Public policy moment number 1

Since I live in North East Ohio and since the recent case of the “SWAT Team attack” on a food co-op in NE Ohio exploded on the web I thought I would take a moment and discuss the issues that seem to be at play in this event. The details are sketchy, largely because the family that runs the co-op has not yet made itself available for interview. Here is the article about the event in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer (with no assumption that it is authoritative). However, it does seem to be a case of a loosely formed co-op of families coming together to deal/trade in food products that are affected by State laws reflecting issues of food safety. I say this because the warrants seem to have been obtained by the Ohio Dept. of Agriculture. My guess is that the issues are largely related to meat and milk.

Like many people who grow our own, who sometimes raise food animals and who make/prepair food stuff in our homes, I do not always see things in the same way as the Department of Agriculture (either the Fed. Dep. or those of the various States). I am quite comfortable with voluntary State Dept. of Agriculture certifications. If I produce food and my customers want to ensure that it meets certain standards for production then I seek certification and adhere to the certification standards. But, such certification usually comes with two huge negatives.

The first is that the cost of meeting certified production standards is usually more than small producers can meet. A meat processing plant, for example, not only has to have massive amounts of equipment and sanitary infrastructure but it also must employee full time inspectors. My understanding is that these inspectors cannot even be  part time or shared among several boutique processors who might process only when it is their turn for the inspector. We all suspect that this is so in order to keep most processing funneled through large corporate processors but the “why” is another story.  The point is that most “standards” based food production, even farms being designated as “organic”, carry huge financial barriers to entry and huge overhead costs.

The second issue is that many food safety standards preclude the use of  food ingredients or certain food processes necessary for the production of certain food stuffs. The two most common examples are cheese and cured meats. Most cultured milk products require that you start with raw, often whole, milk. Milk that is pasteurized or otherwise processed or added to will not either work at all or will yield greatly inferior products. On the meat side, it is very difficult to get specialty breeds slaughtered locally, with custom butchering and with humane conditions necessary to get the quality products one needs for quality preserved meats. Additionally, many European styled processes actually require that the meats be exposed to beneficial bacteria to obtain the highly desirable result.

This is all by saying that we have gone much too far in our attempt to wrap food production with a cloak of safety that is dependent upon the industrial model. We know, from example after example, that the industrial model fails. The recent incidents of contaminated meat come not from backwoods butcher shops but from industrial plants. Farmers, who are permitted to drink the raw milk of their own dairy animals, are not dying from doing so in any statistically notable rates. Consumers who actually want access to raw milk and locally butchered and specially processed meats are among the most informed consumers we have.

I have, off and on through my life, been a smoker. I say this so that you know that I am not moralizing one way or the other. But … to not regulate tobacco use while we over regulate food production and distribution, both in the name of safety, is simply ludicrous and hypocritical. It is not, and cannot, be about safety. It is about protecting the markets of corporate food producers from local agricultural entrepreneurs.

While the Manna Storehouse may have violated Ohio laws, I suspect they did so because they wanted to do what they thought was reasonable and locally sustainable; and for which they had no legal alternative.

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One Response to “Public policy moment number 1”

  1. Augie Says:

    Hello fellow NE Ohioan!

    The lastest on Manna Storehouse and other documents pertaning to the SWAT-like Raid is located http://wholefoodusa.wordpress.com/category/family-farm-enforcement-report/

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