As part of our ongoing expert Q&A series, a conversation with Joe Cloud who co-owns a small USDA-inspected abattoir with Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food, Inc.

Joe Cloud knows local meat. In 2008, he used his retirement savings to help save True & Essential Meats (T&E Meats), in Harrisonburg, Virginia, one of the few remaining independent, USDA-inspected abattoirs in the mid-Atlantic. Cloud now manages the operation, working with famed local food advocate Joel Salatin to build a more robust infrastructure for local meat production in the Shenandoah region.      

At a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) public meeting on a draft HACCP guidance, which sparked widespread concern in local food circles weary of increased government regulation, Cloud shared his perspective on the issue. “I’m concerned that [the Food Safety and Inspection Service] does not understand the needs and realities of small plants,” said Cloud, adding that he believes local slaughterhouses play a critical role in maintaining “resilient” rural communities. “I’m here to ask that you keep small, community-based plants in mind as you proceed.”

steak9.jpgFood Safety News caught up with Cloud after the meeting to chat about small-scale meat safety.      

Q: How big is your operation?

A: Well, we’re right on the cusp of being small or very small, we have 24 part-time employees, but our revenues are a little bit under 2 million a year. They define very small as being less than two and a half million and ten employees, so we’re right around there. And we do inspected slaughter for beef, pork, goats, lamb, and bison.

Q: Is it all local?

A: We actually have a small retail store and a small wholesale business, too, so we do buy-in box beef and box pork. We work with regular industrial products that are out there for our customers, but our slaughter plant is mostly local. We work with little over a hundred producers, I would say, in Virginia and West Virginia; we’re pretty close to the West Virginia line so we work with a lot of folks over in West Virginia as well.

Q: Are you hearing concerns about the guidance from a lot of other small meat processors?

A: Well there aren’t that many of us…there’s probably four direct competitors that I have, I guess, in northern/central/western Virginia, excluding a few plants down in the tail of southwest Virginia. We do talk a little bit amongst ourselves. We’re, interestingly enough, in this horrible economy, we’re all working at capacity. We’re adding jobs, we’re growing. All of us, three of those five that I mentioned, have opened in the past five or six years.

Q: And you attribute that to burgeoning local demand?

A: Oh, absolutely. Two of them are old mothball plants that were purchased and reopened after sitting around idle for ten or twenty years. And the third one was a new building that was built from a remodeled barn, actually.

Q: You said [in your testimony] you do case testing, but you’ve never had positive for, like, E. coli, in your plant?

A: No, not that I know of…we purchased an existing company, the owner was too old to continue. The plant’s been going since 1940.

Q: For someone who isn’t familiar with abattoirs, how would you characterize the way your size plant operates versus a larger one?

A: I would say that the largest difference is size, is line speed. When we slaughter beef for example, it takes us about 25 to 30 minutes to get an animal from the stun box to the cooler, to the carcass. When I slaughter hogs I manage to slaughter 33 hogs a day. Smithfield down in Tarheel slaughters 33,000 in a day. It’s’s many orders of magnitude in difference. E. coli is what everybody’s concerned about. That comes from manure on the animals, and I can keep it off my animals..

Q: You can see it…

A:  Yeah, we do visual inspection of every carcass and we work slower. Every beef that walks into any plant has manure on it, so you have to work with that. And we, I just think we have a better chance of keeping that carcass clean. When, you know, some of those big plants, there’s a carcass coming down the line every ten or twenty or thirty seconds, something like that. I’ve never actually seen it, but I can imagine, I’ve read about it. That’s one major difference, I think, the speed at which we work. We can take a little more time and care.

Other than that, we don’t do any extreme interventions, we’re not steam-washing carcasses, we’re not radiating carcasses…we just use hot water. A lot of small plants like ours do do a lactic acid intervention, you know, a slightly acidic wash for that. We don’t do that. I think that one of my concerns is that these regulations will come up with a lot of things that we will have to spend the money to do, or we’ll have to buy additional equipment. And the reality is that the finances of the small-scale plants are…they are marginal. We’re a community service, we’re not grease-lining the pockets of these things. So, where will we come up with that?

At the same time, I get nervous when I say things like that, because I’m concerned that people will interpret that as well they want to be let off the hook, they don’t care about food safety. I disagree with that; like I said in my statement, we do care.

Q: Well, are your kids eating it?

A: Yeah, my kids are growing up on it. I mean, I’ve got an agreement with the local school system to provide all their ground beef for the next year, so… it’s of concern to me that I provide them healthy and safe food, you know? I don’t think that we’re less…I think we put fewer people at risk. We do take interventions seriously.

I am concerned that we have a one-size-fits-all inspection system right now in America. That’s just the reality of it. The fact of the matter is when you have a one-size-fits-all approach you have to think about worst-case realities, worst-case possible scenarios. And then you put your testing or your regulatory mechanisms to prevent those worst-case realities.

Q: You’re talking about facilities that are supplying all fifty states…

A: Exactly, or internationally. Then, suddenly my little plant has to meet something that was put in place to control some of huge agribusiness that is mammoth, and I’m collateral damage in the food safety wars. You know, that’s what it is.

Q: Do you think the agency is responding to small meat concerns?

A: Yeah, I do. I’m feeling a lot better. Someone called in about a week and a half ago and gave me a personal

invitation to come to this meeting. So I was like, wow, where’d that

come from?

(Food Safety News note: Deputy Under Secretary of Food Safety Jerold Mande and a few other USDA officials personally spoke with Cloud after the HACCP meeting)


See recent Food Safety News coverage of the recent HACCP draft guidance:

USDA Tries to Clarify HACCP Guidance June 15, 2010

Throwing A Bone to Small Meat: USDA To Hold Public Meetings on HACCP Guidance June 7, 2010

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