Friday, September 3, 2010

Increased Beef Oversight: Needed? or Overkill?

When I strolled into the meat shop last Saturday morning, my E-mail inbox had a surprise waiting for me!  I received notification about yet another meat recall.  But this wasn’t just any old meat recall.  My eyes did a little double take. The recall was for a strain of E. coli known as O26. So, what’s the big deal you say?

Without getting too sciency and geeky, here’s the gist of it… Generally, beef recalls are due to the well publicized virulent (bad … yes, there are “good” ones, too) strain of E. coli known as O157:H7.  For my small business, containing this ubiquitous threat can literally mean the difference of being in business or vaporizing our life’s work.  Yep, it’s the kind of stuff that keeps a gal up at night.  The O157:H7 strain of E. coli is an official adulterant under USDA regulations.  So now, what does that mean?

Well, it basically boils down to the fact that E. coli O157:H7 is highly regulated and strictly enforced with a zero tolerance policy.  This in itself is enough to drive a small (even large!) USDA inspected beef slaughter and fabrication plant mad.  Why?  Folks, there is no sterile raw meat product.  YES, you heard it here.  Not even a small slaughter plant can create a sterile raw meat product.  Try as we may, there are no guarantees.  I know, I know…you heard that grass fed beef or small family farms can’t have E. coli, Salmonella, or whatever bug.  You read somewhere that small slaughterhouses somehow create a magical, mystical safe meat. 

Friday, August 6, 2010

So tell me…how should I differentiate myself? and other off topic ramblings :)

Those who know me well know that I’m passionate about my neighbor farmer friends and creating something truly special with them. There are so many untapped resources in this area. They should have the opportunity to be found, tapped, and rejoiced. I’d love nothing more than to take these small cattle farms from price takers on the national market to price makers in their own market. In fact, that’s how I measure my success. Regional food systems are my weapon of choice. But, now well….I’m struggling. I’m struggling with our identity. What are we to call this unique value chain?

Local was the initial thought. It made sense. Everything we do is local. The farmers are local to me; their livestock is local to me. Heck, I drive past their fields nearly every day or at least every week. They are all livestock processing customers of mine and have been for decades. All processes needed to turn the livestock into meat are done right here. So, local made sense. Until….

Localwashing by corporations has taken advantage of the term local and in many ways has changed the perceived definition of local. I mean, you know, they don’t have enough sales. Lord forbid if they allow the smaller mom & pops and/or farms a teensy piece of the pie. That just wouldn’t be right, now would it? It’s a biz savvy trend that has certainly taken hold in corporate America. Want to see it in action? Just head on down to your favorite national chain supermarket, it’s likely you’ll see a bit of it. Heck, we’re even putting Farmers Market in our business name now. Heck yeah!

As if corporate America making things more difficult for us wasn’t enough…cue the farmers.

Just log onto twitter or facebook any given day of the week and you’re likely to see some article, Op-Ed, or blog post liked, shared, tweeted & re-tweeted & re-tweeted (oh, you get the idea) about how local food is bad for the environment, less efficient, too expensive, can’t “feed the world”, isn’t safer, and my favorite is that it’s actually “less safe”. I’m fairly certain that buying locally produced goods is also responsible for the inevitable apocalypse. In all honesty, I have yet to see that tweet but I’m certain it’s coming. In their defense, I will say those articles, Op-Eds, or blog posts will ultimately have a one or two liner about how great it is to have choices and supporting a local farmer through direct purchase is a nice feel good option, yadda yadda ya… Give me a break! Perspective people! Seriously, how many dollars am I taking out of your pocket by selling locally raised, slaughtered, and processed meats in my home town or home state? Will your crops take a hit because I sold a beef to my neighbor? Since I’m a farmer too, I’m well aware that you have more important things to worry about so how ‘bout putting your energy into that. Oh and in case you haven’t heard yet, us “local lovers” are just a bunch of hobby farmers. We have pretend farms, with pretend cows grazing on pretend pastures next to pretend creeks and streams. Still waiting on my pretend farm hands to come and help me tend those imaginary critters. Or wait? Did they come already and I just missed them? Invisible cloak and all….

Don’t even get me started on some beef advocates spewing factoid snippets about meat production. Beef is safe, wholesome, and nutritious you know. Let’s not forget affordable. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard that yet? At this point, it has been engrained in my memory for all of eternity. Folks, I make my living at making meat not only in the field but also in the slaughterhouse, equally important. I would argue more important on a food safety standpoint. My slaughterhouse is left with the challenges of controlling microbial contamination in meat, residues from irresponsible farmers, and BSE assumed risk. I work our food safety system 5 days per week, 52 weeks per year. I speak the language. HACCP, BSE, SRM, CCPs, SSOP, Pre-Req’s, Ecoli, STEC, Interventions, Deviations, Corrective Actions, Validation, Records Review, Adulterated, Microbial Sampling, Lethality, GRAS, OPEER, NOIE, EIAO, DO, FLS, IIC, PHV, OFO, NRP, residues, STOP, FAST, KIS, RVIS, Notice, Directives, CMPAF…just to name a few are regular terminology in my vocabulary. I don’t have to google it or read about in an industry handbook. I live it. I see 1000’s of carcasses of various species and qualities every year. With that, I see areas on a nationwide scale in the meat industry that need some work. Sliding them under the rug isn’t helping anyone. Perhaps a better method would be talking about your own cattle operation. Maybe share some recipes. Tell folks what you are having for dinner and how great it tastes. Yes, I know. I’ve taken the MBA too. I know what they tell you to say. Truth is, we as cattle farmers don’t have all the answers. We don’t know everything there is to know about the meat industry. Some of us don’t even know where the actual beef cuts come from. Why then would an industry choose to have us educate the public on its safety? Boggles my brain really. The majority of cattle farmers are not meat processors, meat scientists, microbiologists, or nutritionists. So why are we asking them to educate as if they were?

It seems I swayed a bit off topic. That MBA really gets my blood pumping. Now where was I?

Oh yes, how to differentiate. Why not set our meats apart with family farmer. Family farmers are what these folks are. All small farms, as most are in my area. Less than 100 head of cattle and most commonly less than 50 head. All of our livestock comes from small family farmers. So, makes sense to differentiate in that way. But no no, hold on! Can’t do that. It offends other family farmers who don’t sell into local or regional systems. Wait, I’m a family farmer too. Yes, you are. Fair enough.

Worse yet, there was a fairly recent meat launch in this state that stirred up a big ol fashioned ‘tucky rukus. You can read more about that here or here, and here. They chose to use the local and family farmer terminology as the marketing driving force and well, its vastly different from what we do here. “Locally raised in the fields of Kentucky” and “support local farm families and local economies” was their mantra of choice. That sounds warm and fuzzy doesn’t it? I feel all ooey gooey inside just typing it. It would be great if it was factual. Sadly, things are not always as they seem. It’s even partly distributed by a company in my own county. This being the same distributor that had zero interest of moving a more local meat prior to a Minnesota company dropping some bugs in their ears. Oh, but just ask them now! It’s great to support “local family farmers”! Doing a little good for the neighbor must give them the warm and fuzzies too.

Okay, so local and family farmer are a wash. What’s next?

Well, our state has a branding program. Kentucky Proud was originally intended to help promote Kentucky products. That should work right? Wrong. That meat launch I mentioned earlier also gets to use that label and the livestock used travels from Kentucky auction barns to Iowa feedlots to Minnesota packers and then back to Kentucky as boxed beef. Hmm, that doesn’t describe my product at all. Some would say that the Kentucky Proud branding has been hijacked by a few notable companies and some members of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture themselves. It is campaigning time you know and well, food politics are alive and well in the Bluegrass!

So now what? We’ve lost local, can’t use family farmers or Kentucky Proud. I avoid the term sustainability like the plague. What’s left? How can I differentiate my products?

Side Note:

To the naysayers: You don’t live on my street. You don’t walk among some of the best farmers in my state, the hard working men and women that I’m honored to call friends. You don’t see the farmland going to auction. Cattle herds being dwindled, pig farmers becoming an endangered species, grazing land being tied up into CREP or CRP. You don’t see the sweat, regret, and outright fear in their eyes. You don’t see the changing landscape of my farming community, generations of history of farmers going by the wayside. You see stats, numbers, and figures on a computer screen. I see people, farmers, and friends.

So just continue to brush it under the rug, pretend these counties that supply this state with the majority of its cattle don’t matter. You just go ahead and keep the facade up to get your elected positions secured. Oh, and when you lay down at night, just before you shut your eyes after watching the media coverage of your gaining leads in the polls….I hope you see a glimpse of what I see every day and remember that you got elected on the backs of these farmers. Good luck to you. Karma bites.

You might say to yourself; Amy, you seem to be angry. Well, I’d agree. It has become increasingly clear to me that I have become jaded. I’ve lost my balance. I’ve lost my patience and I fear my passion is next. I’m taking some time off to rethink, refresh, regroup, and hopefully come back as my more productive fun loving self. I’m beaten. I’m battered but I’m not broken just yet.

If you have any suggestions on how I can differentiate, I’d love for you to share them with me.  I'm off to follow age old mother's advice. "If you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all."  Fair warning:  I may have some trouble with this.....  :-)


Thursday, April 1, 2010

Farmers: Why are you not angry?

I’ve become quite frustrated lately. I work hard for farmers every day, literally 18hrs (many times longer), 7 days per week, 364 (I take Christmas day off, mostly) per year. Even when I’m not physically in the meat shop, my brain is buzzing with ideas and opportunities to better my neighbor farmers bottom line and quality/value of life.  I work to teach them how to grab more dollar for their farm. This takes on many forms.  I might note that I also have a farm and cattle, horses, and a couple of goats to tend to…

• How to turn that cull calf, heifer, cow, bull, non breeder, etc... into a gain rather than a loss

• How the seedstock farmer can make gains from bull calves during the downed market

• How the dairy farmer can convert grass into cash with bull calves

• How the small farmer can hold onto their farm through direct marketing both meat & livestock

• How the pig farmer can turn culls into value added meats

• How the tobacco farmer can diversify into alternative livestocks like sheep, goat, and rabbit on minimal land.

• Meat education, what cuts are best from their particular animal, how best to age the carcass and when not to.

• Services for livestock processing for your personal families use, USDA services to allow them to re-sell their meats direct to the public or HRI, value added services for specialty meats to add greater value to their bottom line, custom processing with value added processing for the hunter.

• Private branding, graphics design, consultation, website development, marketing insight, cattle management, feeding tips….

• I work with my local county cattleman’s association to educate farmers on regulatory changes that will affect their farms and the services that I can provide for them. (I.e. Downer ban, CMPAF FDA enhanced feed ban, etc…)

• Not to mention that I literally support several farmers of various species of livestock through purchase of their animals at above market prices. I put my money where my mouth is!

That’s just a small sampling of what I do for the farmer on a daily basis. I work for you, the farmer.

So I have to ask myself, why are you not angry? Why have you forsaken us?

This is the most drastic change to HACCP since its inception. In one swoosh of the regulatory pen; USDA can take all of that away from you. These validation issues are literally putting every single bit of that at risk. The repercussions are dire. The mounting costs to operate a facility such as ours are already a burden. Most of which I realize that you do not understand. With added changes pending, this will be a financial burden that I and hundreds of plants like ours across the US will not be able to bare.

Who are we to pass these added costs along too? By costs, I mean literally $50,000 to $100’s of thousands of dollars depending on the services offered at that particular independent facility.

In my opinion (shared by hundreds of independent processors across the US), this is a systematic approach to eliminate the already dying breed of independents that work for you! And to make matters worse, this does not improve the food safety of our country’s meat supply. It only further consolidates it. Also important to note: All the major organizations and associations are opposed to this pending change.

Are we really that unappreciated? Is all my work for naught? Do you really worry more about HSUS than us and those like me across the US?

I ask you…why are you not angry? Why are you not standing up for us? Why are you not spreading the word? Have you even bothered to tell your local STATE or USDA inspected processor who likely does NOT even know this bombshell is coming? Will you not stand up for us? Why?

AAMP has requested an extension to the comment period, but have not gotten any written grant of extension. Therefore, it is strongly advising that comments be submitted by April 19, 2010. Individuals wishing to comment should submit comments to the email address or to the Docket Clerk, USDA, FSIS, Room 2-2127, 5601 Sunnyside Avenue, Beltsville, MD 20705. After April 19th, FSIS will begin its review on the comments it receives and its process of deciding how it will proceed with respect to the validation of HACCP systems.
-Source: AAMP

For further information, please attend #meatcamp tonight on twitter. You may also find valuable information at these following links.

NAMP (pdf)
Penn State: Dr. Chris Raines @iTweetMeat – Do You Feel Validated?

Will YOU not act?

UPDATE: The comment period for this draft guidance material has been extended until June 19.  Don't let the time expire!  Share your comments and let your voice be heard.

There has also been a FaceBook Group created for information sharing, questions, etc...  Please join, No butcher,No Meat! here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Debunking Fully Cooked “Hockey Puck” Burgers

Debunking Fully Cooked “Hockey Puck” Burgers

So, by now (unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere) we all know that ground beef should be fully cooked to 160˚F before consuming to ensure safety. Cooking to an internal temp of 160˚F ensures that any nasties that may be present will be destroyed. We call this a “lethality step”. I recommend you use it regardless of what type of ground beef you are preparing.

I hear grumbles already! I’ve heard it time and time again...charred, overcooked, hard as a rock, hockey puck, you name it.

Not so, I say! You’ve just been using the WRONG burger! See, I’ve been eating fully cooked burgers for eons and they are always juicy and delicious.

I was doing some quality checks at the meat shop on some ground beef that we had just processed. I always test a sample, cook it, taste it, and evaluate it. Yeah, I know. It’s a terrible job! Basically, if I won’t eat it then I’m not selling it to you. Hmmm, I thought to myself. Hey! This would be the perfect time to show the juicilicousness of a fully cooked burger… IF you use the right meat from the get go!

This particular ground beef was from cattle that were entirely pasture, forage, silage finished. These are raised without the use of antibiotics or growth hormones. We also single source our ground meat, never jumbled up w/a gadzillion different sources. I ran a fat analysis on my burger and came to a conclusion of 85/15 lean to fat ratio. This was perfect for me because this is exactly how I like it! Anything leaner and well, yeah you might end up with a hockey puck.

AND, the burger did NOT disappoint!

C’mon into my test kitchen. Well, not really. It’s technically our break room but it serves the purpose and test kitchen sounds swanky!

I pre-heated my handy dandy electric skillet to about 375˚F give or take.

Here’s my patty.

Just about ready to flip! Remember not to keep flip flopping your patties. Just one flip will do!

After turning.

Just look at that beautiful browning. Seriously YUM!!

Okay, time to take your temperature Mr. Juicilicous Goodness. Now I couldn’t tell you how long I cooked it. Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention. I’ve done it so many times that I just know when to stick the thermometer in. Sorry! :)

OK, so I’m not a food photographer! I can’t be Ms. Wonderful at everything. Gimme a break already!
At least you can see that the internal temp of my luscious burger is beyond 160˚F. It’s perfectly safe and I can feel confident serving this to my very own children. Also, take note of how clean the plate is.

Now for the real test! I hope you can see this. It was hard to show just how juicy it was. I took my spatula and mushed it for you. I hope you can see the juices running out.

Check out the plate now! Yes, all of those juices came from my FULLY COOKED to an internal temperature of 160˚F burger.

I mean really! Can you stand it! That’s one scrumptious FULLY COOKED grass finished burger! Voila!

P.S. You can pick yours up at our meat shop today! But hurry.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Attention Twitterverse: Direct Marketers, Urban Farmers, New Farmers….You just might need a team of advisors.

So one day I found myself intrigued with the twitter phenomenon. My inquisitive nature forced me join. Much to my surprise, what I found was a large selection of like minding farmers, foodies, agvocates, and businesses. But I found them arguing. Hmm, why are they at odds with one another? We all want the same goal don’t we? Where’s the disconnect? It didn’t take long to figure it out….my way is better than your way….I read it in a book somewhere, so it must be true….NYTimes says so, it must be fact…and now, the big screen theatrically describes it so I’m absolutely right and you are absolutely wrong. Now, I may be a born and bred Kentuckian but I’m not stupid. This ideology is just plain ignorant.

Which brings me to the motivation for this post.

A recent twitter conversation has made me realize that some people just really do not want or believe they need a helping hand. Some, it would appear, prefer to remain in a fantasyland of their own creation, an idealistic view of their beliefs if you will. My way is right so you must absolutely be wrong. This is sad on so many levels and well, I have to question this (It’s my nature. I question everything) because to me, this is peculiar.

Farming, local/regional food systems, livestock, and the meat industry in general are a huge part of my life. I consider myself to be knowledgeable, well-informed, and educated on the subject. I didn’t get this way on my own and I’m constantly learning more from others. This is the very core of farming and the meat industry, constantly learning, adapting, and ever evolving. When we stop listening to all sides of the debate, when we dismiss generational experience in farming or processing, we hamper progress, evolution, and our ultimate goal. We become close minded and ignorant.

Now, I’m a facts chick. It’s safe to say that I love facts. I tend to ignore (or at lease put less weight on) emotional pleas to make our world a better place, so to speak. I want facts from all sides of the debate. I can then evaluate those facts and come to my own hypothesis. So basically, I think for myself. I know this may be a hard concept for some to grasp but thinking for yourself is not really all that hard. I encourage everyone to give a try at least once. You’ll never find me believing something just because I saw it on a website somewhere from some unknown source. I weigh facts and opinion, make an educated decision and continue to evaluate that choice/decision. I never stop learning.

So, back to my reason for this chatter….

Along the way there were several voices that educated me through all aspects of these issues. In business, I would call this my team of advisors. It’s wise to have a team of advisors. You can’t expect to be an expert on every facet of your new venture, whatever it may be. Whether, it’s starting a new farm or shifting your farming operation into direct to consumer retail, or anything else for that matter. So, we surround ourselves with folks in various areas related to our particular operation.

I have an excellent team of advisors in the “real world.” These people range from small niche farmers to large corporate family farmers, to fellow Kentucky slaughter/processing house owners. Our team also consists of an array of professionals from diverse sectors of the Kentucky Department of Agriculture team, along with meat scientists from multiple Universities across the United States and even some beyond our borders. My advisors are numerous. Further nearly weekly advisors would be our microbiology laboratory, USDA segments, University of Kentucky meat and marketing specialists. We even seek council from members at University of Tennessee, Tennessee Department of Agriculture, and Retired Tennessee professors (one of my valued). The list doesn’t end there. I seek advice from chefs at our restaurant customer base, financial and small business advisors, etc…but I think you get the idea. We are ever learning, ever growing, and progress never stands still.

Twitter is a superb tool for an “unofficial” team of advisors. Grains of salt are needed of course, but there are quite a few extremely knowledgeable people available at a simple keystroke. And to think, I had to travel, phone, and snail mail my advisors when I need advice. As for my farm, my industry, and my business, I would consider these tweeps my “unofficial” team of advisors.

@iTweetMeat – Penn State Department of Dairy and Animal Science

@tweef32 – Mike Smucker, Smuckers Meats and a fellow slaughter/processor

@CarrieOliver – Carrie Oliver, a professed beef geek with a great attitude and a luv for artisan meats

@CallicrateBeef & @BuyColorado – Mike Callicrate a fellow direct beef marketer who appreciates the marbling & Bill Flentje, both appreciate supporting local farmers and buying meats direct.

@PoppyDavis – Poppy is a great resource for beginner farmers and small farmers

@bmarler – Bill is one heckuva food safety advocate. He’s also a trial lawyer, but I’ll look past that for a change (I’m just teasing Bill). He keeps me on my toes and keeps my food safety/regulation/HACCP knowledge at its peak. Be careful though, you might just find yourself on one of his CNN interviews.

@agchat – Oh #agchat, there are so many things to say here. It could really be its own blog post subject. Founded by @mpaynknoper – This is a weekly live twiversation that takes place Tuesdays from, 8-10pm ET. If you have an interest in food, farming, and all things agriculture related this is the place to be. Meet the real farmers who grow your food, the professionals that prepare it, the consumers who consume it, and all steps in between. I highly recommend this to anyone and everyone.

@foodchat – Kind of a spinoff of @agchat – This is also a live twiversation that centers around food. Join the live streaming convo every 3rd Tuesday from 8-10pm ET. If you eat, you might want to tune in.

Then there’s my fellow beef farmers who I find a great deal of value in…




There are hundreds more twitter users that I find value in, each one in their own way. It’s eclectic, diverse, always entertaining, and well sometimes downright frustrating. This, to me, makes it interesting.

My advice, figure out who your virtual twitter team of advisors are and listen, ask, learn, share, and grow. It’s a much more productive plan than being bull headed, close minded, defensive, and ungrateful.

You just might learn something.