pose a potential disaster for small farms. “Already, hundreds of regional meat-processing plants—the ones that local meat producers depend on—are closing because they can’t afford to comply with the regulatory requirements the USDA rightly imposes on giant slaughterhouses that process 400 head of cattle an hour,” Pollan writes. But these across-the-board requirements aren’t geared solely toward consumer safety:

If the U.S.D.A. demands that huge plants have, say, a bathroom, a shower and an office for the exclusive use of its inspectors, then a small processing plant that slaughters local farmers’ livestock will have to install these facilities, too. This is one of the principal reasons that meat at the farmers’ market is more expensive than meat at the supermarket: farmers are seldom allowed to process their own meat, and small processing plants have become very expensive to operate, when the U.S.D.A. is willing to let them operate at all.

By the way, the declining number of small processing plants may also be why some meats don’t taste as good as they should. Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill once told me that the reputation of grass-fed beef for being tough has more to do with industrial slaughterhouse processing than with the meat’s low fat content. The big places process so many animals, Barber says, that the still-warm meat gets stuck immediately into a giant fridge, which toughens it up. Regional slaughterhouses (in addition to being more humane) send the meat through various cool-down rooms before refrigerating it, preserving its tenderness. But because there are so few small regional plants left, some grass-fed cows meet their end in the same kinds of facilities as all the rest—making both their meat and their last few moments on earth a whole lot worse.

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