Planning for Industrial Intensive Animal Agriculture: The Regulation Diaries (7)

In October 2015, I visited Jo Stritch of Happy Valley Free Range, Livestock Farmer of the Year in 2014.

Jo had just been ordered to remove all her pigs from her farm after losing a case in VCAT trying to prove that her farm wasn’t ‘intensive’.

One of these is not intensive.

According to the Victorian Planning Provisions (VPP), intensive animal husbandry refers to ‘importing most food from outside the enclosures’. “In Happy Valley Piggery v Yarra Ranges SC, VCAT [2015] determined that ‘most food’ meant most nutrition. This had the effect of making a free-range piggery fall under the definition of Intensive animal husbandry. This classification was counterintuitive to some people as a ‘free range’ piggery was not seen as ‘intensive’.” (AIAC 2015)

In late 2015, an independent body (the Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC)) was appointed by the Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford and the Minister for Planning Richard Wynne to address concerns that the planning provisions were no longer sufficiently meeting the needs and expectations of farmers nor the community.

I will here quote extensively from both the consultation paper and the final report of the Animal Industries Advisory Committee (AIAC).

The VPP Advisory Committee of 1997 that reviewed the implementation of the VPP said: It does not matter where the food is sourced from because it is the concentration of the animals which leads to the need for planning control. The current definition is an input measure – it seeks to define the use based on the source of the feed inputs. What matters in planning are the outcomes, or impacts, of a use. Shifting the definition and control of animal industries to focus on their impacts would seem to make more sense.

Victoria’s planning approval system for intensive animal husbandry is unique compared to other states in that Codes of Practice have been developed for a number of livestock industries that rely on intensive housing and production systems, to support the planning process. There are codes for the piggery, cattle feedlot and broiler industries. These are incorporated into the VPP and all planning schemes in Victoria.

Development of the codes was triggered by expansion of these industries coupled with a recognition of the need to achieve environmentally and financially viable development. The intent of the codes was to provide a detailed and stringent framework of accepted principles and where possible standards for the establishment and operation of intensive animal industries under Victorian conditions. (AIAC 2015)

In 2016, the AIAC recommended a ‘graduated approach to planning controls based on risk’, pointing out that “some intensive animal industries are of a scale that people not associated with the industry might find confronting: chicken farms of 1.2 million birds, goat dairies of 14,000 goats.  But many intensive animal industries are of a small scale catering to local or boutique markets – the planning system needs to manage the lower risk these operations pose in a manner commensurate with that risk.” (AIAC 2016)

So the AIAC recognized that the relevant permit requirements of the VPP and associated codes of practice were designed to address the risks to environment and amenity posed by large-scale industrial sheds of pigs and poultry and that free-range pig and poultry farms had been inadvertently caught up in the definition over the technicality of importing the majority of the feed. The independent committee also recognized that the risk profile of a small-scale free-range pig farm is very different to a shed full of pigs, and that the planning provisions should account for this difference in risk.

The AIAC recommendation that there be graduated controls that would treat small-scale pig and poultry farmers much like other grazing systems (subject to meeting minimum standards), would have removed the onerous and unnecessary requirement for a permit.

They also recommended to allow these low risk farms to be allowed operate in Green Wedge Zones with a permit, which is significant because the prohibition on intensive animal husbandry in Green Wedge Zones is what ultimately caused the move of Happy Valley Free Range to a different shire in order to continue farming. This was broadly acceptable to most small-scale pastured pig and poultry farmers and the eaters who want access to ethical and ecologically-sound meat.

What is also significant is that the Government is now proposing to allow intensive pig and poultry sheds into Green Wedge, Rural Living, and Rural Conservation Zones with a permit, quite contrary to the recommendations of the AIAC.

The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA) put in a submission to the AIAC and attended the public hearings, and felt that the committee captured our members’ concerns reasonably well, and that we had reason to be hopeful that the Government would take the recommendations and rectify the situation where pastured pig and poultry farmers had become collateral damage of the need to more closely monitor our industrial counterparts.

The Final Report was delivered to the Victorian Government in April 2016, and so we waited. And waited.

In September 2017, the draft of the graduated controls – the tool we expected would rectify pastured pig and poultry farmers’ inadvertent treatment as though we were industrial intensive livestock producers – were released for public consultation, and we were beyond disappointed.

While the independent committee (the AIAC) had demonstrably understood how unnecessary it is to apply the same controls to low-risk pastured systems as to large-scale intensive sheds, once the report disappeared behind government doors, it appeared that the Big Ag lobby (in particular Australia Pork Limited (APL), but also the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) and Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA)) have virtually written the draft provisions. I cannot shake the phrase ‘where malice is enabled by incompetence’ from my head.

Make no mistake – APL, VFF, and MLA are no friend to small-scale producers. APL have been sending their representative to VCAT hearings to testify against small-scale pastured pig farmers such as Jo Stritch. President of the VFF Livestock Group, export beef and grain farmer and feedlot owner Leonard Vallance (who is also the former chair of the Board of Victorian meat regulator PrimeSafe) is on the record saying that “Farmers’ markets are the achilles heel of the Victorian food industry,” he said. “The reputational risk to our export markets is massive…”. Head of the VFF Pig Group is 500-sow intensive pig producer John Bourke. And Head of the Egg Group is a caged-egg producer.

The VFF even submitted to the AIAC that the Public Health and Wellbeing Act should be amended to exempt agricultural producers from nuisance complaints.

In a recent newsletter, the VFF asserted that they:

do not support the planning permit exemption for some piggeries and poultry farms for a number of reasons. Often people start small and grow over time. Will the person who started with 150 hens know to get a planning permit when they have 1000 hens?

Planning is about asking the questions on land use, environment and amenity – 200 hens on a quarter acre block has a different impact on five hectares and 33 pigs is a large number of pigs even on this same area. We feel these questions need to be asked of all pig and poultry farms given these aren’t grazing animals and will always need additional feed.

This is intensive.
This is not intensive.

 

 

 

 

 

To summarise some of the key issues, the draft provisions would:

  • Treat a pastured producer with 500 birds the same as an intensive producer with 500,000 birds in sheds.
  • Treat a pastured pig producer with more than 8 sows on paddocks (around 80 pigs) the same as an intensive producer with 800 sows in sheds (possibly 8,000 pigs in total).
  • Allow an existing intensive poultry farm to open a new range for up to 150,000 chickens without any of the restrictions placed on a farmer with 500 chickens.
  • Enforce 100m buffer zones from neighbouring dwellings on pastured poultry farms with up to 450 birds and pastured pig farms with up to 8 sows – rendering small scale farming on land less than 200m wide practically impossible (to give some perspective, at least 1000 birds and 100 pigs is typical for viable small-scale systems).
  • Allow cattle feedlots with up to 1000 cattle to be established with no permit.
  • Allow intensive pig and poultry sheds in the Green Wedge, Rural Living, & Rural Conservation Zones with a permit (currently prohibited).

To be clear, where we expected the new provisions to rectify the unintended consequence of recently treating pastured pig and poultry farmers the same as intensive shed producers, the Government’s draft instead codifies this interpretation.

No longer does risk to environment or amenity appear to be a key consideration – intensive producers have successfully lobbied the Government and the result is prohibitive and expensive permit application requirements that will be the death knell of the growing movement of small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms in Victoria.

Taking only pigs as an example, here is the striking difference between what the AIAC recommended and what the Government is proposing.

AIAC Recommendation (April 2016)

Category 3 – Midscale           No permit if specified standards and requirements are met

Intensive supplementary feeding of cattle, sheep or goats (not a feedlot) where provided for in a code. Small sheep feedlot where provided for in a code. Small free range pig and poultry farms where provided for in a code.

SOMEHOW BECOMES

PSAI Draft (September 2017)

Permit required – Streamlined application process*

No more than 8 sows + 1 boar + progeny

No pigs located in these setbacks: 100m from other dwellings

I’ll save it for our longer public submission to explain the entirely arbitrary nature of the numbers proposed by the Government that is rendered even more meaningless by failing to attach any land size specification to the number of stock.

FAQs

So why shouldn’t small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms be required to seek a permit to farm in the Farming Zone?

Because we are farming, and the Farming Zone’s purpose is to enable farming, and because other pastured livestock systems do not require a permit to farm. Even the potato farmers whose paddocks are routinely kept barren and many of whom spray glyphosate and fungicides right up to their boundaries do not require a permit, so why should we?

And what is the big deal if the Government insists that we must obtain permits despite the lack of evidence-based arguments for why we should?

Because it is an expensive and complicated process. In our shire, for example, a permit costs about $1300. Most people do not feel confident writing their own applications with all the attendant documentation and need to access multiple government agencies for information, and so hiring consultants is the norm, at many more thousands of dollars. If subject to a notice and review period, one must post notices and alert neighbours to the application, and then sit through local council meetings and be interrogated about the plan, often questioned about aspects totally irrelevant to a highly mobile, pastured livestock system (‘please explain the siting of the sheds’ – ‘there are no sheds’).

The history of the Victorian Planning Provisions reads like Dracula meets Yes Minister. If we take away the intentions – good and bad – and seek to enable farming while judging farming systems on their merits, it’s really not that difficult. Here are some useful principles:

  • The Farming Zone is to enable farming.
  • Pasture-based livestock systems are (potentially) healthiest for soils, animals, water, air, and workers.
  • A permit should be required for technologies and systems known to present higher risks to environment and amenity.
  • There must be recourse for complaints and enforcement when farmers (of any size or production model) are failing to farm responsibly.

So what do we want?

AFSA has started a petition that needs as many voices as possible. The Government needs to know that the people want access to ethically and ecologically-sound produce, and that you stand as and with small-scale producers working to grow a better, fairer food system for everyone.

We call on Minister for Agriculture Jaala Pulford and Minister for Planning Richard Wynne to explain why low-risk small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms are to be subjected to greater scrutiny and compliance costs than cattle feedlots.

We demand that small-scale pastured pig and poultry farms be treated under the Farming Zone like other low-risk grazing systems that rely on supplemental feed such as the majority of Victorian beef and dairy cattle.

Sign the petition NOW.

Join AFSA and add your voice to the food sovereignty movement that is working to secure access to nutritious and culturally-appropriate food grown in ethical and ecologically-sound ways, and our right to democratically determine our own food and agriculture systems.

References

Animal Industries Advisory Committee Discussion Paper (Dec 2015): https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/10080/Animal-Industries-Discussion-Paper-Revision-1.PDF

 

Animal Industries Advisory Committee Final Report (April 2016): http://agriculture.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/323424/PPV-Animal-Industries-Final-Report-.pdf

 

Planning for Sustainable Animal Industries (Sept 2017): https://www.planning.vic.gov.au/policy-and-strategy/planning-reform/sustainable-animal-industries

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. 😉

img_1192

 

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!

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.

IMG_8982

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.

IMG_8976

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.

IMG_5628

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.

IMG_4864

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.

IMG_4867

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