The current cultural climate of concern and borderline paranoia about food safety focuses far too much on pathogenic and short-term food safety, as opposed to nutritional and long-term health and safety. It’s okay to sell many foods and products that could make you sick over the long run (diabetes, obesity, cancer), but regulations grow ever-tighter on how fresh, whole food can be handled, prepared, and sold. A food safety outbreak that sickens hundreds of people is a national emergency, but tobacco and corn syrup that contribute to massive long-term health care costs are just fine, thank you.
In this situation, it’s far too easy for regulators, bureaucrats, or other powerful entities to create problems for small direct-market farms. Over the last few years, we’ve written about various incidents across the country in which small farms or local food producers were unfairly treated or harmed (including our own pig-feeding saga, or the unfortunate Springfield dairy), but the following story is the most frightening I’ve seen yet, involving the attempted shutdown of a farm-to-table dinner in Nevada, including destruction of some food.
The farmers involved summed up the experience thus:
Recently on our farm we invited over 100 guests to celebrate the bounty of the harvest with a 5-course dinner on the farm with food provided directly from the farm to their fork. While our guests were arriving a local health district employee arrived and deemed all of our food unfit and threatened police action against ourselves and our guests if we did not only throw out all of the food; but to make it even unfit to feed our pigs, we were ordered to pour bleach on it. The health district justified this with several reasons that are all arguable but one. The meat that was provided did not come from a government-approved source.
The full story is available here, hosted by the Farm To Consumer Legal Defense Fund, an organization that provides legal services to small farms in just these kinds of situations. We’ve been members for several years, considering it a cost-effective and principled form of insurance, and called on them for advice on last year’s pig situation (they were willing to help if we ended up in a legal battle). For an independent perspective, see this column from the Las Vegas Sun.
This is particularly concerning to us as, over the past few years, we’ve offered food and/or meals to many farm visitors, including potential/existing customers at on-farm events. We’ve always made it clear how and where the food is sourced, including the meats and dairy products we produce and prepare on the farm without government supervision but with our own ethics and accountability. We’ve been careful never to actually offer any prepared food for sale, or accept money directly for the food. These were wonderful events that needed no bureaucratic interference to happen safely and openly; read for yourself about especially nice dinners in 2009 and 2010. Planned future CSA events could also be subject to this kind of interference.
While incidents like this are relatively rare, and thus sensational, they also reflect an underlying problem with our current food system: that there is a basic belief and legal framework which states that people are incapable of making rational decisions for themselves, and must be protected from themselves at all costs, particularly when it comes to food choices and sources. The FDA has openly stated, in response to a lawsuit filed by FTCLDF, that:
“Plaintiffs’ assertion of a ‘fundamental right to their own bodily and physical health, which includes what foods they do and do not choose to consume for themselves and their families’ is similarly unavailing because plaintiffs do not have a fundamental right to obtain any food they wish [bold added].”
The health inspector in the story above, while easy to vilify, was only enacting the logical conclusion of this belief system and can’t be entirely blamed for doing what she perceived to be her job in protecting people from themselves. Our own local health department has a similar philosophy, as I’ve personally experienced on numerous occasions through serving on a farmers market board and within our own farm business.
A significant barrier to the continued development of local foods and small farms is our lack of freedom to conduct open business with willing consumers on their own terms, not the government’s. We currently have no legal right to sign any kind of liability waiver or private contract with a customer that wants to purchase and eat meat, cheese, or other prepared foods handled on openly on the farm with methods we all agree on. You could personally watch me butcher the meat or make the cheese and still be unable to purchase it legally unless it went through a government-approved and -inspected process, adding significant cost for no actual benefit. Did you know that the one certified organic meat farm in this area currently has to drive 5.5 hours EACH WAY to get their meat slaughtered at a certified processor? That’s an 11-hour day, twice (one trip to drop off animals, one trip to pick up meat), just to sell meat legally as organic. And there are only a few processors in this region licensed for commercial butchering at all; one of the closest ones, in New Franklin, just closed.
Ironically for a capitalist country, most of these rules only apply if we try to make money on the products. You can bring any home-handled or farm-sourced food you want to a free church picnic, feed it to your kids, or give it away no questions asked, but ask for a dime in payment for your work and you’re a criminal in the eyes of the local and national food code. If it’s safe enough to feed your own helpless and trusting kids, why isn’t it safe enough to feed a consenting, paying adult consumer?
Finally, stories like this demonstrate the downside of honesty: often following the law simply exposes you to risk and interference. For example, if we’d never done our homework to research Missouri law on swine management, we wouldn’t have learned, and asked, about the obscure law and been told we had to follow it. Chances are no one would ever have given us trouble or even known, but having asked, we set ourselves up and were told we’d be prosecuted if we fed for-sale hogs vegetables grown on our own farm. Along the same lines, our open and honest web & public presence likely increases our risk of running afoul of food laws, as it raises our profile compared to an under-the-radar farm selling black-market products to willing customers but with less transparency. We’ve debated whether we should even write about our on-farm events online because of this, but have so far decided that openness trumps caution. This could change.
The farmers above fell into the same trap, asking their local health department what they needed to do to for their event to be legal and even applying for a permit. All that did was put the event on the inspector’s radar, and set them up for trouble which otherwise almost certainly wouldn’t have happened because it was a private event among consenting adults. What’s an honest, law-respecting citizen and businessperson supposed to do, especially when plenty of illicit farm and food sales happen every day under the radar? We have friends who do this, and I can’t really blame them given the alternatives. Overly strict rules mostly punish the honest and open, not the dishonest or discreet, and keep worthwhile small businesses from starting and developing.