I just returned from hearing Joel Salatin speak here in Portland about how food safety regulations burden small farmers and producers to the detriment of local food systems and the consumers who would be healthier and happier eating real food produced by people they know. I was prepared for Salatin’s firebrand speaking style, overloaded with lengthy descriptions, such as “a disconnected, Greco-Roman, Western, egocentric, compartmentalized, reductionist, fragmented, linear thought process,” “irradiated, amalgamated, prostituted, reconstituted, adulterated, modified, and artificially-flavored, extruded, bar-coded, un-pronounceable things,” and “mob-stocking hervbivorous solar conversion lignified carbon sequestration fertilization.” I didn’t expect to hear him speak about food safety, though I know that railing against those who proclaim to keep our food “safe” is a favorite topic of his. After the way my week started, getting the chance to hear this vocal advocate of local food systems speak and to talk briefly with him while he signed my copy of his book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, connected my problems, as a home cooking instructor wanting to introduce people to the tastes and textures of real food and a home food producer wishing I could sell what I make to my friends and neighbors, to the catastrophe that is our modern food system.
A couple months ago, the manager of my favorite farmers market asked me if I would do a cooking demonstration at the market. Delighted and honored, I happily agreed to do several demonstration over the coming months. The manager mentioned that many people she talks with at the market don’t even know how to make salad dressings, so for my first demo, I showed market visitors not only how to make salad dressings at home, but mayonnaise and ketchup as well and discussed how to use those as foundations for other condiments, like tartar sauce, barbeque sauce, and sweet and sour sauce. People sampled my creations and told me how inspired they were by the demonstration and to see how simple it can be to make these tasty accompaniments at home. Pat myself on the back for a job well done–inspiring and empowering people to cook at home is what this is all about for me.
For my second demonstration, I decided to show folks how to make soft dairy products at home, like yogurt, ricotta, chevre, buttermilk, sour cream, and creme fraiche. These are all dead-easy to make and they taste so much better than what’s available in plastic tubs at the grocery store. While they are easy to make, culturing dairy does take time. Yogurt takes eight or more hours to set up once it’s been cultured. Chevre must be cultured for several hours, then drained for a couple more. Sour cream and creme fraiche can take up to 24 hours to achieve their proper consistency. Since I know that tasting the real deal is a big part of convincing people that making these foods is worth the little bit of effort, I made batches of everything ahead of time so that I could offer samples. As I set up in the demonstration booth, a certain busybody market vendor, who shall remain anonymous, came up and told me that Oregon Department of Agriculture regulations prohibit anyone from offering samples of food prepared in a non-licensed kitchen. “As a market member, I’m concerned about the market’s liability,” she said. In preparation for starting up my business teaching cooking classes, I had looked into the state regulations and from my research, my understanding was that as long as I was just giving away samples, I didn’t have to prepare them in a licensed kitchen. The busybody insisted that I was incorrect, adding, “Cheese should be licensed.” Seriously. Those are the words that came out of her mouth. Cheese should be licensed. Had I not been so upset by the situation, I would have laughed at the absurdity of her statement. Then she mentioned that what I was doing, teaching people to make dairy products at home, was in competition with her own business. Ah-ha, now we get to the heart of the matter. Empowering people to prepare food with their own hands might get in the way of commerce.
The market manager saw us talking and approached to find out what was going on. Not knowing herself whether offering homemade samples was in compliance with ODA regulations or not, she quickly convened the market’s board and it was decided that no, I could not allow anyone to taste the food that I had made in my unlicensed home kitchen. I fully understand their decision and the last thing I would want to do is create a situation that would harm the market, so I agreed to go ahead with the demo, but not offer samples of my homemade delectables. Fortunately, the demo went well and afterward a number of people told me they felt inspired to start making their own cheese and such at home. Mission accomplished. Nevertheless situation pained me because it seemed to call into question of my integrity and my ability to produce safe, wholesome food. This food I made at home, that I feed to my own children, was apparently unfit for public consumption, according to the ODA and others who feel that “cheese should be licensed.”
In his talk, Salatin mentioned that during a recent conversation with Michaal Pollan, they discussed how it would be possible to find a compromise between what Salatin described as liberal democrats, who feel that food safety regulations are necessary, and libertarians, who find such regulations an infringement upon their freedom. They came up with a scale, with a McDonald’s meal at one end, and a meal consisting of of backyard-raised chicken and homegrown veggies at the other. Which meal should receive the most regulatory scrutiny, he asked. I hope, Dear Reader, that you would agree with Joel, Michael, and me, that the McDonald’s meal, which travels across hundreds of miles and though dozens of hands, requires the greatest level of regulatory scrutiny, while regulators would leave dinner from “Aunt Mabel’s backyard,” as Salatin put it, alone. And while you may agree that a system that doesn’t burden small producers, who are directly accountable to their customers, with costly regulations that stymy innovation and local food systems, surprisingly, many people in power feel that the opposite is true. Salatin said that he recently asked Virginia Senator Jim Webb what he thought about whether the McDonald’s or Aunt Mabel’s meal should be more regulated, and Webb responded that the backyard producer should undergo greater scrutiny.
And the sad fact is, there may be some of you out there reading this who are still convinced that the edible foodlike substances that the industrial food system belches out are somehow safer, thanks to USDA regulations and the like, than food grown and prepared by your neighbor. Many have become so fearful of food, real food, that is, that we ignore all the warnings about what’s wrong with the system. Swine flu, BCE, salmonella, algal bloom, diabetes, obesity, heart disease…the list of signs that all is not well with our industrial food system goes on and on. Yet, we fear that canning our own food at home will put us at risk for botulism, when in fact, since the 1970s, there have been on average only about 24 cases of foodborne botulism per year and a large percentage of those cases involve food prepared in factories and restaurants. Thanks to a time in US history when urban dairy cows being fed an unhealthy diet of distillery waste produced milk that was unfit for human consumption in its raw state, many people, disconnected from farms producing clean, wholesome milk from pastured cows, came to accept that the only safe milk is pasteurized milk. Yet people have consumed raw milk and made all sorts of products from milk at home for thousands of years. How did we, in a historical blink of an eye, forget that? How have we come to the point at which someone could say with a straight face that cheese should be licensed?
I could just go on and on (obviously), but it’s time I get to bed so I can get up early and can some food in my unlicensed kitchen. Don’t worry, I won’t sell any to my neighbors. I just have one last thing to say: Cheese should not be licensed. Make it yourselves. If not cheese, try canning, drying, freezing, or fermenting some of the summer’s bounty. In his talk tonight, Salatin challenged us to develop the skills we need to fill our pantries with more food without barcodes than with them. What a great notion.
This is my first Fight Back Friday post. Be sure to check out what other Real Food bloggers have to say today. Thank you Kristin for hosting and for your terrific post about how rampant imitation foods are in our culture.