McDonalds and Costco Make Headlines ; Farmers and Processors Make Safe Food

McDonalds and Costco made headlines last week when they announced a campaign to eliminate the sale of food products treated with antibiotics.  While many consumers rejoiced, others questioned the need for such a proclamation. Are farmers needlessly injecting their animals with antibiotics?  Is there antibiotic residue in the meat we eat?  How can consumers be assured their food is truly safe?  As a small meat processor, I have seen firsthand the USDA’s commitment to this issue.  Countless hours have been spent discussing preventative measures and receiving training to ensure that the food produced within my facility is safe for human consumption.

In order to be eligible for slaughter, animals must be able to walk off the trailer and pass an ante-mortem inspection…things that are not always easy when sick livestock are involved.  While the media would have consumers believe that antibiotics are unnecessarily pumped into healthy animals, the truth is that sometimes – despite a farmer’s best efforts – livestock get sick.  Random infections, traumatic births, and muscle aches are all reasons why good farmers make the choice to medicate their animals.  Unfortunately, sometimes the medicines do not work and the producer is forced to decide the greater good…humanely slaughtering the animal in a facility such as mine with the hope of preserving the meat, or allowing the animal to finish its life on the farm where prolonged suffering may occur.  This choice is not an easy one.

To aid my customers in this process, all producers are asked to complete a livestock verification form when bringing their animals for slaughter.  This internal documentation ensures the topics of age, origin, and health are discussed with every animal.  Through these conversations, I have denied service to several producers over the years whose livestock did not meet the recommended antibiotic withdrawl period.  In every case, these farmers were more concerned about the safety of their animals and their consumers than about their profit.

Unfortunately, larger slaughterhouses do not always have the ability to talk directly with farmers and learn the health-history of every animal…making the USDA’s role even more important.  As part of their commitment to food safety, the USDA randomly samples meat from every facility to ensure that it is clear of all pathogens and residue.  These carcasses are held at the processor until the results are analyzed and the USDA is satisfied the meat is completely safe. While admittedly not a full-proof method, this random sampling has proven to be very effective in preventing tainted meat from entering the market.

Lab Result Report

As we have seen this past week, retailers like McDonalds and Costco are good at making headlines.  However, consumers can feel confident knowing that farmers, processors, and USDA staff are committed to making safe meat products…not just for your family but also for our own!

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Science: A Gift of the Heart

A young Caden at the Marbles Museum in Raleigh

A young Caden at the Marbles Museum in Raleigh

Yesterday I watched an ultrasound of my son’s heart.  Recent unexplained chest pains, rapid heart rates, and low oxygen levels had brought us to the pediatric cardiologist office that afternoon. I was scared and very anxious as I watched the sound I first heard over 11 years ago suddenly visible on the ultrasound screen.  I stood guard as the technician carefully examined each chamber of his heart, taking numerous digital images from varying angles. I saw the bright red and blue colors circulate his heart, indicating the blood flow that was occurring throughout his body.  With each rhythmic pump, that powerful muscle was allowing my little boy to live – to breath – and I was truly overwhelmed by the science and technology that allowed us to capture every heartbeat on the screen.

Science in medicine is a beautiful thing. I have confidence in knowing whatever issues my precious boy is facing, medical professionals will use their knowledge and resources to help keep him safe and healthy. However, I am often perplexed why consumers do not have that same trust and confidence in the farmers and the processors who oversee their food. Debates about GMOs, antibiotics, and pesticides are frequent on social media. Strong opinions exist on both sides, and there is very little common ground in these conversations.  However, what most consumers fail to understand is the science utilized in crop selection and management is just a small part of the technology used to ensure the food in our grocery stores and farmers markets is safe for human consumption.

As a small meat processor, science plays a huge role in the safety of the food produced at my facility.  Multiple e-coli and salmonella tests are required on all carcasses (grain-fed, grass-fed, and even organic) at varying steps in production.  Random tests are also done to check for antibiotic residue in the meat.  When testing for listeria, everything from the product, to the floor drains, to door handles are sampled to ensure there is absolutely no contamination.   As a plant owner, I am responsible for conducting my own microbiological tests, but the FSIS (Food Safety Inspection Service) officials of the USDA are also on-site, overseeing my operations and performing their own tests throughout the process.  Regardless of the production methods utilized in the field, science is vital in bringing safe food products to our grocery store shelves.

Caden loves helping pack the boxes at the plant

Caden loves helping pack the boxes at the plant

As a mom, it is my job to ensure the health and the safety of my children.  As a farmer and as a processor, it is also my job to ensure the food that I produce is safe…not only for my family but also for the consumers that we supply.  Science plays an important role in both of these endeavors. While most people will never have a cardiologist discuss their little boy’s heart on a monitor or a meat processor examine the results of Shiga toxins in their hamburger,  I pray that one day we can all learn to appreciate the science and technology that aids both of these valued professions in doing their job.

Can We Test Our Way To Safe Food?

It seems to happen daily…another food recall is flashed across the news screen of our televisions and social media. Meat products are recalled for e-coli concerns…produce and spices test positive for salmonella…listeria is found in another processed item. With all of the attention given to these recalls, it is easy to understand why consumers might feel uneasy about the food they eat and begin to question our industry production methods.

While agriculture is working to address these consumer concerns by becoming more transparent in their dialogues, there is still a very large part of the food chain that has yet to step up to this challenge…our nation’s food processing facilities. Consumers understand that cows do not become hamburger, potatoes do not become French fries, and milk does not become cheese without some pretty extensive work behind the scenes. However, food processing – once an industry entrenched with skill and craftsmanship – has transitioned into an industry saturated with science and microbiology…the faint of heart need not apply.

As the owner of a small USDA-inspected meat facility, I see firsthand our government’s focus and commitment to safe food production. Not only is my facility closely monitored by the USDA for cleanliness and sanitation practices, we are also subjected to numerous product testings each month. The USDA issues random testing including carcass swabs, meat strips, ground and finished product all in search of the infamous microbiological pathogens knows as e-coli, salmonella, listeria, and Shiga-toxins. In addition, as part of my facility’s HACCP (industry talk for “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points”) and SSOP (“Standard Sanitation Operation Procedures”) my plant is also responsible for completing our own product testing and the results are shared with the USDA officials. All products are held pending the results of these tests, helping to ensure the food produced in facilities such as mine are completely safe for consumption.

While I embrace the role that science now plays in food production and safety, there is no doubt that larger, corporate-owned facilities have an advantage over small, independent food processors like me. Whereas I have to send my samples off to be analyzed and eagerly await the results (typically 5-7 business days) the industry giants are now equipped with their own scientists and testing labs so that results can be generated much quicker and at a much lower cost. Any “presumptive positive” results from my facility require further testing (requiring additional fees and product hold times) while these larger industry counterparts can immediately resubmit their tests until a negative result is achieved. The food safety standards for both operations – regardless of size – are “zero-tolerance” but the time and resources required to achieve this scientific level of acceptance are a much larger burden for the smaller facility.

Test Our Way to Safe Food?

As these food recalls continue to occur, I challenge consumers to not just focus on what has been recalled but to also examine why. Understand that e-coli and salmonella are naturally-occurring organisms and any scientific efforts by the USDA to fully eradicate them need to be coupled with adequate cooking times by the consumer. Invest in a food thermometer and allow temperature to determine product cooking times…not the color of the meat. Don’t just know your farmer, but get to know your processor also…while the food safety guidelines are the same, not all processors are created equal. All food is labeled with a USDA establishment number that can easily be searched to determine exactly where the item was processed and how far it traveled to reach your plate.

As the world’s population continues to increase and farmland continues to decrease, the future of our food is uncertain. While the pendulum is now swinging in favor a local food system, we need to be mindful that local processors are a key element of that movement and educate consumers of their plight. The USDA would love to believe that we can test our way to safe food, but small processors are not equipped to weather that storm without added resources and consumer education. Therefore, we must all come together to ensure that science never takes the place of consumer education and old-fashion common sense.

Meat Processing Certification Comes to NC

 

I left the classroom two years ago, but my passion for education has never waivered. Last week, I was excited to share a new educational endeavor with agricultural teachers from across the state as Micro Summit Processors has partnered with NC FFA and curriculum company iCEV to launch a meat processing certification program for NC high school students that is endorsed by the American Meat Science Institute. This program is being unveiled across the country early next year, but NC residents will have early access to this amazing program through our local high schools, as well as Johnston Community College. Leaders in the NC meat industry were on-hand today to discuss key components of this course such as compliance, humane handling, and HACCP. We are so excited for this program and the credibility it brings to our meat processing industry! Contact me to learn more! 

 

Ag teachers from across North Carolina spent two days visiting Micro Summit and learning more about the meat processing industry

Ag teachers from across North Carolina spent two days visiting Micro Summit and learning more about the meat processing industry

Teacher Training

My Unconventional Approach to #AgChat

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I am relatively new to this whole blogging / agvocating / “tell your story” side of agriculture, and, I must confess, this is much harder than I originally anticipated.  Given my love for all things farm-related and my passion for writing, I assumed this would be an easy process.  However, the more blogs that I read and the more that I sit down to write, the more I find myself struggling to say what is truly on my heart.

You see, as my name “NC Meat Mom” implies, I am a proud North Carolinian.  I come from state that is rich in agriculture and is vastly diverse in both our production and in our methods.  From the amazing seafood harvested on our coast to the beautiful Christmas trees grown in our mountains, agriculture is a leading industry across our state.  Even though my heritage is tobacco, my passion is North Carolina’s meat industry.  I partner with my husband to raise and direct market grassfed cattle, and I am the sole owner of a slaughter and processing facility.  Through these roles, I am blessed to work with meat producers from across the state and partner with them to provide local, quality food for the people of North Carolina.  But, most importantly, I am a mom.  Every day I strive to provide for the current needs of my children while also preserving the sustainability of our family farm for their future.   Embracing these roles individually is not a problem…it’s when I attempt to merge them together that things get a little tricky.

In case you can’t tell, I am not the typical image of a North Carolina farmer…and, quite honestly, I don’t embrace the same mindset as many of our industry leaders.  In a world where the color of your tractor is just as divisive as the crops you raise, I really struggle to find my place in this agchat community.  For example…

  • I consider myself a farmer, but I don’t own a tractor.
  • I consider myself a cattleman, but I am not a member of the Cattleman’s Association.
  • I have insurance, but it’s not through Farm Bureau.
  • I eat meat, but I also love knowing where it comes from.
  • I own a slaughterhouse, but I also consider HSUS a friend.
  • I value local food systems, but I also feed my family fast food.
  • I watched every episode of Chipotle’s “Farmed and Dangerous”, and I even like their burritos.
  • I believe the greatest threat to the Earth’s food supply is not overpopulation but our industry’s internal fighting.

These may be simple statements but to the agricultural world many of these are blasphemy!  And, the even more shocking thing is that I understand their concerns.  I see the good that come from the Cattlemen’s Association and Farm Bureau, and I am very appreciative of all that they do for our industry…I just choose not to support them financially.   I understand the struggles of a local food system and how overwhelming that would be to implement worldwide…my family lives with that feeling daily.  I know the scary statistics about HSUS and their attacks on animal agriculture…but I choose to take the risk and build a relationship instead of brigade.  I had never heard of Chipotle until agriculture went on the defensive against their marking campaigns…proving that sometimes negative attention is just as effective as no attention at all.

I use to wonder how I ended up at this stage of my life, and I felt very unprepared for the task at hand.  However, I now understand that God has been slowly preparing me for these conversations…all of my previous roles were stepping stones for this very moment.   As a former teacher, I taught my students to “play nice” and not to judge because others may do things a little different.  As a former school counselor I learned the value of “I statements” when making an argument…focus more on your story than attacking someone else’s.  As a mom, I constantly told my children, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” when refereeing a sibling spat.   As a Christian, I sang “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight” to remind me that every person and every opinion is valuable.  And, as the child of a farmer, I learned to embrace the adage “You can catch more flies with honey”.

I now find myself tasked with living the very words I have spoken, and, I must confess, it is harder than it seems.  While I don’t claim to have answers to all the problems facing our industry, I have grown to appreciate the unique perspective that I bring to the conversation.  Telling the story of agriculture means telling “my story”, and, even though it’s a little unconventional, so am I…and that’s okay.

My Daughter Wore a Skirt to School and Was Called a Slut

When I picked my daughter up from school Friday afternoon I could immediately tell that something was wrong.  She walked hurriedly to the car, looking down at her feet the entire time.  As soon as the car door closed, tears welled up in her eyes.  “Mom, why do high school boys have to be so mean?” she asked. 

You see, my daughter wore a jean skirt to school that day and was called a slut. 

To be fair, yes, this skirt was above the knee and was shorter than anything she has worn in the past.  However, this skirt was also clearly below her fingertips and met the “post-it note” rule that my daughter’s school embraces.  As a young woman who strives to dress modestly and to always follow the rules, my daughter had even sought the opinion of her dad and I the night before.  Both of us agreed the skirt was fine, so we didn’t think twice when she left the house Friday morning in her jean skirt, t-shirt, and Vans. 

Therefore, when my daughter got in the car and I heard some of the comments that she endured on Friday, I was honestly shocked.  This is the same fourteen-year-old girl who has never worn a two-piece bathing suit, refuses to text boys first, and has never even had a boyfriend!  Her standards of modesty and purity exceed anything that her dad and I could ever enforce…she understands the gift of sexuality and purposely plans to abstain for these behaviors until marriage.  There are lots of adjectives that can be used to describe my daughter, but “slut” definitely isn’t one of them! 

My immediate “mom reaction” was to bash these young men and to defend my daughter.  However, as I reflected over this situation, God softened my heart and opened my eyes to a bigger issue.  You see, I am also the mom of a son that is quickly approaching puberty.  He is just starting to catch the sexist jokes on TV and take notice when we walk past Victoria’s Secret in the mall.  I have prayed over my son’s purity and done my best to equip him for the world ahead, but, the truth is, I have no guarantees that it will not be my son who makes some stupid comment to a girl wearing a skirt one day.  That thought has plagued me throughout the weekend. 

Overall, the church does a great job promoting modesty and purity to our girls.  However, these girls are not only being charged with their own purity but are also indirectly being saddled with purity of our boys.  I acknowledge that boys are visually stimulated, and I definitely do not believe that girls (of any age) should do anything to purposely draw these boys into sexual temptation.  However, as the mother of both a son and a daughter, there cannot be room for excuses from either gender when it comes to sexual purity.  Just as girls have a choice in the clothes they wear, boys have a choice in the actions they perform.  Feeling visually stimulated should never be an excuse to respond socially crude…just because they see it and even though they may feel it, does not mean that they have to respond to it!  As my son approaches puberty, I am honesty not sure how to best instill this principle; however, I believe it is paramount.   We can’t raise men by allowing them to “wimp out” on their sexuality or hide behind the flaws of their female counterparts.  As my momma always said, “Two wrongs don’t make a right”. 

My daughter left the house Friday morning feeling confident…both in her clothes and in herself.  However, all it took was one jean skirt and a four-letter word to make her question her values and her modesty.  As I continue to fight in the trenches for my children’s sexual purity, I am thankful for experiences like Friday and the lessons they teach me.  It reminded me that our boys not only need to seek purity for their heart and body  but also for their actions, and the measure of a young girl’s modesty is more accurately determined by the values of her heart than the length of her skirt. 

 

What Comes First…The Chicken or the Processor?          

Last week North Carolina’s small chicken farmers were dealt a major blow when Abdul Chaudry announced the imminent closing of his USDA inspected poultry plant.

When it opened in April 2008, Chaudry’s was the only USDA-inspected facility for independent poultry producers.  Despite an early commitment from several retailers to purchase local birds, an NC Choices press release attributed Chaudry’s closing to the “decrease in volume of poultry being brought to the plant and the financial burden the plant was having on his beef, goat, and lamb processing operation next door”.

While there has been little media attention given to this announcement, the closing of this chicken plant will be felt throughout North Carolina.  The only remaining USDA poultry processor, Foothills Pilot Plant, is located in Marion and is an additional three hours west of Chaudry’s centralized Siler City location.  Unless farmers choose to process their birds under North Carolina’s exempt poultry processing guidelines, there is little doubt these increased fuel and processing fees will be passed along to the consumer…making local chicken a rare menu item for our state.

I have never met Mr. Chaudry, but I sympathize with his situation.  He was informed of a need for poultry processing and was offered grant money and support through state officials to build this infrastructure…all with the promise “if you build it, they will come”.  However, despite all of the surveys and grant projects that encompass North Carolina’s meat production, there remains a disconnect between producers, processors, and end users (both consumers and retailers) regarding our respective roles in bringing safe, consistent, local meat to our state.  Groups like NC Choices and Firsthand Foods are receiving millions of government dollars to study this connection and to build a local food system for North Carolina…however, even the best studies cannot account for the volatility of animal production, of meat processing, and of food distribution (not to mention the unsustainable longevity of these grants).

My family tackles this issue of “what comes first” on a daily basis.  Early in our farming career, we questioned whether to invest in land and livestock in hopes of reaching a larger market or to seek out the larger market to help fund the land and livestock.  As we reached our goal of larger markets, we then struggled to secure processing for these animals.  After juggling between multiple processors with varying capabilities, my family took a giant leap of faith and opened our own.  Currently, I operate an 18,000 square foot facility with the capacity to slaughter 100 head of cattle per day…not to mention the cooking and cold storage opportunities available.  However, instead of jumping into this increased production “just because we can”, my family has spent the past year growing our customer base and securing large scale distribution.  Without the safety net of grants and bank loans, we evaluate every purchasing decision and employee hire based upon their ability to grow and sustain the long term goals of Micro Summit and Harris-Robinette Beef…simply put, if we can’t pay for then we don’t buy it.

As a colleague in North Carolina’s meat processing, I have no doubt that Mr. Chaudry did everything he could to maintain his poultry facility and that he closely examined all options…not just for his family but for the chicken producers of our state.  While I may not know Mr. Chaudry personally, his experience has taught me a lot about my own business structure and the needed partnership between producers and processors.  I have big goals for my business and a desire to meet the needs of North Carolina’s livestock producers.  I want to offer retail packaging that rivals Wal-Mart, and I would love to have the beef cuber that one customer repeatedly requests.  Nothing would make me happier than to offer my staff large salaries and state benefits like the majority of the employees at these grant-funded organizations.  However, while those remain long term goals, I also want to want to be a processor that livestock producers can structure their own business around and that remains financially sustainable for many years to come.

Therefore, with every decision, I will continue to ask myself the question “what comes first?” and pray for the day that the needs of the processor and the needs of the producer are not so far apart from the reality of the consumer.