Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cottage Industry Food Law debate in Arkansas

The following is a rebuttal sent to the Arkansas Times in response to a letter submitted by a former health department inspector who claims that the Cottage Food Bill passed by the state this month will kill or sicken food consumers in the state unless stricter guidelines, including home inspections, are instituted. He claims that the only way to PREVENT food borne illnesses is to subject the cottage industries to the same regulations that corporate factory food producers have to meet.

"Mr. Dobbins, in his letter to this august publication, concerning the cottage industry food legislation recently passed by a bi-partisan effort of our representatives, the Arkansas Health Department, and our Governor, demonstrates his thorough indoctrination into the “Cult of Food Safety”, during his 35 years as a Health Department inspector.

The safety of our food supply is of vital importance but I would remind Mr. Dobbins that he need only to peruse the headlines from the past decade to determine from whence the real risk of food borne illness comes.

He makes the invalid and short-sighted assumption that cottage produced food is inherently unsafe. This is in spite of the fact that no one has demonstrated that having 4 sinks reduces food borne illness. It is all text book hypotheticals upon this point. Again, read the headlines. I know of at least one well known restaurant that has four sinks in the preparation area. Two are used for dishwashing, one that is supposed to be used for high temperature rinsing collects dirty dishes, and the last one is a small wall mounted basin that contains a flower pot with the prettiest little plant growing therein. I am not sure how the potted plant reduces food borne illnesses (I am sure it is removed when the inspector comes around) but I have eaten at this establishment many times. The food is always of the highest quality and I have never gotten ill by consuming it.

Mr. Dobbins, and others like him, fail to adequately think through this issue at all. Perhaps I can help. First, the growth of the cottage industry in Arkansas demonstrates that the consumer wants locally produced food that comes from people they know and can hold accountable; even if they have to pay a little more for it. They find it of better quality and it is important to them to keep dollars in the local community and out of the corporate food production machine. In many cases the cottage industry is a family’s only source of income. And the sponsors of the cottage food bill aptly recognized that to add undue restrictions upon this low-risk segment of food production would seriously damage local economies that have become very important in our present economy. Perhaps, Mr. Dobbins would prefer that cottage food producers quit and enter the welfare system?

Secondly, when one studies the real risks presented by food production one needs to ask this question:

Where is the greatest risk to public safety where food borne illnesses are concerned?

The food produced at the small-scale operation is the same food the producer puts on his table. That builds in a demand for food safety. The small-scale producer cares about quality over quantity. Why? Because he meets his customer, eye-to-eye, every week. Many of them become friends. It is at this point in this small-scale economy that food safety becomes of the greatest importance.

Where is the real risk? At the large scale food factories, the people raising, processing, and packaging the food never see a real customer. They care more about productivity than quality. They are not making sure the food is healthy; they are only making sure the food gets packaged. Just read the headlines concerning food borne illnesses. Where do they come from?

The food we produce on Shamrock and Thistle Farm travels an average of 32 miles to get to the customer, is usually less than 24 hours old, and is only handled by one or two people who genuinely care about their customer/friend and would do nothing to jeopardize their trust and patronage.

Where is the real risk? Factory food travels hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles to get to the customer, it is handled by hundreds of people who never see the customer, and is who-knows-how old by the time the customer gets the product home. Read the headlines.

The small scale producer handles a minimal amount of product lines. At S&T Farm we have three distinct product lines which are managed by two people and our entire attention is devoted to making the products healthy, sustainable, and of excellent quality. Our three product lines are delivered to around sixty regular customers who trust us and who enjoy the food we produce. In this scenario, the risk to public health if a food-borne-illness were to occur is minimal simply because of the small scale of the economy.

Where is the real risk? Factory food producers, because of their supreme profit motive, handle hundreds of product lines and deliver to hundreds of thousands of customers they never see. The impact, in this scenario, of a food-borne-illness is significant. Just read the headlines.

Food inspection is a good idea but only if it tackles the high-risk sectors of the food production industry, which is not the cottage industries and local economies they create. As for me, I would rather my tax dollars (yes I pay taxes) be used to send more inspectors to the factory food operations and not be wasted on inspecting low-risk, sustainable, high yield, cottage industry producers. Again, just read the headlines.

As for Mr. Dobbins’ suggestion of a voluntary inspection program, that, too, is short sighted and lacking in understanding. The clarification of the cottage industry guidelines, which this bill provides, would be completely undone. If cottage industries could meet, either financially or philosophically, the standards put into place for the factory food producer there would be no need for a cottage food bill. If I had the room and the money to build a certified kitchen I would have already done so. Because we haven’t, we only produce low risk food that we sell to a limited number of customers with the lowest possible risk to the consumer.

Mr. Dobbins always has the choice of buying factory food because he believes, contrary to the headlines, that it is intrinsically safer than cottage industries. I, however, will continue to support our local community by buying my food from local farmers at local markets.

I am truly thankful for Governor Beebe, the Director of the Health Department, and the Arkansas Representatives that passed the cottage food bill. It will do nothing but help the small-scale farmer to live well in this great state, stay off government assistance, and contribute to state revenue. Most importantly though, it will allow us to continue to deliver high-quality, nutrient dense food products to the customers that want it, while sustaining a myriad of local economies that are not a burden to the state."

Boyd M. Hutchins

Shamrock and Thistle Farm

Perryville Arkansas

1 comment:

  1. Can I perhaps use this (with the proper credit, of course) in my presentation for the Chairman Of Agriculture here in Georgia? I'm looking to get a Cottage Food Law passed and may have a meeting with him this week. Email me at sbrylander at gmail dot com