Inspected or Infected

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As I approach the move to officially growing food for other people’s consumption, I am finding myself a little bit boggled by the red tape and regulations that go along with production. On the heels of yet another barrage of radio reports about  people getting sick from mass produced food, I have to shake my head as I fill out forms to apply for licenses.

I fully understand the need to ensure that food being sold to others is of good quality and free of pathogens. But is the government really the best regulator? I wonder at what point we decided that it was better for the people in Parliament to control what people ingest than it is to let people decide for themselves. Obviously the government inspection system isn’t working. People are still falling ill, people are still dying. Shouldn’t we be concerned that this system is creating a false security, a belief that if it’s been through a government inspector it must be safe for consumption?

The current food regulation system contributes to a vicious circle. It works for the mass producers, the factory farmers, and the big plants, and it handicaps small producers and entrepreneurs in a meaningful way.

The Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture claims to support and encourage new farmers as upstarts, and they do have programs that make it seems as though farming is a real and potentially profitable choice. But start the paperwork and discover how quickly complications rear their ugly head.

Take poultry as an example. Chickens, turkeys and eggs are all regulated by boards that determine how you grow them, where they are slaughtered, how you market them, and how many you can produce. The quota for a first year free range chicken producer is 500 birds. Last year our chickens averaged about 4 pounds after processing (because they were allowed to run around they also didn’t gain weight as fast as crate-bound birds). Selling them at $3 a pound we made $12 a bird total. Now, take $6 off that amount for our expenses in raising the bird and you’re left with a $6 return. If you’re only allowed to produce 500 birds in your first year of operation,  your net profit will be $3000. Better not try to make a living on chickens right away!

To raise and sell meat birds I have to conform to two different sets of regulations. There are different regulatory bodies for turkeys and chickens. To sell either I need a license and a quota, but I have to make two separate applications. The rules for raising turkeys are more stringent than those for raising chickens. Is it because free range turkeys are more vulnerable to disease than chickens or is it just because two different bodies came up with two different sets of rules? To sell chickens I have to get approval for my label. If I don’t want to buy labels from the Chicken Board, then I have to ensure their logo is on the ones I produce. To sell turkeys, I need to be certain that they’re housed with 1″ poultry netting, no bigger, and that their feed and water are covered. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all about doing what’s best for the birds, but when it comes to housing chickens and turkeys it appears that the regulatory boards involved don’t agree that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

It is illegal for me to sell unpasteurized eggs or milk, even if I advertise them as such and people are buying them of their own volition. The benefits of pasteurization are indisputable, but there are also benefits to unprocessed milk that seem to be ignored. As far as I’m aware, there are NO health benefits whatsoever to smoking tobacco, yet the government supports its sale to the public, even though it’s been widely proven to kill people. Could the money the government makes from regulation and taxation have something to do with that?

My personal belief is that the best regulator of food production and quality is the consumer. Large factories and plants can afford to have an  E Coli. incident every few years. Sure, a few people get sick and die, and the profit margins drop for a while, but those companies always bounce back. It’s never too long before you hear about it happening again.

Small farms have much more at stake. What small farmer in his right mind is going to cut corners on food safety when he or she knows that one infected patron would be devastating to the business? Allowing consumers to visit the farm and see where their food comes from is, hands down, the best regulatory practice available. It’s obvious why factory feedlots don’t offer tours and open houses!

If the government can’t afford to put more inspectors into the large processing facilities and the factory feedlots where problems are bound to occur, I have a solution. Lay off nickle and diming the little guys and move your manpower to where it really counts. If consumers don’t think farmer’s products are safely produced they won’t buy them, simple as that. If you really want to encourage more people to farm for a living, laying off the regulatory bullshit is a great place to start. More small farms are better for everyone, regardless of whether they have the government’s stamp of approval.

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