“I feed my family the same thing?” <– Really?

I have a couple of questions I like to ask people when I hear or read the popular comment: “I feed my family the same [insert meat of species] that you purchase in the supermarket.”  Really?  I think such a statement is disrespectful (though likely not the intention) to the contemporary food system, the same system that means farmers distant from a consumer base can continue to exist in their current form.  Often, this message comes from a producer who has enlisted the services of a local butcher to transfer a home-raised farm animal into their home freezer. My questions include:

The process of being converted from a steer into beef, this was not done on a farm nor commenced by a farmer.

  1. How can anyone definitively say it is the same given that there is no mandatory animal and meat traceability system?
  2. Chances are your local butcher does not use the same technologies as a large-scale abattoir.  Is the product still the same?  Arguably not.
  3. You’ve been through a quality assurance certification program.  (1) Not every farmer has been through such training and (2) if everyone did the same thing on their farms, what is the point of identifying national award recipients for their quality assurance efforts?

This line of questioning does not stop with farmers making such statements.  In general, the individuals that spread such a message are also those who go around telling every consumer they can find that the food they produce is safe and wholesome.  Yes, some on-farm practices exist to help ensure food safety.  These include responsible use of antibiotics and paying attention to withdrawal periods (and farmers deserve huge credit for addressing that issue during the past 2 decades).  On the flip side, those people are typically not the people [unless their processing is somehow exempted and they do all slaughter and cutting in their own facility] who convert living farm animals into food.

There are many challenges in entering animal agriculture, namely capital costs.  I wonder how many people would be farming if USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service had on-farm jurisdiction.  Should it?

This is intended to just be some food for thought.  Often I interact with consumers who exercise “faith-based” food safety beliefs because they simply “know their farmer.”  This is important only inasmuch as satisfying one’s personal ethics for raising food animals.  I hate to burst your bubble, but when it comes to the popular food safety concerns associated with meat [i.e. E. coli, Salmonella], the most valuable “know your” point is to “know your slaughterhouse and/or butcher.”

As I’ve said before, the contemporary farmer typically had just as much to do with the food on your plate as the lumberjack had to do with the paper towels (toilet paper seems inappropriate here…) on you kitchen counter.  OK, so maybe if the lumberjack had something to do with new-growth timber, that’d be a better statement.  The point is, there is an entire food system in place between farm and fork, and major players in it are often overlooked.

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8 thoughts on ““I feed my family the same thing?” <– Really?

  1. Chris,
    I would challenge your comment on a couple of points and agree in some respects as well. Yes, many livestock producers do have meat in their freezer which was processed at a local locker. However, as the primary grocery shopper in our home, I don’t apply your statement only to meat products. Often the questions of consumers are in regard to conventional grain and vegetable production. Yes, I buy my cereal, bread, vegetables, in fact, all staples, at the grocery store. All of those items started on a farm somewhere. In addition, we dine out more often than we probably should. I’m sure the steak or hamburger I order at a restaurant may have been raised regionally, but I certainly have no way of knowing that. There is even a very remote chance that it could be from a calf we raised. So, yes – my family, in many ways, is eating the very same things as all of our non-farming friends.

    • I agree with you, Lady of Ag, with your last point. However, my focus here is simply animal products, namely meat. That said, I do know of a few industry spokespeople who do not farm, who regularly purchase meat in the supermarket or when dining out, and when they state they this is the “same meat they feed their family,” they’re making an accurate statement.

  2. Good blog post, Chris, and good things to ponder. I wonder if the reason that farmers have come to the “I produce safe, wholesome food” argument has to do with where the blame is often placed? E. coli is the problem of feed lots where there’s lots of manure. Salmonella is the fault of factory farm poultry producers. Could it be that farmers should be saying (if it’s true) that “I — me specifically, not anyone else necessarily — am doing my part to make sure your food is safe” and then go a step further to encourage people to know their butcher/slaughterhouse? Just thinking since you gave me food for thought 🙂

    • Thank you, sollmana. There is plenty of blame to go around, yet when it comes to food safety (at least currently) nearly all of the blame rests on the shoulders of people in the processing sector. Also, I think that to say E. coli is a feedlot thing and Salmonella is a “factory farm” thing is a generalization and if I cows or sheep with an entire time zone in which to graze, or if I had 5 hens popping out eggs in my backyard, pathogens are still a concern. As for your suggestion of delineating and identifying specifically what one does as their part in the system, I think it’s fantastic.

  3. In the mid 70’s I was a veterinary specialist in the USAF. As such I had several duties, the largest being food and food facility inspection. There are only two ways E coli gets into meat. The first ( and perhaps most common) is improper handling at the time of processing. The second is improper sanitation by food service workers. We regularly checked people’s finders for e coli contamination because the second most common method of contamination is food service workers not washing their hands after going to the bathroom.

    Neither of these methods of contamination has ANYTHING to do with the individual animal nor, where and how it was raised. It just takes a little common sense and logic to realize the whole individual animal traceability issue is only a packer driven scam allowing them to pass the blame for the blame back to the original owner of the the animal “causing” the infection.

    This already happened a couple of years ago with an Ecoli outbreak in Spinach. The particular strain of E col was traced back to an individual cow in a pasture above the the affected field. If the company packing the spinach would have properly washed the spinach there would have been no outbreak.

    Even quality assurance programs have more to do with the last stage of the growing system than either the cow calf or stockers. There are few drugs with withdrawal times of over thirty days. With most cattle spending 120 to 180 days in a feedlot, this places the bulk of quality assurance (concerning proper withdrawl times) squarely in the lap of the feeders.

    What all of this boils down to is that the Individual Animal Traceability is just a way for packers and packer owned feeders to pass the buck back to an American farmer or rancher who was not to blame. Basically this push to have an Individual Animal Traceability system is a smoke screen by packers to make the consumer think they are being protected from those irresponsible factory farmers.

    • I think we are agreeing on some points and either disagreeing or understanding one another when it comes to other points.

      1) Inspection has changed immensely since the 1970’s, and since then policies like zero tolerance, the expectation of at least one O157 intervention, and a myriad of other testing requirements have developed. Inspection is fundamentally different now.

      2) Yes, the only way O157 or other STEC can get into meat is under “unsanitary” conditions… which may equate to nothing more (thanks to O157’s adulterant) one spec of dust somehow entering the abattoir and getting onto a carcass somehow.

      3) This has EVERYTHING to do with the individual animal because that is how the organism is entering the processing environment! There are known on-farm or in-feedlot interventions available and much can be accomplished with changed or otherwise improved feedyard management.

      4) What it all boils down to is that the O157 eradication and zero tolerance laws are in many ways not feasible without the feedlot operator or farmer doing something — a lot of something — to prevent it in the first place.

      5) If best food safety practices are overlooked at the behest of the “irresponsible factory farmer” (your words), they why is a traceback system to target that sort of irresponsibility (akin to the residue violator list) a bad thing?

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