Thursday, January 8, 2009

Great Comments from the Team at John's Custom Meats

We are exceedingly lucky to already have a local option for our beef and pork products in Sustainable Glasgow member, John's Custom Meats. Today I got this thoughtful and informative response from them relative to the petition I sent around yesterday. Everyone should read what Amy has to say:

I found this information interesting, and informative. I agree with many of the views of these candidates, but I also have problems with some.


I do not feel that it is necessarily the USDA that needs saving. I realize that this is contradictory to what many believe and it is not a popular thing to say, but the fact of the matter is...it is difficult for a small processor to stay within USDA guidelines. I see this as a good thing. It should not be easy to be a USDA food processor. It could put the nation's food supply at a higher risk.


I have been in many "custom" livestock processing establishments over the years, and it would shock you to see the conditions under which the livestock are handled and the meats are processed. These "custom" facilities are regulated under FDA or the state health department. Those custom establishments should remain "custom". It is unsanitary and unacceptable for my family. In order to meet the strict regulations to become a USDA facility, you must have some scientific ability, sanitation is a must, and safety is nearly guaranteed. Even during custom operation, an official USDA operation must operate under the same sanitation and guidelines. USDA restrictions are harsh, expensive, and for the most part keep the nation's food supply safe.


The organization that needs the most change is the FDA. That organization is ill organized, ill equipped, and ill enforced. The Food and Drug has multiple problems.


Since meat is what I know best, I will use the beef industry as an example. Commercial beef production is a big business. It is a big business in Washington, as well. It will be difficult to change. It is also possible that changes to this "big business" could be harmful to those small farmers who do not have the resources or desire to be any more than a calf supplier. Many cattle producers do not want to retail their meats. Most small scale processors do not have the capacity, working capital, skilled labor force, etc. to handle the cattle in large numbers. The costs involved in this type of venture would not warrant even trying.


There will also be repercussions to this change, in the form of higher consumer costs. It is my opinion that Washington should reward those of us who are trying to create jobs in rural areas, trying to teach skills that have gone with the times, trying to support and keep the small family farms, trying to inform consumers of the choices available, trying to create new markets and entrepreneurship opportunities to small farmers, through the use of working capital, grant monies, educational sources for consumers, and the same access to tax breaks that large corporations receive. But, it is the local public that will ultimately cast their vote through the dollars that they spend.


I also have my problems with Organic. I am not a fan. There are several reasons that I am not a fan of Organic. In many states, organic fees are not reachable for a small farming family. You will find that most cattle, swine, lamb, and goat producers would prefer to see a push for locally produced or naturally produced (in this scenario, I consider "natural" as small numbers in open lots under natural conditions with free range to grains and forages and sunshine). Organic is over rated and overpriced, in my opinion. It is also, in my opinion, less safe (in the meat sector anyway). In large, if you are purchasing organic products.you are purchasing from commercial farming industries. These are the majority of the suppliers for organic. The majority of organic products are trucked hundreds of miles and imported, as well. It is not common for a small family farmer to produce organic under the restrictions that organic carries and the paperwork involved in organic would be enough to deplete small forests.


It is not, in my opinion, the USDA itself that needs change...it is the "commercial farming industries" and the public that need change. Commercial farming allows prices to stay lower for consumers. Expenses for small farmers and small food processors are much higher. Many aspects of the processing business that are expenses to a smaller processor are actually income producers for a large scale operation.


For instance, rendering (or scrap removal). This is a major expense for a small scale processor. It is also restrictive. There are no choices for a rendering company. There is only one in our region. You pay the costs, without choice, or you shut down. It is a necessity. It is restrictive in the fact that the current rendering company will not accept scrap for sheep and goat, due to the "publics" concerns over the sheep and goat form of BSE. Now as a small business, I have a market that I cannot access. I have small farmers in the area that are forced to pay higher rates to have their sheep and goat processed because of the restrictions on scrap removal. The landfills in Barren County and Warren County will not accept the scrap, as do many other areas, due to the public disapproval, even though the scrap from these animals will naturally facilitate the decomposition of the landfills rapidly and is welcomed in other areas of the state. It would also open a huge market area for our business and our numerous local sheep and goat producers. Currently, most are just dumping the scraps in hidden areas of rural land, which in turn, finds its' way into our livestock drinking supplies. Does that really make sense?


We, as a business and as a responsible farmer, refuse to use this option. Unfortunately, many do resort to it. If supported by county governments, we could open a huge doorway for the numerous goat/sheep producers in the region. I got off track a bit. A major packer typically owns their own rendering company and is able to profit from the scrap through recycling into sellable products. Small processors are forced to pay the rates set by one company and add to a list of expenses that must be passed onto the local farmer in order to continue doing business.

Changing the way commercial farmers "do business" is a double edged sword. While it is more economically friendly and humane to change, it will also force consumers to pay higher prices at the retail level.


Is our economy in a place where the consumers can undertake this increase?

For example, I raise my own beef...I finish my own beef. Grains are not as readily available here as they are in the Mid Western Corn Belt; therefore the costs are higher for me to finished cattle on a small scale. Those excesses must be recovered in order for that to be a profitable venture. Recover comes at the retail level, the consumer.


Consumers must be willing to pay higher prices for sustainable products. I have yet to see that this is the case in our local area. Monies are tight on all fronts. Pinching pennies is necessary for most Kentuckians to feed their families. A majority see locally produced meat products as luxuries, not necessities. They are more apt to purchase the commercially produced beef/pork/poultry, etc. with lesser quality, than the sustainable, consciously produced meats of local origin with higher quality and safety because of the price.


Our retail is able to stay in line with the grocery within pennies, only because we are the processor...wholesaler...and retailer (and livestock producer in many cases). A family farmer would not be able to keep these prices in the range of the supermarket. He/She would have the extra expense of processing fees (which are rising due to heavier restrictions of the USDA and material costs rising by more than 30% on staple processing supplies, energy increases from utility companies, lack of ability to get needing working capital from banking institutions, etc.) along with advertising expenses, farmers' market fees, transportation fees to and from the markets, extra time involved, liability insurance increases, etc... He/She cannot keep the pricing in the range of the supermarket.

The public needs and education. They have become disconnected to their food sources. The public needs to be informed of the differences between purchasing local and the staple supermarket. The difference in safety of the meats. For example, beef grown on small family farms do not receive growth promoting hormones, nor do they need antibiotic supplements in their feeds. Beef processed in a facility such as ours is 100% E-coli tested vs. the major packer of less than 1%. In small processing establishments livestock are processed one at a time, by generational skilled butchers vs. major packers with underpaid, unskilled, and in many cases illegal immigrants. By "one at a time" I mean that the livestock is harvested one at a time and also processed one at a time. The side of beef comes out of the hanging cooler after properly aging to dry water content and then completed processed by one butcher, wrapped and frozen. Then the next side of beef is brought in. In a major packer, beef are processed within 24 hrs (in many cases) sent down an assembly line with workers working on numerous of animals at a time, send on conveyors to the next station where they are further mixed with numerous animals.


This is a continued chain, depending on the type and purpose of the processing facility.

Ground meats in our retail or from a small family farmer are from single sourced livestock, meaning that pound of burger came from ONE animal. One pound of ground meats in the supermarket will contain meats from 1000's of animals, some imported and some domestic. Thanks to the new COOL labels, you will be able to see this practice for yourself. You will notice that the ground meats will have a variety of countries listing on the labels. It is common practice to mix imported lean beef with domestic fattier beef to create the leaner mixes that consumers are requesting. Domestic beef tend to be choice grade on average. This makes a nice tender steak and a flavorful roast, but you cannot get 90% or higher lean burger from a choice beef. Therefore, the imported leaner beef is added to the mix to get the desired consumers fat content.


Are consumers ready to change? I'm not sure at this point. Our sales would suggest that they are not. Currently, with the state of the economy, local products move much slower than the products brought in from a supplier. Perhaps, with the proper education change will come?

Then there is the trickery or marketing strategies used by the supermarkets and grocery stores. The public is duped. The public needs an education on what those labels really mean. I use meat as example, because meat is what I know. For example, cuts of beef that do not have a grade shield tend to be poor quality (older animals purchased for minimal dollars to the producer).that's why they are cheap. Words such as "blue ribbon", "premium", "natural", "prime", etc. these are just words. They mean nothing, except perhaps, I AM ABOUT TO OVERPAY. Any words such as "untrimmed" basically mean you are paying for meat that you will be trimmed away and tossed. Was that really a good deal? Unfortunately, NO it was not. What about natural? What does that mean in the supermarket/grocery store? This basically means that the meats packaging does not contain any gas, water injections, additives, tenderizers, etc. It DOES NOT mean that the meats were produced in a "natural way".


When it comes to meat, GRADE SHIELDS are important. Meat and Poultry grading is voluntary. If you have quality meat and poultry, you WILL have your meats graded. This determines the "value" of the meats and the dollar that should be given for them. If you have lesser quality of meats, you opt out of the grading and use the flashy marketing words as stated above. Livestock producers see this grading at the stockyard level. They just do not really know what it means. They basically know that the higher quality and yield grade their cattle receive, the better they are paid. There is good reason for this. They are being paid higher for the quality of cattle they have produced. While this also falls on the supply and demand factor, generally better quality grades yield better prices paid. Same goes for veggies and produce on some level.


The public needs education on the colors of meat and frozen meats. They have become accustom to bright cherry red beef in grocery stores and supermarkets. That cherry red color can ONLY be sustained through gasses and additives. When a steak is first cut from the carcass it is actually a burgundy purplish color. If the steak does not touch another pc of meat it will "bloom". This is the cherry color. This only lasts naturally a couple of days at the most and only seconds if the steak touches another pc of meat. If this happens, the steak will turn brown in the area where the two have touched. It does NOT mean the steak has gone bad. It is actually a chemical reaction of myoglobin in the meats and oxygen. The oxygen reacts with the myoglobin to create the cherry red, but it is the oxygen that will eventually spoil the meats. If I were to cut a fresh steak and then immediately vacuum seal the steak, it would turn dark in seconds. There isn't anything wrong with the steak, just no preservatives or gasses to sustain the cherry red. I have removed the oxygen that will cause the steak to go bad thus extending its' shelf life naturally, but I have also removed the oxygen that will allow the steak to "bloom" into the bright cherry color that the public is accustomed to.


Then there is the issue of frozen meats. Oh the stigmas with frozen meat. The public has come to know frozen meat as the "quick sale" section of their grocery store. This, in turn, equals lesser quality at a value price. Well, that is the case in a grocery store. The meats have set on a shelf for a week, loosing moisture, gaining oxygen and they need to go BEFORE they are a loss to the store. It is the opposite when you purchase frozen meat at a market such as ours or from a small family farmer who is selling his own meats. These meats were processed, packaged, and quick frozen at temps of more than 20 degrees below 0 within minutes. This locks the flavor and the freshness in and protects the meats from spoilage and quality reduction. It is wise to purchase these products frozen. They have been properly protected with professional materials and will hold from 6-12 months at a minimum in most cases. It is a stigma that we have struggled with here. Those who are willing to try the frozen meats come back for more, but there are still a majority that cannot get past the stigma of frozen meats are poor quality. Perhaps with education?


I could continue on and on with the problems of the misinformed consumer, but unless there is a movement to educate, my words, knowledge, and experience are useless.

Then there's the issue of access to advertising for a small local business or small farmer. There's no secret that it is costly and something that is, in many instances, left out of the budget plan. Our business, for instance, just cannot afford the rates imposed by those with advertising publications. We just do not have the funds. We do our best to keep costs down for our livestock producers and our consumers. It can be difficult to get "free" advertising through news articles etc...unless you are "part of the loop". We must just not be part of that loop. I have yet to get valuable "free press" from any local advertising media. Perhaps, this could be an issue for state government or state agriculture. Access to advertising is a necessity, but often over looked or, in our case, just not reachable financially.


A good use of funds would definitely include incentives for media to give price breaks to local producers/business' or even price matches from grants from agriculture to help ease the pain of these marketing costs. Our business is lucky that we can create our own ads through graphics design and experience, but many farmers are not equipped to do this. We provide these branding services to our livestock customers. It gives them an edge and an image in the marketplace. But, we still have the expense of the media outlets where we cannot use these talents. We can create it, we just can't afford to publish it. We would love to be able to place weekly ads or tv commercials to inform consumers of the choices available and the "deals" to be had. It is just not possible. Just another issue for the little guy.


I have hope that Washington can change and level the playing field for smaller business' and smaller family farmers. I have hope, but I will not hold my breath. We have been fighting this fight for years now and will continue to educate even when it is not the "acceptable" point of view.


I also have hope in "Sustainable Glasgow". The organization seems to be moving in the right direction in record speed. I do urge you to include small family farmers, small food processors, and small food retailers in your discussion (if you haven't already). Their knowledge and experiences are priceless. I would prefer to see this in Washington, as well. I do realize that this is a stretch.


I believe that changes of sustainability will come through education of the local public. Washington and our own state government's role will ultimately be in facilitating this through access to capital to fund these initiatives, and equalizing the tax breaks the "big guys" receive for employment etc. Big business has its' place, but the little guy should also keep its' voice and it is my experience that the little guy must speak more loud and more clear in order to be heard.

Just some food for thought and perhaps, a little bit of an education on issues facing the small farmer/small local business owner that you may not otherwise be aware of.


Amy Sipes

2 comments:

Billy Ray said...

Amy, I am very glad you, as a knowledgeable local producer, made all of these comments. Most everything you said is at the very heart of the Sustainable Glasgow concept.

I wonder if you have read Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Nearly everything you have said from experience is also in that book. Clearly, one of biggest problems is that the laws of the land relating to food and meat have been structured to make it more comfortable for the large companies like Archer-Daniels-Midland and Cargill, and those laws make it even more difficult for a local producer like you to survive. Just as clearly, groups like SG need to become active in lobbying for changes to those laws at the State and Federal levels.

We really need for you to become active in Sustainable Glasgow and give us more of your insight into the problems and opportunities we have to address to help your business flourish. Please come to our next meeting on the 21st!

bill travis said...

I appreciate Amy's analysis and comments.

I agree that the cards are stacked against small producers who cannot compete with the influence of the industrial producers in the halls of government.
Part of our mission is to be an advocate for local food producers and vendors (plus other local businesses) in city, county, state, and even federal government.

Education of the public is another one of the missions of Sustainable Glasgow. The broader public needs to know the hidden costs of the cheaper meats that they consume and that just like other items, you usually pay some higher price for higher quality. Ultimately, then, they will have to make their choices. But hopefully we can all make more informed choices.


Amy, we are on your side. I believe that, by joining together with common purpose, we can see change for the better. These times demand it.