Food is not always something that you put in your mouth and eat!

Like waiting for the dust to settle I’ve been allowing my first gut reaction to calm over the chicken buzz about Perdue and its monumental step toward improving the lives of chickens. Perdue announced its commitment to improved animal welfare in the raising, transporting, and slaughtering of the company’s chickens.

The company commitment centers around a published company document “Perdue Foods, Commitment to Animal Care 2016 and Beyond”.  Amongst all of the hoopla surrounding the big news, the company says that it will chart its progress based on the Five Freedoms which is claimed to be “A Global Standard For Animal Husbandry”.

The Five Freedoms was developed in Europe in 1965, and formalized by the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979 standard for animal husbandry.  The UK Farm Animal Welfare Council provided opinions and advice to Governmental entities and ceased to exist in 2011.  It resurfaced that same year as the Farm Animal Welfare Committee serving the same role as its predecessor.  According to the UK Government Archives the “Five Freedoms” are:

  1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  1. Freedom from Discomfort – by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  1. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  1. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  1. Freedom from Fear and Distress – by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

In addition to the Five Freedoms, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee also wrote in an opinion to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, England, Chief Veterinary Officer, Scottish Government, and the Chief Veterinary Officer, Welsh Government that ~

The concept of sustainability must include the welfare of farm animals. Indeed, livestock agriculture cannot be considered sustainable if an animal’s life is not worth living”.

In my humble opinion, the “Five Freedoms” are very basic things that any human should provide for the animals they own no matter if it’s livestock or pets.  If this action is called monumental I hate to think about the conditions that the chickens lived in before this monumental announcement.  Yes indeedy folks, it’s wonderful that a multi-national chicken corporation has learned the basics of animal care however I have to say that I hope none of those Perdue folks have animals at home.

Some animal welfare organizations have lauded Perdue for its announcement but have also conveyed a “we will see” approach, and I agree.  If anyone truly transforms from the status quo in the method of raising industrial chickens, they deserve to be lauded.   As much as I would love to think that the day for change in industrial chicken production has finally come, I’m still a doubting Thomas.

I believe that public opinion has induced Perdue to take a step toward improved animal welfare.  2 Years ago I conducted a marketing analysis of my own customer’s to identify consumer preferences in purchasing my eggs.  Animal welfare (how the animals are raised) was the number one reason for product purchasing.  Certification by a transparent and independent third party was at the top as well.  In my case it’s Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) that audits my farm annually and certifies that I meet all of the written and published standards.  The standards are the most stringent in the country.  Consumers have become more aware of where their food comes from and how it was produced and these concerns have risen to the top of the list of purchasing decisions.

What was a niche market for products raised humanely has now become a market to capture.  This not only resonates in the United States but worldwide.  The World Bank has a statement about animal welfare based on the “Five Freedoms” and looks favorably for investing in livestock production (especially pigs and chickens) with corporations that have a “Five Freedoms” animal welfare policy.

Since I’m talking about policy at the moment I’ll bring us back to Perdue.  Most everyone knows that the farmers that the company contracts with to raise its chickens, known as contract growers, have no control over the policies set by the company.  They have to follow what the company says.  For the life of me I can’t ever remember receiving a policy handbook from the company in the 23 years we raised chickens as contract growers.  I distinctly do remember being given a verbal edict many times from the company about how to raise the chickens followed up with “it’s company policy”.  Although I asked for a copy of the company policy handbook, I was ignored and didn’t receive it.

In the monumental announcement the company says it will listen more to the farmers it contracts with.  Perdue also has finally written down on paper and published its intentions of improving the lives of chickens.  Although vague, the document does say that the company will operate off of the “Five Freedoms”.  Since transparency is involved in the monumental announcement I’d like to see specifics from the company of exactly what it means.

A few days ago, the New York Times ran a story “ Perdue Aims to Make Chickens Happier and More Comfortable pretty much writing the same things that every other news source was saying.  Ironically, a little under a year ago, the New York Times ran a story Perdue Sharply Cuts Antibiotic Use in Chickens and Jabs at Its Rivals talking about the company product of “no antibiotics ever”.  About half of the company’s chickens are labeled and sold under the “no antibiotics ever” claim.

My first thought is that yesterday the company transformed into a company that gave consumers what they were asking for (no antibiotics) and today Perdue will be violating item number 3 of the “Five Freedoms” by not treating a sick animal just because it needs to be sold under the “no antibiotics ever” label.

You can’t claim it both ways without violating one or the other claims.  I guess whichever method “Five Freedoms” or “No Antibiotics Ever” will be decided by the profits the company reaps.  So much for the monumental step the company has taken.

The challenge for consumers will be in figuring out which brand under the FPP Family Investments umbrella, owned by the Perdue Family, fits which claim the headlines are shouting.

A friend shared a news story with me that appeared in the Bay Journal “EPA sued over inaction on factory farm air pollution”. Although an old story from 2015, my friend wanted me to see it because it mentions the Chesapeake watershed and Maryland CAFO’s (concentrated animal feeding operations). The CAFO’s in Maryland are, of course, chicken house developments on the Eastern Shore.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the Environmental Integrity Project are part of a coalition of environment, animal welfare, and community health organizations bringing the suit and saying that EPA has not done its duty in protecting citizens.

It kinda ticked me off that the EPA has to be sued to do its job. Aren’t they there for the purpose of protecting American citizens? Don’t we pay their salaries through the many tax dollars we shell out to the federal government each year? I sat here and shook my head thinking, so what else is new.

The groups involved in the law suit filed petitions in 2009 and 2011 asking EPA to set national ambient air quality standards for ammonia, which can be harmful to farm laborers, chickens, and neighboring homes. It can also be harmful to the farmer that breathes it every day. Ammonia is at the crux of the issue which is built up in chicken houses from the concentrations of the number of animals housed. The buildup of ammonia is released into the atmosphere through huge fans that exchange the air on the inside of the chicken houses. While ammonia can’t be seen with the naked eye, it’s quite evident, when watching the fans come on in a CAFO, to see a huge plume of dust shoot out and drift into the atmosphere. There are many things in that plume which can be harmful however we will focus on ammonia.

A while back in 2008 and 2009, I worked on a project that measured the ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emitted from CAFO’s on the Delmarva Peninsula, including Accomack County, VA up through Sussex County, DE. The farms were mapped using GPS as identification and the measured emissions noted. Some of the CAFO’s in the Backbone Corridor Neighborhood Association’s neck of the woods in Princess Anne, MD, I went back and quadruple checked to make sure that the readings I was recording were accurate.

In a meeting with representatives from environmental groups and a representative of EPA I showed the EPA representative a few of the findings. I remember that he was somewhat miffed at me because I wouldn’t give the name of the owner of the farms only the GPS location of the readings. At that time I asked for the EPA to conduct a more in depth study to verify what I’d found. We went our separate ways and I never heard another word about the issue.

Under the Clean Water Act, CAFO’s are required to have a discharge permit for runoff into our waterways. Under the Clean Air Act no permit is required for emissions. One would think that it would be common sense for any facility emitting noxious gases into the air would have to report type of gas, amounts, and have a permit to do so.

Looking further in to the issue, from a public health aspect, it’s a no brainer that the gases polluting the air from CAFO’s would create serious health problems. Keeve Nachman, director of Food Production and Public Health at Johns Hopkins Center For A Livable Future verifies this. He says that the health problems don’t just stem from ammonia emissions but from the cumulative consequences of the gases, particulate matter and pathogens. “Taken together, living close to one of these things [CAFO’s], put’s one’s health at risk. EPA is not interested to take measurements or survey for adverse health effects.”

Further research reveals that avian influenza has been shown to travel on the wind after the air is exhausted from fans in poultry houses, according to information obtained from the U.S. National Library of Health, National Institutes of Health (NIH).

With all of the public health, environmental health, and animal health and welfare implications, why hasn’t EPA or U.S. Department of Health and Human Services researched further to protect the public? Are the government agencies protecting industry rather than the public?

It’s quite a knot to untangle the whys and wherefores of the issue and gives me a headache just thinking about it. Given history and the power involved I imagine we will be bogged down in a quagmire of hearings, excuses, and untruth and the matter will never be addressed. Knowing all of this, I still have to wonder how profits before people are more important.

On February 5, 2016 Maryland Senators Madaleno, Lee, Manno and Pinsky introduced legislation in the Senate known as the Farmers Rights Act (SB761).  The bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.

A companion bill (HB 1496) was introduced in the Maryland House of Representatives on February 12, 2016 by Delegates Washington, Carr, Frush, Gutierrez, Kelly, Lam, Moon, Morales, Melnyk, Robinson, Smith, and Tarlau.  It was referred to the House Environment and Transportation Committee.

The House Committee hearing is scheduled for today and the Senate Committee hearing is scheduled for March 9, 2016.

The legislation aims to provide farmers certain measures of protection in dealing with large companies that contract with them to produce company owned livestock.  Most of this country’s chicken (97 percent) and hogs are raised under production contracts.

Understanding the nature of the beast, so to speak, is important to understanding the need for protections for farmers.

Most U.S. broiler (meat chicken) production is under contract with a broiler processor (chicken company). The grower (farmer) supplies the chicken house with all the necessary heating, cooling, feeding, and watering systems. The grower also supplies the labor needed in growing the birds. The broiler processor supplies the chicks, feed, and medications. The chicken company transports its chickens from the farm to the processing plant. In most cases, the company supplies the crews who catch the chickens for transportation to the company slaughter plant.  This is known as vertical integration whereby the company owns everything from embryo to market shelf.

On average, off-farm income accounts for half of the total household income earned by contract growers (USDA Economic Research Service). While millions of dollars are invested by farmers in land, housing, and equipment it is not an investment with a return that can support a family.  It has been said by farmers that collectively they invest at least half of the capital needed in the poultry industry.  Many sources say that over 70 percent of contract farmers earn a below poverty level income from the chickens they raise for companies.

Many contract farmers feel that they don’t have equal power in the relationship between company and farmer although they have huge investments. The cost of 1 new chicken house today is approximately $380,000.  While contracts are clear in saying that the farmer provides a service to the company, things get confusing and muddled with the company control of that service provided.  Looking further into the contract, the price paid to the farmer for his/her service is an epic conundrum.

At the heart of it all is that everything relies on “good faith”.  As a matter of fact the Farmers Rights Act begins by saying “For the purpose of establishing that certain contracts for the production of livestock impose a certain obligation of good faith on all parties;”.

Payment to farmers relies on pounds of broiler meat moved from the farm versus costs acquired to raise the flock of chickens.  Based on the “good faith” of the company that weights stated are actual and true, is a good place to start.  Was the company feed truck that delivered company feed to the farm really delivering the amount of feed stated?  Were the weights stated for the chickens that moved off the farm by the company truck and weighed on the company scales, actual?  Many growers question this?

Part of the “good faith” related to the Maryland legislation is that many times companies demand upgrades to poultry housing and equipment.  Farmers bear the burden of cost for the upgrades adding to an already extreme shortage of cash flow on the farm.  The contract is used in the process with a promise from the company that the contract will be terminated if the farmer doesn’t comply.

Although it’s questionable as to whether a service contract can be controlled by the party receiving the service insofar as what the service provider uses to accomplish the service, which with chickens the service is to raise them to a marketable weight.

Forcing a farmer to continually add debt on top of existing debt comes with no guarantee that the company will continue to contract with the farmer.  Contracts have been terminated and the service provider (farmer) is left with no way pay the debt incurred because of the inducement by the company.

It could be further argued that when poultry houses are originally built it is done so accordingly to company specifications.  Those specifications change, frequently.

There exists an imbalance of power within the contract system and undue influence is held by companies over the farmer through the contract.

Good Faith is described as “an honest intent to act without taking an unfair advantage over another person”. 

However, contracts are nonnegotiable, designed by the company, and offered on a take it or leave it basis.  The “unfair advantage” is easily seen in the take it or leave it when the farmer has to take it to have chicks delivered to the farm by the company.  How else would the farmer service the debt?

Some of the imbalance in power is corrected with the Farmers Rights Act providing a mechanism for farmers to recapture capital investment and is something that will help curb company demands to spend more money based on a whim and induced by a contract.

Opponents of the legislation aren’t doing the chicken companies any favors.  If “Good Faith” exists as what’s being argued than they have nothing to worry about over the bill and it becoming law.  Unless, of course, “Good Faith” doesn’t really exist.

My post from yesterday  Jihadists, Beheadings? In Maryland?  alluded to the tightly woven web within the State of Maryland and the chicken industry on the Delmarva Peninsula.  I’m not just picking on Maryland.  The Peninsula or the Eastern Shore, as it’s often called, also encompasses parts of Delaware and Virginia.

I’ve been chastised and reminded that it’s not just Maryland.  For that matter I could go further and say that, in my humble experiences, I’ve seen the very same things across the country in any place the poultry industry sets up shop.

For all of you unidentified and not so friendly people out there that I’ve heard from —

Yes, I admit, I do, enthusiastically, support the Poultry Litter Management Act (PLM) introduced in Maryland’s House and Senate (SB 496) (HB 599).  I also encourage everyone to read the PLM Fact Sheet to clear up all of the misconceptions and downright untruths floating around.  Being informed and making up your own mind is the best gift you could give yourself, and it’s free.

There are several reasons why I’m in favor of the PLM.

Firstly and most importantly, the Chesapeake Bay belongs to all of us. It’s a National Treasure.  There isn’t any single one of us who has the right to continue to destroy it and, yes, this is a pet peeve of mine.  All of the efforts to clean up the Bay are not working as every year we see more or expanding “dead zones” appear.  Major culprits who are degrading the Bay have not owned up and said “I’m going to accept my responsibility, because I care”.

The chicken companies who operate on the Delmarva Peninsula have been in denial since the very first day that disastrous consequences struck.  I can go all the way back to the mid 1990’s when the Eastern Shore had a horrific outbreak of Pfiesteria piscicida.  Massive fish kills and human illnesses abounded.  Nutrient overload mixed with the right weather conditions was identified.  Upon further investigation runoff from chicken manure became part of the mix. The poultry industry immediately started pointing fingers, mostly at farmers.  I might add that this was my environmental awakening as a contract farmer, and realizing that we had serious problems, in in more ways than one.

Coupled with blaming farmers, local watermen who make their living from the bounty of the Bay were the ones being most affected.  Denial of responsibility by chicken companies pointing the finger at farmers and watermen affected, who by the way are neighbors to the farmers, set the stage for a wedge being driven into the community.  Sides were drawn up.  Does that sound familiar, folks?

Since then, millions upon millions, if not billions, of tax dollars have been thrown at the attempt to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and take care of chicken manure.  Oodles of programs have been created to assist farmers with taking care of the manure simply because the chicken industry repeatedly says that the farmers can’t afford it.  Overabundance of chicken manure is transported out of the area. Meanwhile, billion dollar chicken companies have sat back and taken a free ride, courtesy of taxpayers.

In come the threats and intimidation.  Chicken companies threaten to simply walk away.  We will move out of the State and go somewhere we can get away with polluting.  Thousands of jobs will be lost.  It’s the same old story of being held hostage by an industry that doesn’t believe in being a good corporate citizen and taking care of its industrial waste as any other industry has the responsibility of doing.

I see it as not being respectful and mindful of the communities and state the industry operates in.  They see it as more money in their pockets, a way of doing business.  We have been made to feel beholden to an industry that doesn’t give a hoot about anything other than dollars and cents.

In the volatile debate over the PLM Act in Maryland sides have been drawn up.  Departments within the State appear to be hostages to the chicken industry, once again, citing “the Eastern Shore’s chicken industry regarded as one of the most import aspects of the Shore’s economy”, according to The Star Democrat.

So okay, I’ll bite!  I’ll pretend that I believe that.  What I don’t understand is that millions of tax payer dollars are supporting programs to clean up chicken companies’ industrial waste.  Why are taxpayers footing the bill?

I’m a common sense kind of person however I just don’t get it.  Maybe someone can help me out!  On the one hand you have industry saying that farmers can’t afford to pay for disposing of chicken manure so we need to set up taxpaying programs.

On the other hand DPI, the chicken companies trade union, trots out farmers who say they and their workers are making a good living from the chickens they raise under contract with the companies.

Add the fact of State governmental agencies and a handful of lawmakers saying how important the industry is to the Eastern Shore economy, like the economy would collapse without the industry.  If there is all of this money floating around with contract farmers and within the industry, again, I ask, why are taxpayers footing the bill?

The surge of 200 new chicken houses planned for the Eastern Shore exacerbates the manure problem.  The new houses are much larger than what has been customary and can house up to 60,000 chickens apiece.  Warehouse sized buildings, to be exact.  Mostly, we’re not talking about the local farmer adding chicken houses to the farm we’re talking about investors with no ties to the community building chicken warehouse developments. (There are reasons but that’s a story for another day)

The industry has convinced government officials that “this doesn’t necessarily mean the industry is growing”, says Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary, Joe Barten-Felder.  I underline the word necessarily because, here it comes again folks – it’s all in the words!  It doesn’t necessarily mean that the industry is NOT growing, either!

Maintenance is also cited by government officials.  Simply put, more than anything it’s replacing old buildings or old facilities with new facilities. The chicken industry wants new, bigger, with all the bells and whistles chicken houses.  I wonder which one of you older existing contract farms will be the ones terminated to accommodate the NOT growing chicken industry?  Sounds to me like something has to go to make room for the new!

We currently have to transport manure out of the area because of the excess.  Does anyone think that 200 bigger houses equals more chickens equals more manure?  These chicken warehouse developments have no land to apply manure or produce any crops to take up the nutrients.  Like too much icing on a cake, the Eastern Shore can’t handle any more manure.

Quite frankly, I find it insulting that the chicken industry throws out vague statements and expects that we all buy it.

Everyone else in the State has to pay their way in the effort to clean up the Bay for through sewer taxes, the flush tax for septic systems, fees for the septic hauler who pumps and dumps human waste, environmental taxes, and on, and on, and on.  Adding insult to injury, we have tax dollars piled on to take care of chicken manure.

I see this whole scenario as communities being ripped apart over chicken manure and companies who want others to pay for cleaning it up.  If I haven’t given enough reason to support the Poultry Litter Management Act, I can give you more!

Poultry Litter Management Act Fact Sheet

The “Top Story” for February 16th in the Delmarva Farmer, a publication of American Farm Publications caught my eye.  In bold print the title read “”Environmental jihadists” blamed for environmental bill”. 

Seeing the word “jihadists” in the title lead me to believe that this was some very serious and scary stuff.  After all, the Delmarva Farmer is widely known and read within the farming community and most often that same community takes the word of the publication as the gospel truth.

I went on to read the story and I did indeed become very concerned and disturbed.  The issue relating to the title in the story is about the proposed Poultry Litter Management Act which has been introduced in Maryland’s House and Senate.

The legislation was being protested at the Maryland Agricultural Commission’s monthly meeting.  The commission, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) website —  “The Maryland Agriculture Commission is appointed by the Governor of Maryland and serves as an advisory body to the secretary and deputy secretary of agriculture. The commission consists of 30 members representing various commodities across Maryland, and includes both a consumer and a University of Maryland (ex officio) representative.”

One of the poultry industry representatives on the commission, Andrew McClean, said “I liken this [the legislation] to environmental jihadists, they’re trying to economically behead us”.  Whoa!  That is some very serious talk.  There is nothing humorous in McLean’s statement and it’s a highly inflammatory likening.

This came from a person representing the poultry industry that has been appointed by the Governor of Maryland and is an advisor to both the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture?  Having the ear of our highest office in the State and the highest offices in MDA?  Just what kind of rhetoric is the State of Maryland allowing to whip up the public?   This is awfully scary stuff!

To further the State’s agenda, a list of legislation that MDA is watching was given to committee members saying that the Poultry Litter Management Act would bring about co-permitting that would require that chicken companies verify that the farms they contract will follow state mandated regulations before chickens could be placed on farms.

That in itself is BUNK!  Company contracts already have a provision that the farmer will adhere to all state, county, and local laws.  This gives the contracting chicken company the “out” from legal implications should the farmer not be following the laws.

When the Poultry Litter Management Act becomes law, it will be for the chicken companies, who by the way own the chickens, to become responsible for the manure that their chickens create.  Any industry is responsible for the waste it creates.  Any good corporate citizen does this it’s a cost of doing business and a part of free enterprise.

However, in the State of Maryland the industry has had lawmaker’s ears and many programs were initiated to clean up the overabundance of chicken manure belonging to the chicken companies.  In other words the good citizens of Maryland have been giving the billion dollar chicken industry a free ride when it comes to industrial waste responsibility.  All of the government programs created are at the courtesy of taxpayers.  The one’s specifically for shouldering the responsibility of chicken industrial waste amounts to nothing more than corporate welfare.  Why does a billion dollar industry need precious tax dollars that could better serve much more important needs within the state?

We are at a time in our country’s history when the words “jihad, jihadist, terror, terrorist” are associated with radicalized Islam and ultimately ISIS.  Beheadings by these groups are not uncommon and we are seeing in our own country “lone wolf’s/ jihadist”, if you will, committing uncivilized and barbaric acts in a civilized nation.  There are disturbed people out there that one doesn’t know what they are capable of.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard threatening type statements about beheadings coming from those who are supposed to be “leaders” in the farming community.  Is this what the farming community wants to be portrayed as?

It’s beyond my comprehension why a publication such as the Delmarva Farmer would even print such inflammatory stories using bold headlines.  Is it for the purpose of inciting disturbed people to commit horrendous acts?  I’ll bet a milkshake that the editors didn’t think of that view.

I’ve previously stated that the chicken industry tears apart the moral fabric of our communities.  I need to amend that statement to include questions about the morality of publications as well as State leaders allowing highly inflammatory and inciting statements into advisement of any government business.

Natural is the opposite of artificial or synthetic, right?  It’s something that isn’t altered or created by humankind rather something that comes from nature…… I think!

As I’ve often said, folks, it’s all in the words!  Something as simple as the word “natural” is under heavy scrutiny because of slick advertising being used on food labels that confuses consumers as to what the product is.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is seeking public comment asking if it’s appropriate to define the word “natural”, if so, how FDA should define the word “natural”, and to decide how the agency should determine appropriate use of “natural” on food labels.

which way do i go 2I have to stop here for a moment and say, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME”?
FDA doesn’t know if it’s appropriate, how to define the word natural, or determine appropriate use on labels?  Reminds me of a quote from Alice In Wonderland ~~~ “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here”.

Phew…  Sorry folks, I had a moment, sarcasm kicked in!
Moving on…..

How many products in the grocery store shout out a reference in some type or form of the word “natural”? As a consumer, is your purchase influenced by a shout out such as “all natural”?  If you say yes, you aren’t alone in your thinking.  Most consumers are filled with a picture that the product came from a producer who supplied them with something that was raised or grown in its most natural state.

The Gospel according to the FDA website

  “From a food science perspective, it is difficult to define a food product that is ‘natural’ because the food has probably been processed and is no longer the product of the earth. That said, FDA has not developed a definition for use of the term natural or its derivatives. However, the agency has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”

FDA shares food labeling oversight with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  USDA is in charge of the use of “natural” on meat and poultry labeling.  According to the Gospel of USDA –

“A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product.  The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”)”.

The ambiguous meaning of “natural” as defined by regulations leaves consumers unprotected and confused.  Is it unreasonable for consumers to depend upon food labeling and have confidence in government agency oversight that ensures a product is actually what it claims?  Using the word “natural” on food labeling only refers to processing of the food not where it came from or how it was grown.  Most consumers do not know this!

A good example to ponder can be found in poultry.  According to USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service

Poultry is not injected with water, but some water is absorbed during cooling in a chill-tank, a large vat of cold, moving water. The chill-tank lowers the temperature of the slaughtered birds and their giblets (hearts, livers, gizzards, etc.). During this water chilling process, turkeys and chickens will absorb some of the water, and this amount must be prominently declared on the label. It is not unusual for poultry to declare 8 to 12% retained water on the label.”

This so called “chill-tank” is referred to by some as the “fecal soup bath” whereby processed chickens are dumped into a large tank or vat to cool down the carcass.  Akin to ground beef derived from many different cows mixed up together for packaging and shipped out for consumption, thousands of chicken carcasses co-mingle in the chill-tank.  The most commonly used type of anti-bacterial/microbial to prevent cross contamination of the co-mingling chickens is chlorine, however there are many other products on the market approved for use.  Chlorine does not exist naturally on our plant, it is made by humankind.

Yet I see many poultry products on the market with the words “natural” or “all natural” in large bold letters on the packaging.  Here is where the pondering comes in.  If chicken carcasses retain 8-12 percent water from processing (not naturally occurring original body water) the end product is altered.  Furthermore, in that chill-tank water that is retained from processing is some type of humanly added anti-bacterial/microbial that is not a natural derivative of our planet.  That would make the end product further altered from its natural state.

I suppose USDA’s ambiguous wording referring to the use of the word “natural” on meat and poultry labels absolves poultry products from not being “natural” under the term of “minimal processing” but for the life of me I can’t figure out how poultry products get around the term of “no artificial ingredients”.

There you have it folks!  In reality the word “natural” on food labeling is worthless and cannot be depended upon to really mean something.  Most of the food you eat is processed in some manner and therefore is no longer really “natural”.

To avoid years of studies, recommendations, and argument, not to mention waste of countless taxpayer dollars, why not just prohibit the use of the words “natural” and “all natural” on all food products or labels.  If the food industry insists on a definition to continue with marketing ploys for food products, wouldn’t it be less wasted time and much less costly to simply look the word up in the dictionary?

My next question would be why do we need two different federal agencies governing food labels?

A network of nonprofit organizations, farmers, consumers and businesses launched a campaign earlier this month aiming to reform Maryland’s food system that lacks adequate fairness, transparency, and accountability. I’m happy to say that I participate on the group’s farmer advisory council.

Fair Farms Maryland, convened by Waterkeepers Chesapeake and supported by more than 40 endorsing partners, is working to create awareness about the relationship between our food systems, the environment and public health.

A sub title on the group’s press release says “Fair Farms campaign showcases sustainable farmers who “”farm against the grain””.  I guess it could be said that I’m one of those farmers.  Sending my brain into overdrive is the “farming against the grain” part.

For example, Nick Baily of Grand View Farm in Forest Hill, MD says “we set out to prove that wholesome food can be produced in a way that regenerates the land, respects nature and the needs of the animals and reestablishes a lost visceral connection between consumers and their food”.

I started thinking that the goals of Nick’s farm shouldn’t be considered farming against the grain it should be the norm in farming.  I mean really, shouldn’t we all want to produce wholesome food, regenerate the land that gives to us, respect nature and the needs of our farm animals and have a connection with those who consume our food?

Another example, “Taxpayers heavily subsidize the intensive farming norm, while also paying higher bills for related health care costs and to restore the damage done to our environment” says Bob Gallagher, in Annapolis, MD, a board member of Waterkeepers Chesapeake and co-chairman of the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition.  Bob wrote a guest column “Let’s insist on sustainable food system”, in the Capital Gazette about the Fair Farms campaign.

Bob refers to intensive farming as the norm for food production. Without going into a lengthy explanation suffice it to say that I’m talking about industrialized food production utilizing methods without regard to public and environmental health, lack of respect for the land and animals that sustain us, and where the almighty dollar outweighs the inclination to produce food that sustains farms and communities.

Comparing the two farming methods, which are on opposite ends of the spectrum, it’s hard to reconcile how food production became so jumbled.  It befuddles me when thinking about the notion that food can be, and is, produced with total disregard or care of what is good for people, animals, and the environment.  It also boggles the mind to think that the goals of Grand View Farm aren’t considered as normal!

Taking it one step farther – what about just doing the right thing?  Seriously folks, I’ve seen so much denial, blame shifting, meetings behind closed doors, ambiguity, fear mongering, strong arming, influence peddling, deal making and breaking, and sometimes outright untruths from big ag proponents that nothing surprises me anymore.

I’m sure the first serve from detractors in the volley will be that the Fair Farms campaign is against farmers.  “This campaign is not about environmentalists versus farmers,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “Fair Farms is about working together to reform a food system that is out of balance. We shouldn’t be rewarding farm operations that produce cheap food with steep hidden costs to the environment and public health. Instead, we need to find new opportunities to support those agricultural practices that will grow food in healthy ways for generations to come.”

Working together to reform a food system that is out of balance and growing food in healthy ways – sounds like good ideas to me!

If you would like to know more about Fair Farms Maryland   take a peek.  While you are there take the pledge to be a Fair Farms Consumer.  It’s free!