Response to reader: pig garbage & food safety

A reader posted several questions which I really wanted to respond to. Even trying to keep it short, the response grew so long, and took enough analysis and careful writing, to be worth publishing as a post on its own. All of the arguments below need more fleshing out someday, but are worth reading.

That hiatus sure lasted long, eh?

The substance of the original comment:

I would like to pose an ethical dilemma to you – food safety laws. As you no doubt know, the “no garbage fed to pigs” is meant to prevent trichinosis, since garbage can include meat and animal products, which can spread trichinosis (or, more recently on an industrial scale, Mad Cow). Likewise, the “no raw milk” has an important role as well, in preventing infections, some of which can be fatal…know you never do that but I would never drive while intoxicated, either – yet still support DWI laws. In other words, laws are always for “the other guy.” I simply can’t give a blanket approval to food producers simply because they are “organic.” There has to be a system in place so I don’t have to go out to every producer I meet and check out his/her operation. Make sense?

Thanks for your thoughts; there’s way more in there than I have time to fully respond to, but maybe in some future posts. However, I do want to make a few important notes.(1) The reason that the Missouri pig-garbage law was originally put in place has nothing to do with trichinosis or human food safety; it relates to a now-obscure disease originating in California in the ’50s which devastated commercial hog populations but had no effect on humans. The desired effect was mostly to shut down a subset of feedlots which were using bulk garbage as their main feedstuff, and of course spreading the disease through the fraction of pig remains in the refuse. I confirmed this in a call to MDA. The law was effective in stopping the disease (and it did reduce trichinae infection, as well;) but as written, it is a classic example of a poorly-written and too-broad law.

The law defines garbage as “all refuse matter, animal or vegetable, and shall include all waste material, by-products of a kitchen, restaurant, or slaughterhouse, every refuse accumulation of animal, fruit, or vegetable matter, liquid or otherwise.”, which is laughable for a law intended solely to stop the spread of meat-borne disease. For example, this would ban a hog farmer from taking in vegetable scraps from a tomato-processing plant, seconds from a vegetable farm, table scraps from a vegetarian restaurant, or whey from a cheese dairy (an ideal hog food), a meaningless overreach. MDA was unable to confirm whether or not I would even be allowed to feed hogs on my farm extra produce from my farm, and then sell the meat, because the law as written technically bans that for any form of commercial production. They promised to render me a clarified decision and haven’t called back for three months.

I’ve been meaning to write more about this for months but have not gotten to it. It’s worth considering that despite the potential real concerns about feeding animals to animals, our industrial food system still happily and legally feeds animal byproducts to cattle and poultry regardless of risk.

(2) Regarding raw milk, as we’ve written before, we accept the potential danger of raw milk and don’t even drink our own, preferring to make it into yogurt and cheese. However, I see raw milk as a basic whole ingredient just like raw meat and raw eggs, all of which pose significant risk if consumed as such and if handled improperly. Note that restaurants serving raw meat (sushi, rare steaks) and raw eggs (sunny-side-up) carry strong government warnings on their menus, as do the packages for many of those products. Yet people are still allowed to purchase those things and make their own choice as to how to prepare and consume them in their own home.

And though health-nut raw milk drinkers get all the press, there are plenty of people who seek it out for home use as an ingredient for dairy projects; when we paid our employees this year partially in raw milk, we made them sign an agreement not to drink or use it without pasteurization, and taught them how to make yogurt and cheese. They were thrilled, we were able to get paid help, and none of that would be possible without Missouri law’s allowing us to sell raw milk on the farm without inspection. That openness allows customers to take responsibility for their own actions, as well as farms.

(3) Regarding food safety, first of all, please do not conflate “organic” with “food safety”. They are only tangentially related, and I have never claimed to want or deserve freedom from regulation because we are organic. The key factor in my view is the nature of the farm’s marketing, whether local direct-market or commercially distributed through the food system. Whether or not a farm is “safe” has far more to do with the ethics and practices of the individual farmer/business than anything else, and that transcends growing philosophy and size. Direct-market farming allows the customer to take responsibility for their own choices, and the farmer to take responsibility for the direct consequences of their methods, and that freedom does not require ineffective and cumbersome regulation.

“There has to be a system in place so I don’t have to go out to every producer I meet and check out his/her operation. Make sense?”. I disagree. In an ideal economic system, customers do the work to make educated choices. That is often not possible, but in local foods it is far more so than normal. If you don’t want to do that, that’s your choice, but don’t take that choice away from other people. As a market shopper, you’re quite capable of talking to every grower you buy from and getting a good sense of how much they know and care about food safety, and arranging a few visits if needed. If the thought of unregulated food scares you, if you think the government’s methods are safer than ours, all you have to do is go back to the grocery store. But many other consumers like local farms the way they are, and are willing to take their chances in exchange for those farm’s continued freedom from paperwork and bureaucracy and the associated economic impact. Local foods have been growing precisely because a growing set of consumers prefer that personal contact to lots of middlemen; they should have that freedom of choice.

I don’t think your DWI analogy works, because DWI laws do not place an undue burden on non-drunks. You and I do not have to submit to regular breathalizer tests, keep written records of our daily alcohol consumption, allow police to inspect our vehicles whether or not we’re driving, and pay for it all. DWI laws allow us to be innocent until our behavior proves otherwise, because that is the only practical solution. The options above would reduce drunk driving further, but at too great a cost to personal freedom and personal finances. The same is true for the current attempts at food safety. They may increase the safety of certain sectors of the food system by some degree, but at a cost that will be borne mostly by those who are not the problem in the first place, and whose methods do not
place them in a high-risk cohort.

Consider that highway accidents kill and injure far more people than food safety incidents, yet the country would revolt if we took the simple and inexpensive step of lowering all speed limits back to 55 (highway speed is directly related to accident rate and severity). That’s because it would be a direct inconvenience to all citizens, who are generally willing to tolerate more danger in exchange for more freedom. Farms like mine, and many of our customers, are asking to retain similar rights to make responsible decisions for themselves. Certainly, as it is, the current effort at food safety reform is laughably complex and expensive for a problem which is a statistical molehill compared to highway safety, which no one is willing to approach with a ten foot pole.

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