I first wanted to thank Marilyn Maki and CBC Radio Noon for bringing Rick onto the show. They posted the audio online. It is very important to draw on multiple voices/perspectives, so that we can all form our own opinions and make informed decisions for ourselves.
I wanted to spend a moment sharing my reflections on Holley’s interview, on the role of ‘experts’ and to draw attention to a concept that I think is useful for us to ponder in light of this incident.
First, the interview
One thing that struck me was how Holley sensationalized the risk of Pam and Clint’s meat. Of course, there are always risks when it comes to processed meat, or food in general, that we need to be careful about and to regulate for.
When asked by the interviewer about what could happen if you ate meat with those toxins, Holley replied,
“oh, you’d be dead, in three days.”
No further discussion.
First, I’m not an expert on food-born illness, but from what I know and what I can tell that his statement is overstated and in most cases wrong. For example, according the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people who eat listeria are never even symptomatic (http://www.cdc.gov/listeria/).
Botulism, which Holley focuses on, is a more serious toxin, but is treatable and rarely fatal unless it is not caught early enough. It is actually very rare as a food-born illness and often a result of improper home canning. In Canada, there are about an average of 2 cases per year (http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/fs-sa/fs-fi/botulism-eng.php )
So, yes, you can possibly die from eating these bacteria and/or toxins but I am confident that Holley has misrepresented and sensationalized the risk. He was implicitly suggesting Clint and Pam’s meat was very dangerous, even deadly, by saying their meat should be destroyed even though it has never been proven to have any of those toxins/bacteria and no one has ever gotten sick from eating it.
On an ironic note, Clint and Pam told me that Holley was at their farm earlier this year to learn about what they were doing and ate their dried cured meat.
Next, after talking to Clint and Pam after the interview, they were frustrated by Holley’s misrepresentation of the cost for setting up a separate drying facility for their cured meats testing equipment etc.
Clint told me that just one drying cabinet, about the size of a fridge, enough to cure about 2 pigs, will cost about $15,000 – again, that’s just for one drying cabinet let alone all of the other testing equipment, renovation expenses, etc.
Holley implied that it would cost Clint and Pam about $10,000, but not much more. His understatement of the costs might have many listeners questioning why the Cavers didn’t make what sounds like a reasonable investment in a $10,000 upgrade.
But, according to Clint, the costs would be much higher. Not to mention they were indeed starting to make plans to upgrade, trying to work with the province to figure all of this out – but aiming at a moving target where food safety guidelines are being unevenly interpreted over time and by different inspectors.
Finally, Holley stated that one of the fundamental problems with Clint and Pam’s situation was that,
“In this case, there’s not a good division between the farm field and the processing facility, as there should be, in order to minimize the opportunity for those organisms to find their way into the meat.”
I asked Pam and she said that this has never been an issue, and MAFRI/health inspectors have never mentioned this as a problem at Harborside Farms. Holley suggests that the on-farm processing is rare and the Cavers are exceptional in this regard.
Having food processing on a farm is not uncommon. I’ve spent time on many farms that do on-farm processing both in Manitoba and elsewhere (Oregon, B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, etc.).
These farmer-processors (including Clint and Pam) had a hygienic protocol, following best practices – changing shoes, washing hands and changing clothes when moving from farming to processing to avoid cross-contamination and, like the Cavers, are monitored and licensed by the public health authorities in their jurisdictions to have processing on farm.
Further, the division between the space of the farm and the space of an off-farm processing plant isn’t as cut and dry as Holley implies. It doesn’t matter where you process meat there are always live animals up to the point where they die, which is usually in the same plant where they are gutted and hung.
I’ve been in abbatoirs in rural towns where I witnessed live pigs in the processing facility – their hooves still carrying the manure and the dirt from the farm. Manure, dirt, animals and meat in the same space.
In large processing facilities, where they do both slaughter and packaging, there are often holding pens right outside the doors.
The farm here (in Holley’s usage includes the soil and the pathogens that naturally occur on farms and in the soil) doesn’t end at the farm gate but comes into all processing plants and indeed our homes and on our dinner plates, despite the efforts to keep these separate.
Indeed, studies have shown, that despite all efforts on farm and in processing facilities, that much of our meat has some level of pathogens, including for example, listerosis and salmonella (For example see: Cook et al. 2012).
Considering all of this – to suggest that the problem is that the separation between Cavers farm and processing plant is the problem seems unfair, misdirected and unduly sullies the Caver’s reputation.
In fact, I have heard many people expressing frustration that the expert and the government responses to this incident are “muddying the waters” and obstructing a fair and respectful discussion.
Experts, Citizens and Food Sovereignty
I’m always excited to see informed citizens and experts commenting publically on important issues, like this one. But, my hope is that this brief analysis gives us all a moment to pause and reflect. And poses a challenge to to each of us to question all ‘expert opinions’, to get information from multiple sources and to conduct our own thoughtful analysis of the situation before coming to any conclusions - or perhaps we should never conclude, but always keep debating and challenging our own conclusions.
This of course also means critically looking at who the message is coming from, why they are considered “experts” while others are not , their worldview, what their vested interest is?
This goes for my writing and opinions too – don’t take them at face value.
I wear my position and interests on my sleeve though – my interest is in seeing the development of a food system that is safe, no doubt – I have children, family and value our health and yours too.
But I also think we need to step back from the micro-scope to consider the bigger issues, and to question the claims being made by those in the food safety regime (government, food scientists, etc. – “THE Experts”. What are they missing with their narrow and compartmentalized vision.
I want a more holistic consideration of health, safety, economy, connection, equality to inform our regulations and policy.
I want more control over decision-making handed back to family farmers, fishers and people who eat the food.
I don’t want to be one of a few “experts” called on to make the decisions for everyone else. Rather, I want us to find ways for citizens to have more of a say in the way our food system works so that it better reflects our needs and values rather than those of powerful corporations, experts and government agendas.
I want to end this commentary by linking this discussion and our efforts to a wider Canadian and international movement based around the notion of food sovereignty.
Food sovereignty emphasizes putting control of agriculture and food back into the hands of producers and eaters, not corporations and governments (http://nyeleni.org/spip.php?article290).
Thus, food sovereignty calls for the rights of farmers, fishers, and consumer-citizens to determine food and agricultural policy and practice (Nyéléni Declaration, 2007).
My hope in Manitoba, is for the Real Manitoba Food Fight to result in the empowerment of farmers and eaters to re-shape our food system to reflect the vision of the people who grow and eat food in Manitoba.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about food sovereignty in Canada there is a wonderful edited book here to check out. Food Secure Canada is an organization that is rooted in a food sovereignty approach. And La Via Campesina is an international peasant farmer organization made up of more than 150 organizations in 69 countries.
Cook, A., Odumeru, J., Lee, S., Pollari, F., 2012. Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, verotoxigenic Escherichia coli, and Escherichia coli prevalence, enumeration, and subtypes on retail chicken breasts with and without skin. J Food Prot 75, 34-40. 10.4315/0362-028X.JFP-11-206