Friday, April 1, 2011

Black Market Butchery

A Deliciously Illegal Grilled Leg of Goat (Photo Credit:

(legal disclaimer: the following entry in no way represents an admission of guilt to any crimes insinuated or directly discussed herein, the names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent) 

It's hard to believe I just committed an international crime! And for this particular transgression, I am indeed, a repeat offender. The illegal processing and sale of high quality meats!

(Photo Credit:
I awoke with the sun....or maybe a little later... and walked up the hillside onto my dear friends newly purchased land to prepare for what was to be be an inaugural feasting for the ages. Adjacent to her garden plot homestead lies a small goat farm run by a very fine older German farmer, lets call him Fritz ;) My friend had arranged for Fritz to slaughter a young buck from the herd the night before. We arrived to find an impeccably cleaned carcass hanging in Fritz's neighboring summer camp house. As I began to literally butcher this young goat (my meat cutting skills are the works) I was struck with the strong irony of a discussion I'd begun with my insightful colleague, Hannah Semler, the night before regarding our old stomping grounds across the Atlantic, on the coast of Maine.

Maine Gives a Green Light to Black Market Meats
My rough cut goat half....
Breaking the law in Germany....or am I?
(Photo Credit:
Sedgwick, Maine, located in the second northern most county on the east coast of the United States, is surrounded by an amazing community of progressive farmers and consumers. Indeed, my very first cow, Mabel, came from this town - so I was somewhat thrilled to learn that they just passed potentially landmark local legislation to support innovation in their local agriculture sector. Yet I say only "somewhat thrilled" because experience has shown me a dark side to the kind of policy this dreamy coastal village has put through.

The language of this new town ordinance is available here - but the basics are that it exempts  those local producers who sell their food on-farm, from any state or federal food safety regulations. When Hannah first brought this to my attention - I immediately drudged up memories from the worst dairy I ever worked for. A passionate elderly woman milking seven goats and one cow on 30 acres of land - and transforming that milk into a bounty of cheese, butter, and yogurt for sale to the local community (just to clarify this farm is NOT located in Maine). In theory, this is the exact profile of the type of farm this policy is intended to support - and yet despite my advocacy for small farms, I had to leave this operation after a mere 3-weeks because of horrendous hygiene conditions, and this farmer's unwillingness to adopt sound practices. She was producing the most filthy raw milk I have ever seen (and I do believe in drinking raw milk), but she believed she was immune from food pathogen contamination. Her attitude was echoed, almost verbatim, by Bob St. Peter, the politically active Mainer who helped get this regulation passed, in his quote that "it’s the industrial food that is causing food borne illness, not us [small farmers]". 

An Illegal Goat Heart (Photo Credit:
It is true, it is the large scale national-scope food recalls for products such as beef, spinach, and peanut butter that have all but destroyed public faith in the US food system. And it is equally true that some small farmers employ practices that research has shown can reduce potential food safety risks, such as grass-feeding of cows to reduce e. coli populations. But it is dangerous to make blanket statements about food safety and the scale of agriculture, and it might be even more dangerous to abandon all regulation of these producers based on this potentially false narrative.

Going back to the example of this dirty dairy I worked for - we might ask - was food safety policy really keeping her down, or actually helping her out. First - it is important to note that despite her micro-scale of production and aforementioned disgusting lack of sanitation - her small farm was still a Grade A dairy and cheese plant, among the smallest in the world and located in a highly regulated agricultural state. As an employee with a basic knowledge of food science - I was very much relieved to have a state inspector come for her quarterly cheese room inspection. Far from working to shut her down, this government employee made a few (fewer than I would have liked) suggestions to improve basic cleanliness. "Don't let this mold grow on these walls", "make sure your recording your temperatures properly", etc. Basic, basic stuff that any customer would want to have enforced. Yet despite her "on-farm store" - few customers ever got a close enough look in the creamery to realize they should never be drinking this milk (I never did the entire time I was there...and I'm willing to take pretty large personal risks with food safety).

Towards Smarter Food Safety Policies

Don't get me wrong, I emphatically applaud the Sedgwick community for a very creative power grab for their own food democracy. The US Federal government has far out stepped their bounds and States and Municipalities should have every right to self regulate their own food supply. But self-regulation and no regulation are two very different things. 

Hanging goat halves in a summer chateau
above a rural German village
(Photo Credit:
Back in Germany, at our little goat party, I grappled with these issues... I definitely do not want to break the law, internationally or nationally, and yet, I fear what types of production and processing might occur in a completely deregulated food economy (no matter how local and community-based it may be). I was quite happy with both the slaughtering and butchering work our team accomplished, but from a professional perspective, there were undoubtedly many food safety 'violations'. Clearly we are all fine and safe, but I wonder if food safety was even considered by any of the others feasting by the fire that day (it's not really the kind of thing you bring up when folks are eating), or if they, like many, assumed it's small-scale and therefore safe?

Much of food safety policy is based on a premise of 'the informed customer' - that is if a customer buys directly from a farm, there are (generally) far less regulations than if they buy a product in a store in a state across the country. Yet, even when customers can 'see' and walk around a farm, they rarely actually 'see' everything, and even those that do have access to processing rooms rarely have the trained eye or food safety background to identify many of the potential problems.  

At the same time, we do have inalienable rights to eat the food we choose, from the producers we choose. The answer most certainly is not total anarchy for local foods, but rather thoughtful, unobtrusive, and effective policies that support producers in the kind of life-long learning and vigilance it takes to produce safe meats and cheeses. 

(Reprinted from