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.

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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.