Last week, the Topps Meat Company closed its doors forever only a week after it issued a truly massive recall of 21.7 million pounds of ground beef—all possibly infected with a potentially fatal strain of E. coli that already has sickened 30 people. The beef recall is the second-largest ever and as the Chicago Tribune reported, the USDA dithered for three weeks about whether to issue it at all. After the agency finally did, “Topps conceded that much of the recalled meat had already been eaten.”
The focus on meat inspection comes at a critical time: There’s a provision in the 2007 House Farm Bill that allows smaller processing plants to ship meat across state lines if their state inspection standards meet federal standards. It’s turned into a high-volume debate, both on the Hill, where Senator Barbara Boxer says she’ll block the bill if the provision stays in, and on the blogs, where the Ethicurean hosted a back-and-forth on the topic: First the Ethicurean briefly criticized Boxer’s stance, then an official from Food & Water Watch defended it in the comments. Then the Ethicurean thoughtfully put together a lengthy post on the subject. Its conclusion: The pro–state inspection provision isn’t perfect, but it’s an improvement.
Over at the blog for the Center for Rural Affairs, staffer Dan Owens thinks the provision will help small farmers and make meat safer, and he’s angry about the pushback. Owens ends his post with this provocative passage, worth quoting at length:
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.