On jamón, Slow Food, & the aesthetics & ethics of meat

Two years ago we traveled to France and Italy to learn more about how they raise pigs and produce charcuterie and salumi. Disappointed to discover that the pigs are virtually all raised in sheds, we stopped calling our air-dried hams ‘prosciutto’ and changed to ‘jamón’ as we understood at the time that Spanish pigs with the appellation ‘Jamón Ibérico de Bellota’ are raised outdoors and finished over autumn and winter on acorns – a beautiful system.

This year we visited Spain to see this beautiful system firsthand. There is a lot of jamón eaten in Spain, and a lot more exported. In 2014, 43.5 million pigs (almost equivalent to the population of Spain, which was 46.7 million in 2014) were slaughtered. (Compare that with 4.85 million pigs produced in Australia for a population of 23.5 million.) So as we drove down through the southwest and up the western half of the country before crossing to Barcelona, we were on the lookout for these millions of pigs. There weren’t many on the paddocks, but the white concrete sheds with their signature malodorous air were ubiquitous.

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As we traveled we were interested in the aesthetics – in the texture, flavour, and colour of jamón across Spain – and we also wanted to know where and under what conditions it was produced. Only then would we ask how the jamóns are cured – what is the salting technique, the drying times, the maturation periods? Although we contacted two farms in hopes of a visit, we received no response from either, perhaps because we arrived before the famous montañera time where (some of) the pigs are actually outdoors?

We found the famous dehesa landscapes where the prized Jamón Ibérico de Bellota are finished on acorns, but most were vacant until the nuts would start to drop at the start of October. In Extremadura and Huelva provinces, some dehesa still sheltered the bulls grazing the last of the dry-standing grass of summer as they awaited their bullfighting fate. The few pigs we saw outdoors were on bare, rocky ground, and according to the FAO only around 10% of Spanish pigs (the Jamón Ibérico de Bellota) even get those few months outside under the shade of the picturesque oak forests.

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By the end of our time in Spain I was back to eating mostly vegetarian, and we will no longer be calling our hams jamón.

While the Spanish manage to produce quite a delicious product by finishing the pigs for three to four months on acorns, those pigs spend the first year of their lives in sheds, and the sows live and farrow entirely indoors. (NB I understand that there are a very small number of farms raising pigs on pasture, too few to discuss here where I’m looking at jamón production generally.) And so while the Spanish have succeeded in the aesthetics of their jamón, in my view they have not done so on the ethics.

What’s the big deal about raising pigs in sheds anyway if the final product tastes good?

I spoke recently to a crowd of about 200 people confined in a lovely long hall and asked them whether they’d be happy to spend the next five months there with no opportunity to leave. I didn’t even mention that they’d wee and poo where they sat, and if they were lucky the floor would be slatted for the excrement to drain away from the mass of bodies. Nobody popped their hand up to stay in the building, and yet I’d wager that the majority in the room would regularly eat meat from animals who never left the shed in which they were raised.

Most conventional pig and poultry sheds suffer from air quality that is so poor the animals are vaccinated for pneumonia to keep them alive until slaughter at five to six months of age. I understand that in Australia, the industry has been leading some innovative reform to build sheds that are open ended and have straw rather than concrete on the floor – definite improvements in intensive production systems.

But even if we improve the air quality and deal with the concentration of effluence in responsible ways, is it enough? What kind of lives do pigs who can only mill about in a crowded shed have?

And we need to talk about breeds and the serious risks posed by lack of biodiversity, especially when compounded by intensive confinement. Rob Wallace, author of Big Farms Make Big Flu, talks about sheds of 15,000 turkeys as ‘food for flu’. They’re a perfect feasting ground for viruses without an ‘immunological firebreak’ due to the homogeneity of the animals. While he was in Australia recently, we discussed the idea of regional planning for diversity and resilience – active, informed, grassroots community planning to ensure we raise different breeds across a region to create that firebreak in case a virulent strain of swine or avian flu escapes the intensive sheds.

There’s a strong movement to eradicate routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in intensive livestock production – administered to everything from pigs and poultry in sheds to cattle in feedlots. The industry itself is discussing the problems of over-use of antibiotics, namely the rise of superbugs like MRSA and the threat that soon we won’t be able to treat the most basic bacterial infections with the most common antibiotics like penicillin. Denmark already banned the routine use of antibiotics and yet it is still the biggest producer of pork in the world, so it’s clearly possible. The Netherlands has similarly banned antibiotics, prompted by the fact that pig farmers there are >760 times more likely to be carriers for MRSA than other Dutch citizens – if they visit the hospital they’re immediately taken to quarantine to protect the rest of the population.

So we have compelling animal welfare, ecological, and public health arguments to radically change how we raise pigs and poultry, and yet while the fair food movement consistently makes many of these arguments about the ills of industrial agriculture, there is a distinctive gap in our ethics of practice. Our time at Slow Food’s Terra Madre this year highlighted this very clearly – as we elbowed our way through the crowds of people enjoying a day of tasting alleged slow food along the kilometres of stalls, we were disappointed to learn that all but one pork producer we could find were growing their pigs intensively indoors.

While Slow Food (like the Spanish jamón producers above) excels at the aesthetics of the food it promotes – promoting ‘slow’, traditional, and delicious, how is it doing at the ethics? What do ‘good, clean, and fair’ really mean? Slow Food International took a stand against foie gras a couple years ago, but it has not done so against intensive animal agriculture, and hosts many prosciutto producers at Salone del Gusto every two years who raise pigs in sheds. I would really like to see them pursue this discussion and take a strong position against intensive livestock production.

As I said on the Slow Meat panel at Terra Madre, just because you cure it slowly doesn’t make it slow… you need to grow it slowly too.

And the same goes for serving factory-farmed meat at fair food movement events – you can’t simply intellectualise this stuff and pontificate on the ills of Big Ag and the oligarchy while munching on their produce. If procuring ethically-raised meat is impossible due to complicated catering contracts and a dearth of small-scale pastured livestock farmers, we can at least serve vegetarian food (with its own attendant issues if sourced from the globalized industrial food system, e.g. tropical fruit in Victoria in the dead of winter… that’s not even an aesthetic success.).

As most people reading this already know, food has material impacts on the land and people that produce it, the animals raised for food, and the people who eat it. If we only take a moralizing analytical stab at the problems of the food system and then serve it up for dinner we are doing a material injustice to all parts of the very system we are trying to transform. Slow Food and all of us in the food sovereignty movement can and should show leadership (as Slow Food has on many topics) and insist on the ethics of meat production being at least of equal importance to the aesthetics.

Spain: the pleasures and ethics of consumption and production

Travel consumes us, just as we consume the material and philosophical artefacts of the destinations of our desire. We bump onto foreign soil and commence imbibing difference with all senses, some more pleasant than others. We eagerly osmose saturated blue skies, reluctantly inhale the sourness of the unwashed on the train, and happily let the sweet and salty depths of jamón melt on our tongue…

Stuart and I have spent our entire shared life consuming culture, learning our way into other lands by eating churros in Madrid, gazing at Rembrandts in Paris and listening to sitars in Varanasi, reading Machiavelli and Balzac in the Tuileries, and ambling through centuries of Gothic flying buttresses and villages and cities planned and unplanned for habitation. 20 years ago we would read all the relevant novels we could lay hands on before traveling to a new country, and I would commence reading recipes and trying them out on family and friends even before our adventures, only to come home and improve on those dishes after having tasted their distinctions in situ.

So engrossed was/am I with understanding the ways in which we consume culture in pursuit of connectedness, and of a cosmopolitan ethic, that I spent eight years working towards a PhD on the topic, the formal study of which I’ve since abandoned, though it remains a lifelong preoccupation.

Since before becoming a farmer, my interest in consumption logically shifted to a more primary concern with production, ipso facto consumption’s supplier. Our recent trip to Spain, the home of jamón ibérico, exemplified this, as we searched for the roots of jamón, not just the taste. I’ll write more about our findings on jamón in a later post, as here I’d like to share my thoughts on our other observations throughout Spain.

We spent a scant 18 hours in Madrid, and in that time noted:

  1. carnicerías are everywhere in the centre with ceilings and walls lined with jamón,
  2. there’s a bottle of Spanish olive oil on nearly every table,
  3. Spanish olives are standard on tapas menus, but the quality is anything but standardised,
  4. the smoky spice of pimentón is as distinctive to Spanish cuisine as jamón.

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Where and under what conditions is all this produce grown?

As we dashed south out of Madrid in the motorhome we dubbed the Slothvan (unfair really as it was quite speedy on the autovía but lumbered around curves in a not-unpleasing sloth-like fashion), we couldn’t help but be struck by the endless monocultures of olives, seemingly Spain’s equivalence to the central valley of California’s almond groves without the obvious ecological disaster of irrigating a thirsty tree in a drought-prone land. There were rarely water pipes in sight, but also absolutely nothing but olive trees for hundreds of kilometres – no grass between the rows, no shrubs – just thousands and perhaps millions of trees dotting the rocky soils.

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I wondered who owns these orchards and just how big are they? What impact of the growth of Spain’s olive oil industry has there been on the land and local communities (let alone the Italian and Greek industries?) Surely the consequences are the same as anywhere agriculture scales up and smallholdings are lost – more chemical inputs in the name of efficiency and yield, subsequent land degradation, and reduced employment for rural communities who once relied on the viability of many small-scale farms… though a quick bit of internet research reveals that while Spain’s olive orchards are on average bigger than their neighbours’, they are still relatively small by Australian or American standards at 5.3ha (compared with just 1.3ha in Italy!). According to what I read though, lack of control of the value chain keeps the farmers from prospering, just as it does worldwide (the FAO has an entire workstream dedicated to connecting smallholders to value chains).

Dotted amongst the olive groves are huge solar and wind farms – in a dry, rocky land, the Spanish are very wisely harvesting the natural resources of which they have plenty – sun and wind. Something I read when we visited the windmills made famous by Cervantes’ madly tilting Don Quixote suggested the locals worked out a long time ago to harness these resources as their only reliablemainstays – if only Australian policymakers were so wise.

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As we rolled into the steep slopes of the southern tip of Andalucía, the olive groves shrank and seemed to welcome the presence of other species – aberrant oaks and life-giving figs poked up amongst the olives with an appealing diversity after so many homogeneous kilometres. Even grass is allowed between rows in many of the smaller farms, surely a welcome cover for hungry soils under the harsh Spanish sun.img_0178

It got me reflecting back on the abundance of Spanish olive oil available throughout the country (and indeed, in Australia and elsewhere) and wondering where the artisanal local oils are to be found? You know, that whole ‘just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s good’. For example, the region in which we live in Victoria has an abundance of potatoes, most of them grown in big monocultures and sprayed regularly – not what I’d prefer to feed my family… (fortunately it is easy where we live to access the organic and chemical-free potatoes grown by the many lovely small-scale farmers with which we’re blessed).

And then we visited the lovely mountain region of La Vera in the northerly part of Extremadura and saw firsthand how small-scale growing can be aggregated, scaled, and become ubiquitous and still delicious and fair… through the collective model (which of course the olive growers also utilise). La Vera is the most famous pimentón (Spanish paprika) producing region in Spain (Murcia being the other). Back in 1937 the local growers formed a syndicate, and then in 1938 established a cooperative to reduce competition amongst themselves and to create an entity with a real opportunity for export.

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Drying and smoking sheds for the pimenton

img_0465 A niche artisanal (arguably non-staple) product like pimentón can quickly saturate a solely local market, and given it is sold as a dried powder in a tin, it is readily transportable without refrigeration – the perfect product for the age-old spice trade. And witnessing the relatively small-scale fields growing the crops and the old drying sheds where the pimentón are still taken to be dried and given their irresistible smokiness was heartening – I’m heading home with 3kg for my chorizo making – happy meatsmith!

But of course cooperatives aren’t all fair to everyone just because they’re fair to their members. At the recent launch of the Farm Cooperatives and Collaborations Pilot Program in Australia we heard from a number of very large case studies, including CBH, the huge grain cooperative in WA with an annual revenue of over $3 billion that export more than 90% of the grain produced, largely for livestock feed and fuel. We also heard from TSBE in Queensland, a cooperative with $5 billion in revenue that owns feedlots, intensive pig and poultry sheds, and apparently got its start with CSG revenue (food and agriculture are only 15% of their turnover if I noted that correctly).

We ate quite well in Spain – we had ready access to fresh fruit and veg and a variety of interesting Spanish cheeses (such as the lovely, stinky Torta del Casar and the plentiful queso de oveja – curado is much nicer than semicurado) – and made many of our meals in the Slothvan with beautiful views of the wealth of castles that litter the landscape.

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Foraged figs & grapes from a monastery we camped next to, paired with fried potatoes with smoked piment and white anchovies…

The milk was uniformly awful (we could only find UHT, as is the norm for much of Europe sadly), and aside from rare exceptions the bread was mostly terrible. Truck stop food was inspiring – made fresh and with obvious care – there are carnicerías in the truck stops (!), and vast deli options for local cheeses as well as the meat offerings. Of course the meat is almost entirely factory farmed, but with artisanal touches in the processing… more on all of this later in the jamón post.

Truck stops were the best road trip food!
Truck stops were the best road trip food!

Our time in Spain was too short and research was mostly observational and influenced by combining a learning trip with a family adventure, but driving across its vast, dry landscapes from which water must surely be rung out of stone to produce 50% of the EU’s olive oil was certainly more informative than merely scanning and devouring the menus of its cities as we did in previous lives. While consuming food is a central and critical part of life, focusing purely on taste can too easily get stuck on the aesthetic rather than the ethic, whereas following the chain back to where your food is produced can tell you so much more about the communities who grow it and the quality of what they grow.

Having just been to Slow Food’s Terra Madre and braved the crowds at Salone del Gusto in Torino, I have many more thoughts on the problem of privileging the aesthetic aspects of food over the ethics… as well as on the importance of democracy in the food sovereignty movement to effect real change… but just now the cliffs of Cinque Terre beckon. 😉

The Regulation Diaries (6): Winning the Salami Wars

Just over two years ago, around 3 o’clock in the afternoon before an early flight to France and Italy to research the old traditions of charcuterie and salumi making, inspectors from the Victorian meat industry regulator PrimeSafe rolled up our driveway and destroyed all our personal salamis.

Early this year we received a letter from PrimeSafe with a vaguely threatening instruction not to run our popular Salami Days. At least three others (that we know of) who run similar workshops received nearly the same letter, and I momentarily despaired that the vibrant and delicious skill of salami making was about to come to a sad end in Victoria.

But I never despair long, and I soon requested a meeting with PrimeSafe. And so late one morning after an abattoir run in April Stuart and I parked the aromatic stock trailer out front of the South Melbourne offices and went in to meet with two members of PrimeSafe staff. The good news is that The Inspector we’ve dealt with is apparently absent for now, and the staff we now deal with seem much more earnest at fulfilling their duties, and much less interested in standover tactics. Promising days.

I won’t use space here on the initial agenda items regarding rillettes and cryovac-ing smoked hocks except to say it went reasonably well, and as soon as our supply gets back to normal (a story I’ll write up soon…) we’ll be getting those products approved in spite of last year’s difficulties over them.

Here’s how the discussion of salami workshops went (this is of course a paraphrase as best I remembered it when I documented it after the meeting):

***

Me: So can we talk about our salami days now, please?

Officer A: Yes, Tammi, first I have to ask you, are you prepared to become an RTO [a Registered Training Organisation, e.g. a TAFE or similar]?

Me: No, that’s irrelevant. We aren’t trying to give anyone a qualification or certificate, so we don’t need to be an RTO. I was a Senior Risk Analyst for the regulator for higher education and am well aware of the role and requirements for RTOs and universities, and they don’t apply to what we do. We spend one day teaching how to transform a whole pig carcass into cured muscles and salami, we enjoy a long lunch with wine and a band, and it’s a really lovely day…

Officer B: So would you say it’s more of a festival than a workshop? Because that would be regulated by your council.

Me: Not really a festival, but sure, you can call it what you want if that helps. But we can’t be regulated by our council for matters you have an interest in as the regulator, as there’s a double jeopardy rule as you know. But we don’t believe you have jurisdiction over our salami days as we’re not processing meat for sale and none leaves the property…

Officer B: Okay, maybe it’s more of festival…

Officer A: But Tammi we still have concerns over you teaching people to make salami. What if one of them goes home and does it badly and somebody gets sick?

Me: Are you familiar with YouTube and Michael Ruhlman’s books ‘Charcuterie’ and ‘Salumi’? People learn how to make salami any number of ways, just as they do cheese and other cooking skills… surely you’d prefer your licensees to teach these skills as we are knowledgeable about food safety?

Officer A: Well, we still have concerns…

Me: Officer A, I have concerns over whether you had McDonalds for lunch but I have no legislative authority over whether you choose to eat that. So if you have something in the [Meat Industry] Act of which I’m unaware about the legality of our salami days, please let me know, because if there’s nothing there to stop us teaching people to make salami, I’m frankly not interested in your concerns.

Officer A: [crickets]

Officer A: Well, I guess ultimately it’s a matter for our CEO.

Me: Oh, really? Seems to me it’s a matter for the Instrument [aka the Act]. Here’s my plan – I’m going to run our salami days same as I have for the past three years. If you have new information you need to share with us you know where we are.

***

And here we are five months later, three Jonai Salami Days and many #youcantbuywhatieat potluck protests later, one Melbourne Salami Festa approaching, and on the eve of the King Valley Salami Festa

We’re sharing this story to give hope to others who have been harassed out of running workshops that maintain these beautiful old food traditions. We called the regulator’s bluff and found that there was no ace in the hole, nothing in the legislation to stop us hosting Salami Days.

Just don’t let anyone leave with meat processed outside a licensed facility and you’re well within your rights to teach more people the delicious joys of skilful curing of whole carcasses. And make sure you know what you’re doing – that someone with experience and knowledge of safe food handling has taught you best practice. We’ve been fortunate to learn from Australian farmers and butchers, Italian saluministi, and French charcutiers, and we’re about to add the Spanish masters of jamón making to our mentors…

It’s 3 o’clock the day before we fly to Spain and Italy on another research trip to learn more about the very old arts of jamón and salami making… so we’re just going to leave this here.

…but this time we’re leaving a resident lawyer at the farm while we’re away. 😉

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Food Sovereignty asserts the right of peoples to nourishing and culturally appropriate food produced and distributed in ecologically sound and ethical ways and their right to collectively determine their own food and agriculture systems.

This year the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance is fundraising to establish a Legal Defence Fund to support small-scale farmers and makers in their efforts to grow, process, and distribute food grown in ethically- and ecologically-sound ways, and eaters’ right to access this food.

We’ve currently raised over $22,000 and are looking forward to distributing some of the funds to the farmers most in need when we reach $25,000 (with an ambitious goal of $100,000 by the end of Fair Food Week 23 October!).  

If you want to protect your right to grow and eat nutritious and delicious food as you and your community see fit, join us today!

Big Pharma, Big Food… who really controls the pig industry?

25 years ago I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and became a vegetarian.

5 years ago we commenced farming free-range pigs and cattle at Jonai Farms.

3 years ago I became a butcher.

Last week we went to the Pan Pacific Pork Expo (PPPE).

This is not a story of slippery slides and selling out. Or is it?

This is a look at the lure of productivism, and seduction by technocrats, a story bounded by corporate greed and hegemony. I’m not going to bore you with lots of academic terms, but I will quickly define a couple and then move on to our time at the PPPE last week. Apologies for over simplifying what are complex and intersecting concerns.

Productivism is, simply put, the pursuit of more productivity. It is ‘growthism’ – the notion that more production is necessarily good. Applied to growing pigs, it means that more piglets per litter, bigger pigs in a shorter time, bigger hams, and more kilos yielded from each carcass are all indisputably desirable.

Technocrats are scientists and technical experts who have a lot of power in politics or industry due to a culture of valuing technological solutions. Applied to growing pigs, it means pharmaceutical companies who are quick to provide technical solutions to problems created by the industry’s unsustainable production methods. Air quality’s an issue? We have a vaccine for that.

Corporate greed is generally faceless. Many if not most of the humans inside corporations are individually decent people and mostly harmless, but collectively they wield disproportionate power and have a fiduciary duty to work for the benefit of the corporation aka its shareholders. Shareholders’ dividends are valued above all else, and are often served best by technocrats’ solutions. Corporate greed is not interested in system reform to create a fair world for everyday people and the animals they raise.

Hegemony as I am using it here is understood in terms of the ways that the elite or governing powers coerce consent from the very people they subjugate. Applied to intensive livestock industries, it is through a complex web of economic and cultural controls that big companies convince family farmers that confining their animals is morally just and ‘the only way’ to ‘feed the world’ (and their families). When the shed needs upgrading because half the pigs have pneumonia and your kids need new shoes, you’re hardly likely to embark on a philosophical journey through the ethics of confining animals, you’re going to buy another bottle of Ingelvac MycoFLEX and continue to complain about activists breaking into your sheds.

So what happens when a couple of small-scale free-range pig farmers go to the country’s largest gathering of intensive pork producers? We found ourselves so far outside the echo chamber I couldn’t even hear it anymore, but it transformed my thinking on strategies for reform.

The PPPE is the pork industry’s bi-annual conference that brings together pork producers, veterinarians, drug companies, feed suppliers, and manufacturers of equipment (mostly for intensive pig sheds such as farrowing crates). Very few small-scale growers attend as it’s perceived to be pitched at large, intensive production systems (and I can affirm that this is the reality, but an issue APL have stated they are keen to address).

As members of Australian Pork Ltd (APL), we are entitled to a flight and accommodation for one of us to attend, so this year we decided we would go and learn more about the concerns of the intensive industry to help in our work to get more pigs back out onto paddocks. We knew it would be challenging and frustrating at times, but I was really keen to put a face to the people who run intensive farms by spending a few days amongst them. I’m still processing my complicated emotions about it all, but one thing is very clear to me – farmers are not the problem.

As expected, people are mostly lovely. The producers we met are families with children young and old, more often than not multi-generational pig farmers who’ve been through the intensification of the industry and are now copping the community opprobrium of being considered ‘factory farms’ while trying to make a living in a commodity food system that is increasingly in crisis (just look at dairy).

Most speakers were vets, animal scientists, and sponsors – very few producers actually spoke in the sessions we attended.

The conference opened with a futurist who dazzled the audience with the promise of more shiny technology looming just over the horizon, but it was such snake oil I’ll be brief. He told us what we could do with Big Data on Google Trends, to sign up now for Skymuster (which we did, heh, but he also told us his plans to steal a Skymuster satellite from rural Australia because it will be so much quicker than his broadband in Sydney – great guy). He dangled the promise of ear tags for pigs that will be able to ‘smell disease’ and compute feed conversion ratios in real time. Have a look at Spider goats, and suffice to say that he was a true technophile and Productivism Personified. This set the scene for a more hopeful, technologically-enabled future for the pork industry.

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Throughout the conference, there were a few defensive mentions of the broader community calling what they do ‘factory farming’. In fact, Robert van Barneveld, the CEO for Sunpork Farms (one of the largest pork producers in Australia with approximately 40,000 sows) made the rather telling comment, ‘we’re accused of being factory farms – if only! Life would be a dream!’ He went on to expound on how in factories everything is uniform and so production is seamless and efficient, and that this was apparently a goal for the pork industry to work towards by improving genetics and refining nutrition at all life stages of pigs.

Air quality only got one mention that we heard, when American swine scientist Mark Wilson was discussing recent advances in seasonal infertility and heat stress. He made a sort of parenthetical comment that there was sometimes over 50ppm ammonia in some pig sheds. For the record, anything over 10ppm reduces the respiratory defences and increases the risk of infection (in both pigs and workers in intensive sheds). Zinpro, the company Wilson works for, produces ‘performance minerals’ to ‘improve performance’/counter the ill effects of intensive systems.

The Zinpro website has this to say about lameness:

‘When a sow is lame, it leads to lower feed intake (especially during lactation), decreased reproductive performance and ultimately early exit from the herd.’

Not,

‘When a sow is lame, she’s probably suffering, and this should be avoided at all costs.’

The second statement requires non-hegemonic thinking – that is, one would have to question the system that is causing the lameness, but when one’s income and identity are entirely tied up in those sheds, this question is very difficult to ask, and performance minerals must seem genuinely helpful.

Air quality was flagged by the final speaker we heard (who runs 2000 sows in Victoria), who called for improvements in temperature, hygiene, and air quality, but did not discuss the latter two in his talk at all – they simply appeared in the concluding slide.

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Sponsors introduced each session of the conference – Zoetis, Primegro, Elanco, Biomin, and Boehringer Ingelheim just to name a few of the pharmaceutical sponsors. They have a solution for everything, and at no point did we hear these sponsors or ag scientists entertain the question of why so many pigs have pneumonia, pleurisy, lameness, and post-weaning multisystemic wasting syndrome (PMWS) in the first place. (For comparison, none of these ailments are common in small-scale free-range pig farming except occasional lameness in sows from joining injuries.)

The very first session we attended was on biosecurity, a paramount concern to the intensive livestock industry. Biosecurity is important we were told because the advantages of lower infection include: increased animal welfare; increased production; decreased antibiotic use; and increased food safety. Infection in sheds can be catastrophic as disease moves through an immune-compromised herd of closely confined animals – imagine someone hops onto the Frankston line at peak hour with anthrax.

To manage biosecurity, the crowd of producers was told to eradicate wild poultry such as ducks so they don’t infect your herd; manage the inevitable rat infestations; and require visitors to shower and change into orange prison suits before entering the property so you can identify the risky stranger on your property. A question from the floor was ‘so how are the free-range farms managing their biosecurity?’ to general consternation at the risk farms like ours must be presenting to theirs.

When a room full of people unquestioningly accepts advice to force visitors to wear orange prison suits onto the farm you know we have a long way to go to get back to the reasonable person test. No wonder Joel Salatin wrote a book called ‘Folks, this ain’t normal’.

The planning requirements around intensive piggeries for buffer zones to protect the amenity of other humans, animals, waterways and soils should force a major re-evaluation of the systems we need buffering from, not constant revisions to just how far sheds need to be from us. If it’s not fit to be near to, it’s probably not fit to exist.

Technocrats cannot solve the problem of air quality in confinement systems. Vaccinations for pneumonia, pleurisy, and porcine circovirus (PCV2) are bandaids on an increasingly antimicrobial resistant wound. Vaccinations aren’t the solution, they’re just another problem. Same goes for more or better fans and air conditioning.

The solution for air quality is to have less pigs per farm and to keep them outdoors.

The solution for the risk of infection is to have less pigs per farm and to keep them outdoors.

I will mention one more speaker, an industry shill who did the conference no favours with her hyperbolic rant and defensive defence of intensive livestock systems. Jude Capper is a self-described ‘livestock sustainability consultant’ whose bio says she is ‘Defending beef daily! Passionate about livestock production, dedicated to giving producers the tools and messages to explain why we do what we do, every single day.’ She managed to misquote Michael Pollan while telling the audience they need to control their message so that ‘self-appointed food experts’ like him don’t, and encouraged the industry to recruit ‘mommy bloggers’ to their cause as people can relate to mothers.

Bovidiva, as Capper calls herself on her blog and social media, has posts in defence of routine antibiotic use, and even one objecting to concerns about industry-funded scientists like herself. The shame of her inclusion in the program is that we did hear discussions of the need to reduce antibiotic use and signs that industry is ready to start talking about some of the hard topics, and Capper’s performance belied the fact that the industry has made headway on a number of things such as the voluntary phase out of gestation stalls (though not farrowing stalls as yet).

People who set themselves up to ‘defend the industry’ are not helpful to society’s project of constant improvement – and it’s particularly shameful when these are allegedly academics who should be trained in the cool eye of objectivity and vigilance against bias. This conference would benefit from open discussions of the problems of air quality and its impact on animals and workers, management of effluent, overuse of antibiotics, and financial pressures inherent in the commodity food system amongst other concerns facing the industry. So long as the conference is funded by the pharmaceutical industry and others who profit from pig producers, this seems unlikely to happen, to the detriment of the farmers and communities they feed.

In March, the CEO of APL Andrew Spencer made a strong call for the freedom true transparency could offer the industry in his regular piece in the Australian Pork Newspaper. Spencer writes,

 ‘We at APL do have some initiatives under way to better show what happens on a pig farm, but disappointingly getting our producers to cooperate in using their facilities to host media or community groups has been very unsuccessful. This is a significant risk to our industry. […] Being profitable isn’t the same as being sustainable if the community doesn’t believe in what you’re doing. One of the communication principles I’ve previously written about states “we are not afraid of others seeing what we do.” Today, I don’t believe this is true.’

It is encouraging to see an industry leader calling for transparency, and pointing out that if you’re not willing to let people see what you do, then there might be something wrong…

The task before those of us working towards an ethical and ecologically-sound agricultural future is enormous, and we must work with farmers in intensive systems if there is any hope for reform. We have to listen to their financial and social constraints, and offer alternative financially-viable models.

In working with intensive livestock producers, we have to understand who holds the real power – the corporations who supply them with medications that make those systems function, and the processors and retailers like Coles and Woolies who set prices and leave farmers vulnerable to fluctuations on the global market.

Until farmers of all produce are able to control the price they charge for their food based on what it costs them to grow it, we cannot have a fair food system. The dairy crisis has sharply reminded us of how broken the system really is – let’s all work together before it’s too late for everyone.

Community-supported agriculture at Jonai Farms

[This was originally posted over on our farm blog – The Farmer & the Butcher]

My interest in community-supported agriculture started in early 2000 as an eater in search of local, organic vegetables for my dear little family of three, soon to be pregnant with the fourth of ultimately five Jonai. We were living in Santa Cruz, California, pursuing the granola, earth-mama lifestyle so prevalent in that part of the world in spite of the exorbitant cost of living. Living on just $35,000 per annum with a rent of $1600 per month, we didn’t have cash to spare.

I was a vegetarian at the time, which helped keep food costs down, but I was also determined to feed the little people I had grown inside my own body organic produce only. And so after many months of joyful shopping at Santa Cruz’s excellent twice-weekly farmer’s markets, we stumbled across the CSA farm run by the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Even now, the UCSC CSA vegie box is a mere $25/week, payable as $560 in advance of the 22-week season. It was a struggle to find the money up front, but UCSC offers low-income households a few options to improve access, and we were able to pay in two instalments instead of one.

The bounty was incredible – a box of seasonal fruit and veg plucked from the farm each morning before collection time. Interacting with the student farmers and hearing about the harvest – successes & failures – was a highlight of the week, often helping us understand better what was and wasn’t working in our own little garden a mile away from campus.

A decade later we found ourselves setting up our own farm in the central highlands of Victoria, Australia. From the beginning we were keen to run the farm as a CSA, but until we tested our supply of ethically-raised rare-breed pork and beef, we didn’t feel confident asking people to commit. It seemed wrong to ask the community to share our risk when we weren’t even sure what the risks were, and had no production data to know what our average litter sizes or carcass yields would be.

The first year of meat sales (second year on the farm) affirmed our caution in waiting to start the CSA. We had a lot to learn about farming and butchering, and were pleased with the way demand for our produce grew rather organically as supply grew, without placing undue pressure on us to produce more.

Halfway through that first year of selling meat, we crowdfunded a $30,000 boning room and I trained as a butcher while Stuart built it, and we see the crowdfunding as our first foray into community-supported agriculture, because that’s just what it was. People pledged an up-front payment for a reward of fresh pork we delivered once we had a licensed boning room. And that’s how it works – people take a risk with you and you deliver, and so we did.

The same month we got our licence for the boning room was also the month we launched our CSA. It was also just a few months before we reached peak production – an average of eight pigs and a side of beef per fortnight. We’d watched our land carefully over the previous two years as we went from our original single boar and five breeding sows until we reached two boars and 12 sows on our 69 acres in addition to an average of 18 cattle.

We have sufficient demand to grow more animals for meat, but our land would suffer, so we reached the limit set by our soil and climate. We’d set out to be an ethically-viable no-growth model, and two years in, we found the limit of our start-up growth. It also just happens to be a very full and fulfilling schedule, and the workload, while sometimes quite intense, is sustainable for a small family farm.

So with those three variables – taking over our supply chain with the boning room, reaching peak production, and launching the CSA – in January 2014 we went from running a small loss to making our first profit, and we’ve been profitable since.

The first month, we had eight subscribers, which gave us an assured income of just over $12,000 for the year. Six months into the CSA, we had 25 members, and by the start of the second year our community had grown to 40, with about two-thirds based in Melbourne and one-third spread around our region. As we enter the third year, we have 74 members and a waiting list for Melbourne, with room for about 15 more members in the region.

In exchange for 6 or 12 months payment up front, or a monthly payment, subscribers get 3, 5, 6 or 10kg bags of pork only or mixed pork and beef cuts, including our range of smallgoods. The bags now may also contain pet treats, bone broths, air-dried muscles such as coppa, lonza and pancetta, and charcuterie such as our popular pâté de tête made from the heads.

The CSA currently guarantees us an income of just under $100,000 out of a total revenue of approximately $170,000 projected for 2015-16. The remainder is about $50,000 in ad hoc sales in the region and through farm gate, and approximately $20,000 from our monthly workshops. Our profit margin is around 30%, giving us an income of just over $50,000 after all farm expenses are covered.

Our cost of living here is so low as we grow and barter for the majority of our food and live a low-consumption lifestyle that we find this income meets all our needs, and will actually increase slightly as we improve certain processes and eventually stop building new structures!

Aside from a secure income, there are too many benefits to the farmers and the eaters in community-supported agriculture to possibly quantify, but I’ll mention a few. For us, getting to know our members, their preferences, and their appreciation for our efforts and the uncommonly delicious results is invaluable. The emails, texts, and photos on social media sharing how people have cooked our meat, or how their children will no longer eat any sausages but ours are salve to knuckle-weary farmers at the end of a day of what must otherwise be thankless toil for those working in a disconnected, windowless industrial boning room or cavernous sheds full of shrieking, stinking, miserable pigs.

Since joining your csa our monthly spend on meat has reduced by heaps. Also the meat you provide is so nourishing that we often have some left over by the time the new bag arrives (usually bacon so i freeze it). We get the small pack and it is enough for three full size women who eat well! (One is 12 but she is the middle size person). AND of course the taste is sensational. All three of us were unable to stomach pork prior to trying yours! You are awesome!  Thank you. (CSA member Tani Jakins, 2015)

Even the critical feedback – not enough meat on the ribs, too much fat on the bacon, uncertainty about the grey colour of our nitrite-free bacon – is so much easier to hear from people with whom we have an ongoing and genuine relationship. This feedback has helped me improve my butchering skills as members have guided me with their desires, just as it has taught many of them that fat is delicious and nitrites are the only reason most bacon is lurid pink.

Logistically, running a CSA with bags of mixed cuts enables me to ensure every carcass is fully utilised, and makes packing day a much simpler exercise than when I was cutting and filling bags to custom requirements. And the standard CSA set box model teaches eaters to be better, more resourceful cooks attached to seasons and the reality of just 28 ribs and two tenderloins per pig. It also means automated repeating invoices, instead of endless documentation of weights after packing followed by 100 tailored invoices into the night before delivering 400kg of meat.

Having attended the Urgenci: International Network for Community-Supported Agriculture conference in China in November, we’ve come back full of ideas from our CSA farming comrades around the globe, including plans to share our budget with members (starting with sharing the financial data here right now!), and preparation to host a members-only Open Day on the farm, with butchery & cooking demos, music, and of course a long lunch of Jonai Farms pork and beef surrounded with organic bounty from other growers in our beautiful region.

At Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths, we say we don’t need to scale, we need to multiply. In our region and across Australia we see this happening rapidly, and we’re delighted to be amongst at least half a dozen small-scale free-range pig farms within 100km of us. There’s room for many more if our waiting list is anything to go by, and imagine a land re-populated with families caring for the land, sending our kids to the local schools, and re-creating vibrant rural communities. You won’t get that with scale – quite the opposite in fact.

Community-supported agriculture comes from an ethics of connectedness, care, and solidarity. It ensures accountability at both the farmer and the eater end of the equation, provides a viable living for farmers, and helps everyone learn more about the hows and whys of food production. As we enter our third year of running our farm as a CSA, we’d like to thank our members – those who’ve been with us since the beginning and those recently arrived – we couldn’t do this without you.

If you’re interested in reading further about CSAs around the world, have a look at the Urgenci website, and especially the Principles of Teikei, developed in Japan, the birthplace of CSAs in the 1970s.

Viva la revolución!

 

Principles of Teikei

Principle of mutual assistance

Principle of accepting the produce

Principle of mutual concession in the price decision

Principle of deepening friendly relationships

Principle of self-distribution

Principle of democratic management

Principle of learning among each group

Principle of maintaining the appropriate group scale

Principle of steady development

The Regulation Diaries (5): ‘Folks, This Ain’t Normal’ – the fight for free-range farming

I met a beautiful farmer yesterday whose story I’ve been following with dismay for the last couple months. We walked around her paddocks admiring groups of healthy, happy pigs as she described her system for breeding, weaning, and feeding.

Jo’s farm smells of nothing but fresh air, sounds of birdsong and the occasional curious grunt from a well-fed pig with nothing to fear, and is in a rolling green valley well covered in lush spring grass.

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In 2014, Jo Stritch of Happy Valley Free Range won Livestock Farmer of the Year.

In 2015, Jo was ordered by her local council to cease farming.

How could this happen? Because the Victorian planning scheme deems her operation ‘intensive’ due to more than 50% of the pigs’ nutritional needs being met by feed Jo imports onto the farm, and the Yarra Ranges has a ban on intensive production.

A ban on intensive agriculture is surely a welcome reflection of community sentiments that are turning against intensive animal agriculture. But when a small pastured pig farm is defined as intensive, something is wrong.

Let me unpack the issues.

‘Intensive animal husbandry’ is defined in the Victorian planning scheme as ‘Land used to keep or breed farm animals, including birds, by importing most food from outside the enclosures.

Clearly this applies to nearly all pig and poultry operations, no matter whether the animals are confined in sheds or out on the pastures. No matter whether the pastured pigs are on bare dirt or well-covered paddocks. It therefore also applies to many equestrian and dairy farms that import a lot of their animals’ feed. Oh, and cattle farms, even just those who feed hay to their cattle in the leanest months of winter and the dry end of summer.

And to what purpose do we want to define these operations as ‘intensive’? In common parlance, most people consider animals that are confined and quite restricted in the extent to which they can move to be raised ‘intensively’. Pigs like Jo grows are not what the public thinks of as ‘intensive’.

What does bringing in feed do in reality? It builds fertility. What happens if you bring in feed for more animals than the land can sustain? It sours. If you concentrate stock numbers, such as in intensive animal agriculture, you can overly nutrify and indeed toxify the soils.

The ‘outdoor bred: raised indoors on straw’ production system for pigs have a practice of moving the ‘eco-sheds’ every two years and then not returning to that same spot for another two years to deal with the issues of souring.

A system like Jo’s, where the pigs are rotated regularly and stocking densities are vastly lower, shouldn’t actually encounter this souring of the soil. The regenerative farming movement is constantly grappling not with letting soured soil recover, but rather how to continually regenerate and build fertility in the soil.

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One thing the neighbours who testified against Happy Valley commented on was ‘the condition of the paddocks’, which had improved since Jo decreased her stock numbers in November 2014. Free-range pig farmers talk a lot amongst ourselves about soil health and good coverage. And yet in the potato-growing region I’m in the paddocks are bare for months at a time, sprayed heavily with herbicide and fungicide so that nothing grows while they lay fallow.

Jo admits that in the first couple years of farming pigs her paddocks had less coverage than they do now. She says, ‘I did have stocking issues last winter with the grower pigs and I did lease extra land to solve that problem. I keep banging my head against the wall in wondering why they don’t see our business just like any other business, that has to bend and manoeuvre and restructure to suit its operating and functioning challenges!’

The so-called expert who gave evidence in the VCAT case against Happy Valley is an expert in intensive agriculture. ‘APL submitted that based on science it is not feasible for pigs to obtain most of their dietary requirements from pasture/forages alone.’ Right. Except for in nature.

Pigs also don’t build houses anywhere except in fairy tales but the intensive industry would have you believe that it is difficult for pigs to survive outdoors.

We’re not on a level playing field. While the government endorses high chemical inputs, barren vegetable-growing paddocks, thousands of animals confined in the stench of industrial sheds, and an increasing focus on exporting Australia’s bounty, Jo Stritch and other small-scale farmers are facing a fight to raise happy animals out on the paddocks to feed our communities. As one of our farming heroes Joel Salatin says, ‘folks, this ain’t normal.’

The Regulation Diaries (4): PrimeSafe’s War on Fat

‘Bone stocks, pâté de tête, rillettes, and of course I want to render lard…’ I listed the products for The Auditor that I was planning to make once the new commercial kitchen was approved.

‘Oh, yes, I have a few butchers who want to render lard. You have to do clostridium testing, you know,’ she informed me.

‘Really? Is there any reason why? You know it’s just melting fat, right? It’s pretty much the same thing as making rillettes but with no meat, just fat…’

‘But it’s rendering, so you have to follow the rendering standard,’ she enunciated slowly for me.

‘The rendering standard? Is that in the Standard for the Hygienic Processing of Meat and Meat Products?’ I asked.

‘No, it’s a different standard for rendering products,’ and The Auditor showed it to me on her computer.

Further investigation revealed that PrimeSafe treats the simple process of rendering fat from a wholesome carcass into lard in a retail butcher’s shop the same as rendering the fat off a condemned carcass at a rendering plant.

In the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Rendering of Animals and Animal Products (AS5008:2007), the definition of rendering is: ‘The process of heat treating raw materials to remove moisture and/or liberate fat.’

Now that’s a pretty broad definition, and taken to its logical conclusion, could potentially apply to any cooking process of meat. Bacon, for example, is ‘heat treated’ to remove moisture, and while not seeking to liberate fat, I see the freedom-loving slick of it at the bottom of my smoker each fortnight when I make our uncommonly delicious bacon…

Speaking with my colleagues in New South Wales, I quickly learned that this is another area where it’s a bummer to be a Victorian butcher. The New South Wales Food Safety Authority does not interpret rendering lard in a butcher’s shop under the standard written for rendering plants, and no clostridium testing is required for them to make the product. And yet they can sell their lard here in Victoria…

I rang a microbiologist at one of Melbourne’s most respected testing laboratories and had a good chat about the science. He was in firm agreement that there is no higher risk of the presence of clostridium perfringens in rendered lard from a wholesome carcass than there is in bacon, ham, pate de tete or rillettes.

So I pulled a Joel Salatin and submitted my product descriptions (on 27 May), but I didn’t call it ‘rendered lard’, I called it ‘melted fat’. Heh. They were onto me, and I was knocked back on melting fat. I said I’d discuss it with the manager at a later date.

I went to America on an #epicfairfoodtour and asked many other butchers, food scientists, and food safety experts their views on the safety of rendering lard. All agreed that the PrimeSafe interpretation was inappropriate.

The Inspector responded to Stuart’s query while I was overseas (24 June) to say there were issues with the product descriptions but she needed to tell me about them as I am the licensed operator of our boning room. He asked whether she could put it in writing as I was away, but she said she needed to speak with me by phone.

Upon my return, nearly a month after submitting the product descriptions, I emailed The Inspector (26 June) to ask why such a delay in giving feedback on the products. She rang me back shortly after I sent the email and said she tried to ring me while I was in America.

‘But you knew I was in America, Inspector, and I don’t answer my phone over there because it’s expensive,’ I said. ‘Couldn’t you have given me the feedback in writing so we could progress this?’

‘I tried to ring you twice and it hasn’t been a month, Tammi. It’s complicated so I needed to talk to you on the phone about it,’ she said forcefully.

‘But surely if it’s complicated you should give it to me in writing so I can understand the requirements and comply?’

‘Look, you were away and I tried to contact you. And it has not been a month, it’s been…’

‘Right, Inspector, I don’t need your excuses on why you couldn’t respond in a timely fashion. Please just tell me what’s wrong with the product descriptions,’ I blurted out, totally exasperated.

‘So you submitted these products but you can’t render lard unless you’re going to do clostridium testing…

‘I took the lard off the list, Inspector, as you told me that before I left. I’d like to speak to your manager about it, but not right now, so go on…’

‘Right, but you didn’t take out two other products… I can’t pronounce them…’

‘You mean rillettes and pâté de tête? Those aren’t rendered products, they’re cooked, like any other cooked product. I accept that I have to discuss the rendered lard interpretation, but rillettes and pâté de tête are different.’

‘I’ve spoken with my manager and she agrees, they’re rendered products as well and cannot be approved without submitting them for testing.’

‘Inspector, are you seriously telling me that when I get my carcasses back from the abattoir that PrimeSafe licenses, that the meat on those carcasses is wholesome but the fat no longer is?!’ I tried logic.

‘Tammi, you’ve had your answer.’

‘No, I haven’t, actually. Are you saying that the fat on my carcasses is not wholesome when they come back from an abattoir that you licence? And why is bacon okay but not rillettes?’

‘Bacon is a cooked product. It goes to 65C for a minimum of 10 minutes.’

‘Inspector, rillettes go much higher than 65C for much longer than 10 minutes. They’re also a cooked product.’

‘Tammi, you’ve had your answer.’

Gah. Lost that round, but not to logic or science, to pedantry and power.

‘What else, Inspector?’

‘Well, I’m not clear on your single-muscle cures about the acceptable range for humidity. You’ve put 65 to 85% relative humidity but what’s the allowance? How far below 65% is allowed?’

‘There’s no allowance below 65%, Inspector. That’s the range – 65 to 85%.’

‘Well, it’s not clear. I need you to write that as 75% plus or minus 10%.’

‘You realize that’s the same thing, right, Inspector? 65 to 85% is 75 plus or minus 10.’

‘But it’s not clear, Tammi. You need to write it as 75 plus or minus 10.’

Gah. ‘Okay, Inspector, if I must write it that way to get these products approved I will.’

When I submitted the minor revisions to our product descriptions (I also needed to include more detail on the weights of my single-muscle cures in the batch sheets), I took rillettes off the list, but left pâté de tête. In my covering email I wrote:

‘Note that I have deleted rillette from the products until such time as I can discuss the rendering standard and its application to a cooked product such as rillette with The Manager. However, I have left pâté de tête included as it is a boiled product not unlike a stock, not something anyone would define as ‘rendered’. I will await further advice before commencing production of this product.’

We received the following approval a week later (23 July):

‘Following conformation the humidifier has been installed as per the requirements of AS4696:2007, and the submission of the HACCP based procedures submitted 3 July 2015, PrimeSafe approves the manufacture of the following products at Jonai Farms & Meatsmith

1)       Uncooked Cured Meat Products,

2)       Pâté de Tête

3)       Stocks

4)       Trotters and Ears

Compliance of these procedures will be reviewed at your next scheduled audit with SGS.’

And so there it is. We can’t make rillettes or render lard without expensive testing our colleagues elsewhere don’t have to conduct, and given how small our operation is, it’s not financially viable for us to make those products. So if you want liberated fat, Victoria, you’ll need to get it from Big Food or from interstate.

Read more of The Regulation Diaries…

Part 1: PrimeSafe’s War on Salami Days

Part 2: PrimeSafe’s War on Farm Gate Shops

Part 3: PrimeSafe’s War on Meat

The Regulation Diaries (3): PrimeSafe’s War on Meat 

Our first regularly scheduled audit after The Salami Wars was just a few weeks after we returned from our research trip to France and Italy. (NB Audits are undertaken by private third-party auditors, who submit their reports to PrimeSafe, which is a statutory authority.)

I was determined to give The Auditor nothing to worry about – I would show that we had understood our mistake in letting salamis leave the property, and that I keep an exemplary boning room.

The Auditor seemed quite solicitous as she commenced the audit – she of course knew of The Salami Wars and appeared to have some sympathy for how we felt at the destruction of our food. The Audit was going very smoothly, paperwork all in order, the place spotless… and then she looked to the bottom of the display fridge.

‘Why are those smoked hocks in cryovac?’ she asked.

‘Um, because they keep better?’ I answered nervously.

‘But they’re ready-to-eat products, and you don’t have a Listeria Management Plan,’ she declared.

Ah, crap. Bugger and gah! So they farking are.

Or are they? Let’s examine the evidence…

Ready-to-eat products are ‘ordinarily consumed in the same state as that in which they are sold’ according to the Australian Standard for the Hygienic Production and Transportation of Meat and Meat Products (AS 4696:2007).

But PrimeSafe treats all products that have gone through a cook process (to a minimum of 65C for a minimum of 10 minutes) as RTE. And you can’t cryovac RTE products in Victoria without a Listeria Management Plan in place. Such a plan requires monthly listeria testing and quarterly testing of every product in its package exactly as it will be sold.

What does that mean in practice? Say we sell whole hams at Christmas, and sliced and half hams the rest of the year (in addition to sliced pastrami and other RTE products). We have to send off five whole packages per quarter of each product: five whole hams, five half hams, and five packages of sliced ham. The lab tests for listeria and then throws the meat away.

We only do whole hams at Christmas, and we only do about 40 of them. But this requirement would mean I would have to send five of those to be tested and disposed of. That’s 12.5% of our hams thrown away. Or about $1000 in product, just for the whole hams. So to vac pack our RTE products would, we’ve estimated, cost us around $5000 per annum in testing and sacrificed product.

Cost aside, we cannot stomach the idea of all that wasted food, especially from animals we’ve raised so mindfully and whose lives we’ve taken for the sole purpose of food. What total disrespect to simply throw that meat away. And so we’ve opted not to pursue vac packing our RTE products. It means we have to run a tighter production model (we glad wrap our hams and hocks), but if that’s what it takes to respect the lives we take then it’s what we will continue to do.

PrimeSafe considers smoked hocks to be RTE products, meaning we can’t vac pack them. Bacon, interestingly, has an exemption from the RTE rule – you are allowed to vac pack bacon because, as both The Auditor and The Inspector have told me, ‘culturally, Australians cook bacon’. Smoked hocks don’t have this exemption for reasons beyond me, in spite of the clear cultural evidence that Australians cook smoked hocks (ham & pea soup, anyone?).

And so when The Auditor asked why I’d vac packed my hocks, it was because she was about to slap me with a ‘critical’, my first.

Following procedure when a ‘critical’ is identified during an audit, The Auditor rang PrimeSafe. She spoke with The Inspector, and then handed the phone to me. The Inspector explained that The Auditor was going to have to condemn my smoked hocks – that is, make me pull them out of their plastic, put them into a bin, and pour poison over them. Déjà vu?

I asked whether we could have them tested?

‘No.’

I asked whether I could take them into my house for us to use?

‘No.’

I asked whether I could feed them to our dogs?

‘No.’

And so, weeping quietly, I pulled around 15 smoked hocks out of the fridge, cut the plastic off them, and put them into the same bin our salamis were poisoned in just a couple months earlier. The Auditor asked me to get the disinfectant I clean the floor with and poured it over the top of the hocks.

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She then explained to me that PrimeSafe would put us on an Intensified Audit Schedule. Typically after a ‘critical’ a shop will go on intensified audits for a minimum of four audits. That means an audit per week for a minimum of four weeks, at our expense (our audits average $350-$550 per audit).

Apparently the perverse incentive of this cost-recovery model to find a critical is lost on PrimeSafe and indeed the Victorian government?

Some clear questions remain:

  • Who decides what is and isn’t treated as a RTE product?
  • Is there really a need to put a shop on intensified audits for a mistake such as mine? The rest of the audit found absolutely nothing wrong.
  • Is there a cheaper and less onerous way to control the risk of listeria in RTE products? (eg you could pasteurize product in the vac pack to eliminate the risk without expensive, wasteful testing)

But now it’s time to share another voice from Victoria’s beleaguered meat industry…

Felix Gamze of Gamze Smokehouse in Wangaratta has been a great mentor and friend to us as we’ve navigated Victoria’s difficult regulatory terrain. He’s been a butcher for nearly 30 years, and has had his own negative experiences with PrimeSafe. Felix shared the story below with me for The Regulation Diaries as he’s as committed as we are to seeking changes in the current situation to make it better for Victoria’s meat industry to do what we do.

In 2008 the Listeria guidelines came into place, effectively introducing guidelines and restrictions that forced 90% of butchers to stop making ham, bacon and smallgoods in their retail butcher shops in Victoria (something they had been doing for ever). I was one of the very few to persist with making my own smallgoods due to the passion I have for charcuterie.

Having been making smallgoods from my retail butcher shop for over 25 years I was determined to keep going due to the encouragement of my loyal customers. I thought, ‘well it can’t be too hard to comply with the guidelines as I have been safely making product for a long time and have never had a food safety issue.’

Not long after the new guidelines came into place our industry body put on an information evening in the local area and all the butchers from the region who were interested in continuing to make smallgoods attended. Now let’s be honest, the room consisted of middle-aged butchers whose formal academic education averaged about form 4. This group of people were trained and very experienced in butchery, smallgoods making, food safety and running a small business.

The information session took about 2 hours and at the end we were all expected to fully understand and implement the new guidelines in our businesses! This was not the case and many of us left not fully understanding our new responsibilities. The new guidelines just put another job on the ever-growing requirements of a small business owner. The larger manufacturers didn’t have the same concern as they would now just employ another staff member to cover the area full time.

A lot of the guidelines focused on food safety, something we were all very aware of and complied with for many years without a formal set of guidelines. But another large part was the introduction was copious amounts of paperwork, laboratory testing, and bureaucracy all of which were poorly explained, implemented and set out, not to mention very costly. It was clear that what Prime Safe was looking to do was to stop the small local butcher making and selling smallgoods, something that the big guys in the industry were obviously very happy about.

Soon after the information evening I had my first audit under the new guidelines and it wasn’t a very pleasant experience. At my first attempt I didn’t correctly complete the paper work required and the auditor failed me. I had a visit from Prime Safe the next day. During the visit from Prime Safe they destroyed all my products buy pouring bleach on it and took my cooking licence off me for 2 years!

Now, this was not due to any food safety issues, it was purely a paperwork non-compliance issue. From that point I could have easily given up and stopped what I loved doing, but that’s what they wanted me and every other butcher in Victoria to do.

After two years of jumping through every hoop they put in front of me I managed to get my licence back and start making smallgoods again.

I was then asked to give evidence in the 2013 State Government Inquiry into the Impact of Food Safety Regulation on Farms and Other Businesses where I shared my experience with Prime Safe and offered suggestions on cutting red tape. Since this enquiry there has been no recommendations taken up by Prime Safe from the Inquiry and now 2 years later they are having another review… I wonder what this will achieve.

Recently we decided to run Smallgoods and Butchery Masterclasses at our new facility where I would instruct a hands-on day of butchery and salami making. Once Prime Safe got wind of this they contacted me, instructing me that I was not allowed to conduct such a class. If I wanted to continue with the classes we would need to change it to making a fresh sausage and not a salami.

Each year I sell 100’s of kg of pork mince to local customers for them to make salami at home in June and July with some people having many years of experience and family heritage and others no idea at all. The families that have been making it for generations I have no worries about, but the average Joe that is interested in the art of charcuterie without access to a family with generations of experience I worry about. So I thought it would be a good idea to teach these people how to make salami safely and give them the knowledge to pass onto their family and start their own traditions. Obviously Prime Safe didn’t see it that way.

We have run a number of these classes and the days have been a great success with butchery, smallgoods information and fresh sausage making taking place but unfortunately no salami.

Maybe one day we will be able to work with our regulator and not have them trying to trip us up. I will say one thing in addition to this and that is that I am always very concerned when speaking up with regards to past experiences with Prime Safe that my licence will be put in jeopardy.

Read Part 1 of The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Salami Days

Read Part 2 of The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Farm Gate Shops

The Regulation Diaries (Part 2): PrimeSafe’s War on Farm Gate Shops

My first meeting with The Inspector back in early 2013 was inauspicious to say the least.

It was my first visit to PrimeSafe, but we had a month or two prior been granted a Class 3 Food Premises registration under the Food Act 1984 by our local Environmental Health Officer, which allowed us to refrigerate and sell our pre-packaged meat from the farm. We raised our pigs out on the paddocks and transported them to the abattoir an hour away. Then the carcasses were delivered to our PrimeSafe-licensed butcher, and when everything was cut and packed, we understood from our Council and our reading of the legislation that we could store and sell our meat directly from a registered premises here on the farm.

It was all going swimmingly, so it was time to get our Meat Transport Vehicle (MTV) licence from PrimeSafe in order to commence deliveries to customers in the city. I was skeptical when a pig-farming mate told me my 12-volt esky would pass muster for an MTV (so long as it’s under cover and strapped to the vehicle), but upon ringing PrimeSafe they confirmed this to be the case. And so with some confidence I strode into their offices in South Melbourne to obtain my MTV licence.

A rather blank young man starts to process my paperwork, and it’s all going quite well. Then I, trying to reassure him, say, ‘and don’t worry, I understand about the temperature monitoring requirements because I’ve been doing that under my Class 3 for a little while now at the farm.’ I smile reassuringly and nod.

Blank young man: ‘you’ve been selling meat from your farm?’

Me: ‘sure, under a Class 3 Premises registration from our council.’

Blank young man: ‘please just wait here,’ and uses a security card to disappear behind the glass door. Uh oh.

Out comes The Inspector.

‘You can’t sell meat from your farm without a licence from PrimeSafe.’

I what?!

The Inspector directs me into a meeting room behind the glass door I subsequently describe as the ‘swinging lightbulb’ room, because the interrogation that ensues is aggressive and punitive. I am cited sections of the Meat Industry Act 1993, told I have breached the Act, and that it is a ‘very serious offence’ and that we ‘could be prosecuted.’

I explain that my council was very happy to give us a registration, and that they had inspected the premises and found them to meet their standards for the storage and sale of pre-packaged meat. That we have paid some $250 for this registration.

The Inspector sighs dramatically at what she infers is the incompetence of councils, and wants to know ‘which council’ so she can set them straight. I ask her not to make things difficult between us and our council as we’re pioneering some new ground and they’ve been remarkably supportive.

‘I’m going to need you to write out an undertaking that you will not store or sell meat from your property without a licence,’ commands The Inspector.

I’m pretty sure this is a terrible idea and I say so. I invoke my father-in-law who is a retired solicitor and say I’m pretty sure he would advise me not to do this, but that I don’t wish to seem non-compliant. So I write out the damned undertaking and sign it, still quite convinced this is a terrible idea.

At one point in the interaction I gain control of my trembling voice (I have been so blindsided by this interaction I am penduluming wildly between confusion, anger and fear) to say to The Inspector, ‘wait. Can we stop for a moment and remember that I am here because I came here to comply?! I am not and was not trying to get away with anything wrong. We want to comply, and we just need you to help us understand how best to do that, and I don’t need to be treated like I’m trying to get away with doing the wrong thing.’

The Inspector takes her own deep breath and assumes a slightly less aggressive tone, makes a bit of small talk even (at which I bridle). She gathers up my undertaking and we go outside for the vehicle inspection that was the reason for my visit. Inspects the vehicle. Approves it. Shakes my hand and wishes me a good day.

So now I have a licensed MTV but can no longer sell meat from my farm.

Thank goodness we’d already commenced plans to build the butcher’s shop so that we could be PrimeSafe licensees, right?

Right?!

NB: I am currently personally aware of at least three cases of other farms who would like to sell their meat pre-packaged from a farm gate shop, but who have been told they cannot by PrimeSafe. I know of another three who are selling from farm gate shops under Class 3 Premises registrations.

Importantly, we all know of hundreds of supermarkets, delis and corner shops that are selling pre-packaged meat without the requirement for a meat processing licence (even in the cases where they process meat, such as supermarkets).

Explain how this is about food safety?

(PS I’ll talk further of this in later entries, but you should always get the regulator to give you any orders, instructions or demands in writing.)

Read Part 1 of The Regulations Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Salami Days

The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War Against Salami Days

 

This is the first of what I aim to be a series on the negative impacts of food safety regulation on small-scale production and freedom of choice in Australia.

This first instalment details the story of how Victorian meat regulator PrimeSafe destroyed all our salamis last year. I will seek permission from other salami day hosts to share some more stories of PrimeSafe actively shutting down salami workshops across Victoria (of which I know at least three in addition to us).

Future posts will explain the minutiae of regulation and compliance for small-scale meat, dairy, & egg producers, as well as butchers, providores & chefs with a story to tell – if you have one, I’m happy to host guest posts on this topic.

* * *

The late-model government vehicle rolled up the driveway just before 3pm the day before an early-morning flight to France.

As The Inspector stepped out of the car to approach us, she jutted her hand out in greeting, pronouncing, ‘Hi Tammi, Stuart. I understand you’re heading for France tomorrow?’

Taken aback, I answered that yes, we were going to research traditional methods of charcuterie and salumi making in France and Italy. It was obvious that neither PrimeSafe’s surprise visit nor their knowledge of our travel plans boded well for us.

The Inspector asked whether we had allowed participants in our recent salami day to take home salamis from the workshop and we replied that yes, we had. She told us this was a ‘very serious breach of the Act’, to which we confessed our ignorance and apologized for the mistake.

The Inspector then explained that she had a complaint from an attendee at our salami day a fortnight earlier. According to the complaint:

  • our salami shed was ‘not a good environment for making salami’;
  • we took a vote with the 45 attendees and opted not to use nitrates;
  • there were dogs around during the workshop; and
  • ‘there appeared to be a bullet hole in the pig’s head’. (This last we responded was clearly false and that the pig had been slaughtered at our usual abattoir, so apparently we were dealing with a vexatious complaint.)

NB: we never received written notice of the complaint – all of this was delivered verbally to us by The Inspector.

The Inspector told us that it appeared that there was ‘somebody in the industry who doesn’t like you very much,’ judging by the complaint.

She asked to be taken to the salamis hanging just behind us in the salami shed in plain view from the driveway, and whether they could take some photos. I laughingly responded that there were photos all over the internet, and that they were in fact our Facebook cover photo at the moment. That’s the last time I laughed.

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She then asked to see our licensed retail butcher’s shop here on the farm. We complied and they found nothing of concern. The Inspector then asked to be taken back to the salamis, noting on the way there that she needed to tell us something ‘we would not be happy about’ – that an outcome of their visit may be that they would have to destroy all our salami hanging in the shed. We asked why that would be when it is not part of our commercial business and is solely for our own consumption. She said we shouldn’t talk more about it now, but that she simply wanted us to be prepared for something that might happen that we wouldn’t like.

We offered to email all participants and ask them to dispose of the salamis they had taken home and apologise, telling them we had made a mistake and that we were not legally allowed to let them take the salami home. The Inspector said she would tell the CEO of PrimeSafe that we had offered to do this, and that it would reflect favourably on us that we had offered.

The Inspector rang the CEO for advice on whether the salami hanging in the shed had to be destroyed. She asked us to move away while she had this conversation. When she got off the phone she conferred with her colleague. They then waved us back to the shed.

The Inspector said ‘you’re not going to like this’ and proceeded to tell us that we were going to have to destroy all the salami. She said we had two choices, one was to cooperate and help take all the salami down to be condemned, and the other was to refuse to cooperate, in which case she and her colleague would go and wait at the bottom of our driveway for the police, who would forcibly return and destroy the salami with them.

She suggested it would not go as well for us if we opted for the latter, and that she had pleaded our case to the CEO and ‘kept the boning room out of it’. She asked us to cooperate on the basis that she was trying to help us, and that she believed that we were being honest, but that if we didn’t comply, she couldn’t promise she would continue to help us.

At this stage I burst into tears, and said ‘you don’t understand how important it is to us not to waste anything’ and that it was disrespectful to take an animal’s life and then destroy the meat. We reiterated that the salamis were for our own personal use, and that we had no intention of selling them, and that we would be more than willing to sign an undertaking to that effect. The Inspector asked me to compose myself, saying it ‘bothered her’ to see me upset. I said this whole event was upsetting.

I asked to see the relevant part of the Act that gave them the power to destroy our salamis. The Inspector showed me the section (section 72 of the Meat Industry Act 1993), which states that they have power to seize and condemn meat and even live animals. (We have subsequently received legal advice that The Inspector’s powers to destroy meat under these circumstances is ‘arguable’.)

I queried whether the shed was arguably actually a residence as it’s not part of our licensed premises, and The Inspector said ‘no, it’s land’. She said she could go anywhere on our land because we are PrimeSafe’s licensee.

Another 20 minutes of discussion and phone calls to the CEO resulted in nothing except reminders that if we were cooperative it was likely to ‘go better’ for us.

Our children returned from school and were standing nearby. The Inspector asked whether we could send the children into the house as they appeared distressed and shouldn’t see me upset. I replied that of course they were distressed as they hate waste as much as we do, but that we would not send them away as we share everything with our children and want them to understand the world in which they live.

We also had our four WWOOFers working on a pump about 15m away, and The Inspector said ‘there’s a crowd drawing, and this is when inspectors get hurt’, to which I replied that it was outrageous to suggest we were being in any way threatening. She agreed, but asked us to ‘understand her position’.

She also asked us to be calm and go in to destroy the salami ‘in a civilised manner’. I replied that there is nothing civilised about coming to our home and destroying meat from animals we raise with such care on our farm and kill purely for food, in a world where people are hungry.

Before the destruction began, we asked whether we could just take the meat inside and eat it ourselves, feed it to our dogs, or have it tested, but the answer was ‘no’.

The Inspector instructed Stuart to get a bin, preferably something the dogs couldn’t get into and that wasn’t a food safe bin as the ‘condemnation ink’ was toxic and might kill our dogs or contaminate food bins. He complied and got a large barrel.

I climbed a ladder and removed all of the salamis while my boys filmed me doing so. The Inspector got back on the phone with the CEO while I took the salamis down and asked her colleague to stay near us.

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The Inspector said it was good we were going away for three weeks the next day to give time for PrimeSafe to decide what to do so that it was less likely to affect our day to day business. She said our next planned workshop upon our return in July may not be allowed to proceed. I asked what jurisdiction PrimeSafe has over our workshops if it doesn’t involve any meat for consumption or sale. She said the shed is a ‘meat processing facility’ because we are PrimeSafe licensees.

NB: subsequent legal advice identified no prohibitions in the Meat Industry Act on operating the workshops in the salami shed.

We asked again whether we should email all attendees and ask them to dispose of their salamis. The Inspector replied that that was up to us, and there was no requirement to do so.

As The Inspector and her colleague started to leave, I stopped her and said, ‘you know how you said you receive death threats and aren’t well liked?’ The Inspector pulled her shoulders back and her eyes widened slightly. I said, ‘well, people do like us, and they’re going to be really sad and angry when they learn what you did today.’

And so we’re telling you now, world. We’ve turned our own sadness and anger into action, and we’re ready to fight. We want to and we do produce safe food, but we produce something so much more than just safe. We produce food that nourishes our land, our family, and our community. We produce food in ways that value connection, flavour, and regeneration.

This regulator has been left unchecked for too long. It’s time you let your government know what kind of world you want to live in and what kind of food you want to eat. If you’re happy with imported, frozen meat manufactured into pale imitations of traditional smallgoods by Big Food, so be it. If not, this fight is your fight too.

With all the pressure PrimeSafe are under now that the Minister has announced the review, the cynical side of me is waiting for someone to manufacture or highly dramatise a food safety incident to regain the public’s sympathy and fear. So here’s me putting it on the public record to stave off that possibility or at least date stamp our awareness of that particular tactic.

And here’s hoping my cynicism is misplaced and that our government wants fair and consistent regulation just like we do.

Read Part 2 of The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Farm Gate Shops

Read Part 3 of The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Meat

Read Part 4 of The Regulation Diaries: PrimeSafe’s War on Fat