Food Safety vs Food Choices

“Don’t drink the koolaide” – what makes sense? If we as consumers (and we’re all consumers!) don’t have the right to make the most personal of choices, that of the food we consume, then where is choice? Where is choice where regulations eliminate choices? A bigger question – if we’re entitled to free choice why are major corporations so worried about the guy selling the produce, eggs or dairy he doesn’t use? They say it’s food safety. But is it?

I had that statement challenged last night on Twitter and the hard questions never did get answered. Before I get any further here some qualifying statements. I think US farmers produce the safest food supply in the world to the masses that criticize it – and have had to ‘get big or get out’ in many cases meaning more automation, more efficiency. Understand that in a balanced discussion to find the answers out of the current mess neither extreme can be entertained 100%. We cannot have mass production without a downside any more than we can have 100% local without a downside. Farmers fill the need – be  it contracting for major companies or direct selling from the farm. Neither “side” can be blameless because we all eat we all create demand.

From the “foodie” side (aren’t we all foodies?! we all eat!) many don’t want “factory farms” but can’t really say what a factory farm is without most falling through the cracks. It’s high volume in confinement that don’t get to graze – so the person doing rotational grazing (confinement) is or is not a factory farm? A more pointed question – back about, oh, ten years ago when hog prices were 9cents/pound, entire hogs were bringing $18 which left little after commission, checkoff etc – farmers especially in outdoor systems in some areas begged for community support. One got it when he gave away his market hogs because no one would  buy them and he couldn’t afford to sell them – cars lined up a mile or more both sides of his place then! At the time a ham was $36 at the store so the grocery prices didn’t reflect the sale ring. When these farmers needed help and a market where were you? Where were the people to take a half or whole hog to preserve your right to not purchase from the confinement systems you now despise?

Furthermore as weather temperature soars is it all bad for pigs and other animals to be where it’s cooler in climate controlled rather than in the heat? For those unaware pigs don’t sweat – cooling off is needed which is why at fairs there’s fans, misters and other things to keep the pigs as cool as possible.

The thing is both have their merits and detractions according to some opinions. Equally I have personally seen – and this was many years ago – large farms that are NOT typical of most in agriculture. A farm that included treated milk accidentally milked into the bulk tank, diluted so it did not test and shipped. Here is where it gets hot between the “sides” – it’s easy for farmers to sympathize with money loss and easy for others to jump on that as normal practice. In the middle – if consumers don’t have confidence then merely passing ‘safe’ isn’t enough. And if farmers cannot have a way to market even that milk (and there ARE WAYS to market it if it wasn’t made illegal!!) then it’s a  hit to the pocketbook that already has far too little money in it.

Agriculture is so diverse that it’s difficult to make a one size fits all argument. But it comes down to choice, consumer confidence and trust in our food supply.

Several farmers point out and rightly so when there’s an outbreak consumers judge them and they lose money. The swine flu is just one recent example of a public that panics without thinking (and a media that fans the flames).

So the comment was made “Regulations don’t matter much if you’re already doing the right things.” I pointed out  “legislation eliminates for all” and used a personal example from some time ago of milk that met the cleanliness standards but could not be sold or even given away because it was hand milked. The response was “You can’t honestly compare hand milking and an autogate system that removes human contamination.”

Now wait a minute – if the standard is 1 and the dairy farmer’s cows are below that at .8 they’re accepted – but if someone with a few goats or cows hand milks and creates milk that is .7 that suddenly is contaminated because – even though it meets USDA regulations – *how* it  was milked is a factor?

That met with “I’ll bet a lot of food hysterics would buy hand milked products at a premium if it were marketed as such” – which is probably true except for in most states it’s illegal due to – yes – regulations!

I further countered with in Ohio I was pushed for an ingredient label on soap and this tweeter piped up with “That would be correct. It doeos need ingredients. Not an unreasonable demand.” It’s not?! Pick up a bar of commercial soap and look for an ingredient list. I couldn’t find one on P&G products –  indeed there’s precious little anywhere on what ingredients are in there. Yet this person was concerned with a 20 goat herd owner selling SOAP which is not even eaten! (And no ingredient lists were NOT required.)

When asked again about choice the response was “It’s a choice until people start getting sick, then it’s ‘how could the government let this happen’?” I thought at that point of the many many recalls the last few years – affecting millions of people not 10-20. These – again – were not the farmer’s doing but the farmers paid the price. So it was with shock I read the next comment “Outbreaks are related to the producer not adhearing to regs.”

So when processing of apple juice, peanuts, beef and other products goes badly it’s the FARMER’S fault? The FARMER had nothing to do with it – the FARMER delivered a product in bulk as requested…even demanded to feed the masses. That brought an altered comment of “I used the term producer in a much broader sense than you have I include processing.” When did the farmer start getting paid the large markup involved in processing?

Currently a dairy farmer may get about 94 cents per gallon – with that 94 cents he or she must run tractors, maintain facilities, feed and care for animals, replace the endless breakdowns and put in more hours per day than the average office executive doing one job. Have you priced milk reecently? I think it’s a little higher than 94 cents for processing and bottling. Milk prices are paid per hundred weight so let’s be generous and say $10/hundredweight. Something happens and the milk is what would be in the eyes of the public compromised. What if the farmer still had the option of maintaining a list and selling it whole from the tank to a list of people kept on hand for that reason? Perhaps smaller still farmers feeding pigs – which the milk would be fine for.

Is it a case of, as said in the conversation, “In the case of being diluted enough it won’t make a difference anyway. Diluted below detection isn’t enough to harm.” Here’s a case of safe and consumer interest seeming to part ways – and this was not a dairy farmer but a food safety expert. “The processor that handles millions pounds of milk a day has better tech and more trained people than single homemade.”

The hand milked example rose again “then you till have contamination possibilities from many other sources like fecal, chemical, microbiological.” So does that mean that the USDA tests are or are not reliable? If the .7 milk has all that in it and is unsuitable solely for being hand milked then wouldn’t the .9 milk also be from a cleanliness standpoint? The fact is BOTH are safe to drink! From a contamination standpoint BOTH pass USDA qualifications.

The example was then used if an aspirin was dropped in 1000 gallons of water it’d be safe – when asked “if someone is against taking aspirin and you tell them there’s no aspirin in that 1000 gallons of water is it honest? “Yes!”

Which means if your personal choice is to limit to zero and the government says it’s an acceptable safe level to have 1 then it’s safe food but still against your choice. Would it make a difference if there was antifreeze instead of aspirin? Pennicillin?

Someone else asked if you’re Jewish what is an acceptable level of pork to be in your ground chuck which brought a “how much wood could a woodchuck chuck…” comment. This led me to believe in this expert’s opinion the consumer didn’t matter – shut up and take what was offered. This does nothing for communication and CHOICES! Of course that brought hostility with regulations are there for consumers so they do care about consumers.

The low vs zero has been a point of  lawsuits including a $10million settlement by McDonalds on using beef flavoring in vegetarian fries. The amount of fat in it was miniscule – a potato is a potato. Unless it’s dipped in grease  with animal fat – which is then low, not no. Instead that point was missed with “wow you had to go 7 years to find one example of a company that used a flavoring on its fries” – actually it was just the first one I clicked on.

Now at no time did I suggest or say anything about doing away with the whole ag system – for producing safe food for millions of people as demanded it works. Maybe not perfectly for all but there’s food in the stores in abundance. The alternative said was if not liking it here buy from another country. Then asking if I was high for saying it’s all or nothing.

Actually all I said was let those stand as is – they wouldn’t be there  if they didn’t work. But give farmers and consumers the opportunity to buy direct – yes including raw milk – without breaking the law and being arrested as some have been. Again – choice harnessed with responsibility! But but but.the regs.

If the farmer is eating/drinking their own product is that not a good enough endorsement? If you or I accept the risk and liability in purchasing from that farmer (whether 4 cows or 400 or 4000) doesn’t that allow the maximum choice? If someone gets sick it’s known exactly where the food came from. If it’s the risk of buying that which isn’t run through “the system” then the food supply is still safe and frankly for those concerned about testing and safety alone it is a reason to be on that program.

The same farmer producing healthy products sells food whether to a large corporation or to 10 people – why be threatened by 10 people? Someone with a small operation cannot feed the large cities nor will someone in Oklahoma selling 10 gallons of milk and 40 dozen eggs per week even be able to sell “to market” because they don’t have enough volume!

It’s often said farming is a lifestyle and that is every bit as true for someone with a farrow to finish confinement hog place as it is the diversified farm with several small enterprises.

“The big issue there is that you really want to buy food from someone that is accountable to someone for safety/quality.” So now experts tell me what I want? If you’re a farmer and I look you in the eye and ask you questions to make an educated decision on whether or not to buy your food, are you not accountable to me? If you lie to me won’t you also lie to someone who doesn’t stand face to face with you?  Are you really going to go through the effort to separate and serve one thing to your family and another to mine?

The conversation then turned again to “a few private sellers that end up poisoning people” – again if it’s good enough food for market why is it not good enough for someone to buy and ‘process’ themselves? Doesn’t it maximize possibilities by allowing those farmers who DO take pride in producing the cleanest, safest food possible a chance to financially benefit by getting a higher price than ‘the market’ will give for their product?

I haven’t even touched the organic/free range/whatever label one wants to put on it. But the misinformation happens there too including one who insisted his pigs were raised absolutely 100% without confinement – really so there was no FENCES needed to keep those pigs near the hog houses? The pigs just saw a line and decided to not eat beyond a certain point (where the grass was taller)? There’s the funny thing about laws, regulations and advertising – it applies to all. Pigs or cattle confined on 5-10-20 acres vs a dry lot vs indoor housing are *all* CONFINED! No it’s not all the same any more than it’s the same contaminated food can come from any size place and safe, heathy food can also!

Our farmers work hard for their money – they deserve to do more than “get by!” If putting in the effort for quality they deserve to get a higher price if someone purchases direct – how many consumers would buy clean milk direct at $1.50 or $2/gallon? Same milk they’re getting 94 cents for now. Same milk we’re paying over $3 for after processing. If it wasn’t illegal would farmers do it? Would you pay it to make your own homemade cheese and ice cream or soaps?

So I got wondering who this critic was and why he was so defensive and threatened by the small producer and by consumers having choices. I dug just a little bit and found he’s a Cargill employee.

Choices anyone?

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