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Monday, April 8, 2013

Horsegate, Pink Slime, Farmers Markets and the Locavore Movement

Horsegate is the name that has been given to the scandal currently rocking the global meat industry, in which horsemeat has been mixed in with beef in everything from prepared frozen meat dishes to packaged ground meat to the Swedish meatballs served up in IKEA furniture stores. Horsemeat is not unhealthy and is eaten in many countries including Italy, France, and Belgium. But horsemeat intended for human consumption is only supposed to come from animals that have not been given certain chemicals which can be harmful to human health, especially the types of drugs used to euthanize horses.  But even if the horsemeat found so far in the foods in question came from horses that were drug free, there is still plenty of scandal simply on the basis of the mislabeling.

To date no horsemeat has turned up in the U.S. meat supply.  But we did have our own meat scandal in 2012 when the news media reported on the widespread use of lean finely textured beef (LFTB) as a filler in ground beef. LFTB had been approved by the Department of Agriculture a decade ago despite the use of ammonia to process the ingredient. While there are health organizations that disagree with the USDA as to the safety of that process, the real problem was the nickname given by meat inspectors to this legal ingredient: pink slime.  But as the news reports came out, that description alone was enough to turn off the public, leading many foodservice companies and retailers to drop the use of any ground beef that contained the filler and driving at least one LFTB manufacturer into bankruptcy.

So what do these scandals have to do with farmers markets and the locavore movement? Survey after survey indicates that consumers are increasingly concerned about the safety of the foods they eat, including meat and poultry. As reported in Meat and Poultry Trends in the U.S., Packaged Facts’ 2013 Consumer Survey found that nearly 60 percent of consumers said that food safety/contamination is a major concern when they buy fresh meat, poultry, or seafood. And while many producers of meat and poultry are launching lines that stress their products were raised naturally, without the use of antibiotics or other chemicals, as well as under humane conditions, nearly half of the Packaged Facts Survey respondents indicated they simply don't trust a lot of the 'natural' labeling.

These concerns have been a contributor to the growth of the locavore movement that has consumers seeking out foods and other products that come from local producers. There is no firm definition of what local means in this context, although some sources place a 100-mile limit to it. While the movement has been motivated by environmental issues, food safety has also become a major motivator in buying locally—especially at a farmers market where the farmer or rancher is standing across a table from you, able to answer your questions about how the meat or poultry you are purchasing was raised and perhaps even inviting you to come see for yourself. We have to think that knowing the producer as a neighbor, being able to meet him or her face-to-face and look them in the eye has a value that transcends an advertising claim on a package label. 

Some locally produced foods can be found in independent groceries and even some supermarkets are promoting their locally grown sections. But farmers markets are the mainstay of the locavore movement. According to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the number of farmers markets in the U.S. has more than doubled over the past decade, from 3,137 in 2002 to 7,864 in 2012. The increase from 2011 to 2012 alone was nearly 10 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control has made it clear that foodborne illnesses have dropped dramatically in recent years thanks to the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act and the food industry’s positive response to the act. Nevertheless there is a mood upon large swathes of the American people to distrust large institutions, whether the government, banks, or corporations. It is not hard to imagine that another food safety scandal, even though isolated from the overall quality of our food supply, will serve to drive the further expansion of the locavore movement and the growth of farmers markets.

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