Earlier this week three farmers I know spent some time testifying before the House Judiciary Committee about the state of meat production in the country, and more specifically about the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. As someone who has watched legislators and presidential administrations from both political parties offering lip service to family farms while pursuing policies inimical to those farmers, I’ll readily admit that I don’t look to Washington with great hope for change. But it was good to hear people I know talking about issues I face on my farm and issues that I see other farmers struggling with.
When inviting people to speak on a panel before a committee, we rarely get the best presentation of ideas from those speakers, particularly in cases like this where the witnesses haven’t been rehearsed and coached extensively. All three people would have done a better job at a dinner table conversation (that’s the way I’ve gotten to know each of them) rather than at a committee hearing table, but I think they did fine given the constraints. One of the most fascinating aspects to me is that, as far as I understand the political and social leanings of these farmers, they aren’t fully aligned ideologically, but they all share some areas of overlapping concerns, so perhaps there are opportunities for bipartisan work on at least some of the issues.
As with most congressional theater, there were all the usual features we’ve come to expect. Several house members clearly must have been the kinds of kids who showed up to class without ever having done the required reading. A few were there just to utter a soundbite to feed the news outlets or to make mean-spirited digs at others. But there were a handful of people from both sides of the aisle who took the time to ask insightful questions, and even if they weren’t entirely sympathetic to all the issues voiced by the farmers, they did allow a few important issues to be aired. The video of the session is below, but unless you are a hardcore CSPAN-type, I don’t think it is worth watching the whole two hours.
My Take on the USDA’s Inspection Service
I will not recapitulate all of the discussion here, but I would like to highlight several issues related to the system of USDA inspection for meat. I’m combining themes brought forward in the testimony, along with a few details I would have mentioned had it been my opportunity to speak.
- Increased regulation has not led to increased food safety. Despite a progression toward more and more detailed safety precautions, incidents of food poisoning have remained stubbornly intractable over the decades.
- The big four meat packers maintain a revolving door with the USDA, so they have insiders staffing the agency. The large packing facilities can exert pressure on the agency to remove or to reassign troublesome staff, and they can create good job openings as a reward for more tractable staff. Regulatory capture is a real issue in many government departments, but it is especially the case for the USDA.
- The USDA’s inspection records reveal that they do far more testing at smaller plants than at the bigger ones, so they unduly burden small operators and skew the measurements of any failures to disproportionately implicate small plants in any failures.
- At the industrial packing facilities, chicken carcasses move past the inspector at speeds of 150 to 175 chickens per minute, and at pork slaughterhouses the line speeds reach 20 to 22 pigs per minute. At those speeds, inspectors can’t meaningfully inspect anything. The type of small slaughterhouses that we work with can spend all day on what would take a minute or two at these larger plants, so only in these small shops can the inspector take their time looking over a carcass.
- The largest meatpackers have been able get exemptions so that they can self-inspect meat, so their own staff performs the inspection work. Small operations are not eligible for this exemption.
- International meat is not inspected by the USDA during slaughter or processing, it only gets checked over when entering the country. Because the USDA also has lax labeling laws, there is currently no way for consumers to know whether their meat was produced, slaughtered, and processed within the United States. This is true for all classes of meat, but it is most especially the case with supermarket and meat subscription services selling grass fed beef.
- Small meat packers have very little ability to appeal decisions by USDA inspectors. The food inspection agency works under the presumption of guilt until proven innocent, and they can shut down facilities and impound all products for months. The large packers can deploy lawyers, microbiologists, and failing that, they can get politically important people to make a few phone calls to resolve issues quickly. Of course the small shops have none of these resources.
I have plenty of thoughts on things that could be better, that ought to be better, but I want to be realistic about what could be achievable. I don’t think Congress will ever work to completely abolish the USDA meat inspection system, so although some people would prefer a purer libertarian “my body, my choice” approach to food, I can’t imagine a scenario where the various embedded interests would ever let that stand. So I’ll stipulate the assumption that we’re going to continue to work under some kind of inspection system. The most urgent question in my mind therefore is, “How can we fix the worst problems?” I don’t think either political party has the guts to do the kind of trustbusting necessary to break up the status quo of oligopoly, so any solutions are likely to be small patches. Which of those patches are politically achievable?
Here are my top three proposals. In my view, these ought to be uncontroversial. None of them will deliver us to any utopia, but I think they’d give some immediate relief to the plight of small meat processors and the small farmers who depend on them.
- If we are going to have a system of inspection, it should be fair. Large plants should not be able to self-inspect meat if small plants don’t have a reasonable chance to do the same.
- If we are going to allow international meat to enter the US market without attribution, we should at the very least require that it be inspected at every production step by USDA inspectors with the identical procedures as are used in domestic meat inspections. But better yet, any imported meat should be obligated to clearly state its origin.
- If we are going to allow USDA staff to shut down entire facilities for a single perceived violation, we need some way for small operators to either appeal a decision or to make any needed fixes, so that they can reopen within a day and not have to wait weeks or months with the livelihoods of all the plant employees and owners in jeopardy.
I realize that most of my readers probably only encounter the issues of USDA inspection in the most oblique way – when they see the little badge on a product label, or for larger cuts they might find the distinctive blue inspection stamp on the hip or shoulder of a roast. My biases here are oriented toward making the USDA inspection system fairer toward farmers, but I wonder if any of my readers have thoughts on how the system could be more aligned with end-consumers, and what politically achievable solutions might be proposed. If you have thoughts, drop me a line or leave a comment below. I’m generally interested in hearing how other folks work through this topic. I’d especially like to hear if anyone has seen incremental success carving out space for the little guys in some other comparable realm dominated by oligarchical corporations and a captured regulatory bureaucracy.