What I Told Washington Our Food System Needs

Sometimes I like to ask myself this question…

If I could write a piece of legislation for the USDA, what would it be?

This is always an exercise in imagination because the opportunity has never come up.

But I’ve been thinking a lot more about it lately. The COVID crisis shook our food supply chain and exposed the weaknesses in our centralized, Big Ag food system.

What specific things would I change to make our system stronger?

Imagine my surprise when I was actually given the chance to weigh in.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the Senate’s key writers of the USDA budget and project lists contacted me out of the blue and asked that very question.

Suddenly I wasn’t in my imagination anymore. I was forced to think pragmatically, practically and diplomatically.

Of course, that’s not always easy when you’re an iconoclast.

My first response was, “Defund and abolish the USDA.”

He laughed and admonished good-naturedly, “That won’t fly very far in Washington.”

Baby Steps

Politics thrives on incremental change. It forces us to think about what CAN be done, not what SHOULD be done or even what COULD be done in a perfect world.

Persuasion is all about moving people in small steps. Most folks don’t change positions in one fell swoop.

It’s a gradual process.

Now, I’m no fan of grants and government programs… but I had to respect an insider with lots of power who in good faith reached out for ideas on what the USDA could do that would be helpful for smaller, independent farmers like me.

Of course, we libertarians view money spent in the private sector as a violation of the Constitution. But we also have to realize that billions of dollars are going to be spent anyway.

So channeling a few dollars in a positive direction might not be the worst sin we small-government advocates commit.

Here are the four things I came up with that would do wonders for production and, more importantly, choice in our fragile food system.

Four Changes for the Better

1. Permit semiportable small-animal abattoirs (slaughterhouses).

2020’s COVID outbreak revealed a crucial weakness in our nation’s food system. I’m talking about centralized industrial animal processing. These processing plants with thousands of employees had massive outbreaks of COVID and could not adjust quickly to panicked market changes.

Had our nation had 10,000 localized plants rather than 150 centralized mega-plants, the decentralized and diversified facilities would have proved far more resilient.

Today, many farmers trying to get animals processed locally face yearlong waits due to insufficient capacity. Streamlining and facilitating small local facilities as a national policy would address one of the biggest fragilities in our food security.

2. Set up compliance coaching and shared-space further processing.

Let’s face it: Fewer and fewer folks are interested in kitchen duty. A critical skill for any food entrepreneur looking to survive and thrive in the food business is being able to turn chicken and beef into ready-made meals like pot pies and stews.

But between the producer and consumer is a labyrinth of confusing, contradictory, subjective compliance and licensure hurdles. There’s a huge need for expert guidance in getting past them.

Shared-space processing – like community canneries – no longer exist. In today’s market climate, there’s a need for a space that can help create direct-market branded food produced by farmers. Sometimes called food hubs, this kind of local food nexus would stimulate local food craft and consumer choice.

3. Extend inspection exemptions to other things besides poultry.

A mid-1960s federal inspection exemption is the reason a pastured poultry movement exists in the U.S. today. It allows thousands of small farmers to start commercial poultry businesses (less than 20,000 birds) without onerous infrastructure or licensure.

I worked with Sen. Rand Paul a decade ago to extend this exemption to other items with a similar cap on numbers. Then he threw his hat in the presidential race… and the initiative lost out to other more pressing things.

In the 50 years since this exemption was created, to my knowledge not a single consumer has been sickened by chicken produced and processed on a farm without inspection under this exemption.

If it were extended to beef, pork, lamb and dairy, for example, thousands of farmers could create viable businesses. Millions of food buyers would enjoy more choice and authenticity in the food supply. Not to mention it would solve the current backlog of processing capacity for beef, pork and lamb.

4. Establish empirical testing.

The archaic poke and sniff still required in inspected abattoirs is prejudiced against small processors.

It’s not an issue in large facilities because they have lobbyists and attorneys on retainer to create some fairness.

But small processing plants do not enjoy political protection. Inspection rules are highly subjective. One tyrannical inspector can make life and business unbearable for a small facility.

For example, two years ago a new inspector was assigned to the abattoir we use and condemned our beef livers because they had a tinge of green. (This sheen is common in grass-finished beef.)

Over a year, she condemned $20,000 worth of our beef livers.

When the USDA assigned a new inspector to the plant, none was condemned.

For a small farm like ours, that $20,000 loss was half a salary… not to mention it devastated our cancer patient customers desperate for clean liver.

If you argue with the inspector, retaliation is the most common response. We can remove the politics and subjectivity with technology, like spectrometers and other swab-reading machines.

We can put an R2-D2 in every plant, get rid of the personal drama and move to a science-based system. Our small plants desperately need this option.

My four rules may not seem big to the casual observer, but any one of these would be a game changer for producers and consumers alike.

All four would cause a major shake-up in the food industry.

We’d move toward a more resilient, decentralized, localized, secure food chain… exactly what we need in times of uncertainty.

If you could change any laws or rules in Washington, what would you pick? Share your thoughts at mailbag@manwardpress.com.