I can get this bacon on sale this week for 1.99 per pound. At my local meat processing locker I can get smoked sugar cured bacon for 6.49 per pound. I can get a fresh pork belly from the locker for 4 dollars per pound and cure and smoke it myself. Which one of these is the best value, you might reasonably ask.
$1.99 is a pretty good deal money-wise for any kind of meat. You can’t buy any variety of pork at the grocery store for $1.99 except for maybe a tub of livers. The closest you can get to this price is the pork steak, which is the cheap cousin to the pork chop. This is impressive when you consider that this bacon must have started off as fresh pork belly, then had to be cured for a week, then smoked, and then sliced and wrapped. All of that work and raw material plus shipping and handling to get it to you, and it only costs $1.99. Corners must be cut somewhere to make that possible.
For $4 you can get a piece of fresh pork. It will be frozen and wrapped in cryovac plastic to prevent burning. When you unwrap and thaw it you will be able to clean it off and make certain of the condition. If you carefully cure and smoke it, for four dollars per pound you are getting exactly what you expect, wholesome and delicious smoked bacon. The quality of the base meat is entirely under your control. You can get something that was raised on a pasture it’s whole life, was never subjected to the stress of living cheek to jowl with hundreds of other inmates, being fed the least cost option in foods for its entire miserable life.
So for $4 plus my time and some inexpensive spices I can get bacon and that isn’t even the best I can do price-wise. $4 is a great deal, but there is no way I could do it myself for $1.99. The only way I could justify doing it myself, or paying the locker $6.50 per pound to have the locker do it for me would be if there were something I can’t see, some hidden thing that makes that store-bought pork worth less than my home-made bacon. Wonder what that could be?
So, tell the truth, you knew that was coming, didn’t you? All of my regular readers know that I don’t trust industrial meats for a whole lot of reasons, which we will go into again, but now we also have all of this new information to hate on pork-for-profit for.
Apparently, the pork producers in the United States have convinced the USDA, the arm of our government that is tasked with ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of our meat supply, that it would be good for everybody if they could privatize the inspection of our meat production facilities, and speed up the line by twenty percent. The meat packers have generously offered to conduct their own meat inspections. Meat inspectors make certain that the dirty side of the plant, from the point where live animals come in, right up to the point where the vital organs have been removed, is not allowed to contaminate the clean side of the plant, where the carcass is broken down into it’s cuts that will show up on your grocery store meat shelf. Previously, meat inspectors who are paid and employed by the USDA itself, were empowered to stop production if serious problems were found, were able to pull carcasses from production if feces was found on meat. The new system puts these powers in the hands of employees of the company. I don’t need to point out that having the authority to stop production is different than doing it, if it means that your employer will lose money because of your integrity. Am I wrong to see that these mixed incentives, combined with speeding up the line that moves meat from the hoof to the package are going to result in more contaminated meat at the dinner table? No, I am not…
- “Not only are plant supervisors not trained, the employees taking over USDA’s inspection duties have no idea what they are doing. Most of them come into the plant with no knowledge of pathology or the industry in general.“
- “Food safety has gone down the drain under HIMP. Even though fecal contamination has increased under the program (though the company does a good job of hiding it), USDA inspectors are encouraged not to stop the line for fecal contamination.“
- “HIMP was initially designed for the kill of young, healthy animals. This hasn’t always been the case. A lot of the animals the plant has killed were too old. Some also had different diseases. They didn’t even slow down the line for the diseased carcasses.“
- “The company threatens plant employees with terminations if they see them condemning too many carcasses or carcass parts.”
Wow, this is good news for our food production system, right? Now that this information is in the public eye surely the USDA will abandon the idea of allowing company employees perform the food safety inspections and resume doing it themselves for us.
The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the agency that runs the inspection program, is standing behind HIMP (short for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points-based Inspection Models Project) too. USDA spokesperson Aaron Lavallee pointed to a November 2014 FSIS report that, he said, “shows that the food safety outcomes at the pilot facilities are on par with those operating under other inspection systems.” The report concluded that there’s “no reason to discontinue HIMP in market hog establishments.”
However, the USDA’s and Hormel’s rosy assessment of HIMP presents a stark contrast to a scathing 2013 report from yet another USDA agency, the Office of the Inspector General, which found HIMP plants—which it did not name—made up three of the top 10 US hog plants earning the most food safety and animal welfare citations in the period of fiscal years 2008 to 2011. Moreover, by far the most-cited slaughterhouse in the United States over that period was in the program—it drew “nearly 50 percent more [citations] than the plant with the next highest number.” The OIG also concluded that that the Food Safety and Inspection Service “did not provide adequate oversight” of HIMP over its first 15 years, and as a result, “HIMP plants may have a higher potential for food safety risks.”
Well, the USDA says “No Problems (yet)” but the Office of the Inspector General says “The USDA doesn’t provide adequate oversight of production”. I guess proper inspection is a mixed blessing. On the one hand not inspecting the meat at all would probably make the meat even cheaper than it is now, but on the other hand eating that meat would be a genuine risk to your health. Money or life, decisions, decisions. Maybe someday industrial meat will be perfectly safe. Maybe someday the USDA will make food safety a higher priority that food industry profits. Maybe we should not eat industrial meats until they get it all figured out.