Are we regulating local chicken out of business?
Many small polutry farmers in Iowa are having trouble finding a place to butcher their meat after the closure of another small Iowa poultry processing plant. Some producers argue that unnecessarily stringent regulations are driving these plants out of business.
Food safety is incredibly important, said poultry producer Ron Bartelt, but the poultry processing regulations just don't take into account the vast differences between a small plant that sells locally and a giant plant that sells meat across the country. Small plants might process 50,000 birds a year, whereas large ones could do that volume in a day.
"When you get that large a volume, it's going to take longer to get that product to the consumer and I can understand why regulations have to get tight," Bartelt said. "But they're making all of us who are small producers...we have to all go through the same regulations."
Meat processed at a state-inspected plant, which licenses producers to sell meat within state borders, does have to abide by federal regulations. That's because states that have state-inspected processing plants (27 states do) don't get federal support if they don't follow federal meat processing regulations.
And those regulations are getting tighter.
"We're now going to be testing for salmonella and campylobacter, and the performance standards have been tightened," said Gary Johnson, Iowa's Meat and Poultry Inspection Bureau chief.
Prior to July, plants could continue to operate if they had under 12 salmonella infractions. Now, they are only allowed five salmonella infractions a year and inspectors have started testing for campylobacter as well.
Poultry is a unique beast and processing it does have some special concerns, including the hazards of salmonella and campylobacter.
"Because you're dealing with an animal that has feathers -- and you remove the feathers, you leave skin -- it is a challenge," Johnson said. "There are more hurdles."
Local poultry producers in a bind
Freeman Schwartz, owner of Valley View Poultry Processing in Bloomfield, Iowa, just got into the poultry processing business two years ago, right before the state tightened regulations.
"I don’t say we're nervous, we're concerned. The regulations are here, and it's black and white -- you've either got to do it or you don't," Schwartz said. "It's either you've got to face it and fix it or (close). It's just that simple."
Schwartz said he did think it seemed a bit unfair that small processors are held to the same standards as huge plants processing tens of thousands of birds a day. But he said he recognizes the state's hands are tied because they can't develop their own regulations.
Both Schwartz and the producers who rely on him are hoping that he can continue to keep his plant open. Poultry producer Bartelt is working on a petition to increase awareness among consumers about the challenges that local producers and processors are facing.
There areother options for local poultry producers, even if they can't access a state-inspected plant, according to Arion Thiboumery, a meat specialist.
"In Iowa, if you're serious about raising poultry for local markets, folks should bite the bullet, take part of their barn, put up some walls, cut a floor drain in, buy stainless steel tables, and start (processing themselves,)" Thiboumery said.
Each state has slightly different rules about options for processing poultry without having to undergo state inspection, but Thiboumery said a producer in Iowa could process 20,000 birds a year with a facility that meets basic state standards, but not be subject to the same kinds of testing as state and federal plants.
Thiboumery said he wouldn't advise red meat producers to get into the processing business, but it's a real, accessible option for poultry growers. In fact, some poultry producers in northwest Nebraska have already banded together to share the costs of building a processing facility that they all use.
Local foods producers may have to get creative, because concerns about food safety aren't going away -- and neither are regulations.
"I believe there will always be a demand for small poultry producers," Johnson said. " I cannot predict what the future will be, but I can say that the microbiological demands, the verification testing, will increase. (Testing) will increase because of new knowledge, new information, and because of consumer demand for additional testing."