The Meat of the Matter: On Black Earth Meats and Bolzano

Feature Stories Winter 2014 Issue

The Meat of the Matter: On Black Earth Meats and Bolzano

By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 1

Jonny Hunter, of the ever-evolving Madison-based Underground Food Collective, the mothership of Underground Butcher and Underground Meats, is sympathetic to the challenges faced by others in his industry. Hunter advocates for an increased level of awareness, knowledge and innovation at regulatory agencies. Hunter enthusiastically admits, “I love DATCP. We wouldn’t exist without them. But turnover is high, and some regulations don’t fit small processors. Issues with regulations are systematic, and we need more efforts to help small businesses. Food safety decisions are often based on risk management and not on science.”

A USDA Economic Research Report admits that perishable products are “governed by a complex and evolving set of food safety regulations,” which means “meat and poultry can require equally complex supply chains involving multiple partners. It also reports, "Regulations related to meat and poultry processing can be complicated to understand, technically difficult to implement, and time consuming in terms of recordkeeping” (Gwin et al., 2013). Coupled with the high cost of starting up and maintaining a processing business, clearly it can be difficult for small processors to get a leg up…and stay up.

To help alleviate at least one of the necessary high costs they must overcome—food safety regulation—Hunter wants to launch an organization that would increase information sharing about food safety for small processors. Hunter says big industry shares information more freely because it is critical to their bottom line. With small processors, consultants are the information keepers, and they often over-charge to replicate the same science again and again. But, he says, “If information were shared more freely [between small processors], we would see more efficient models.”

As an initial step, Underground Meats has launched an “open-source educational approach to sharing the complex process of becoming a USDA-certified processor.” So far, three processing plants and seven restaurants have used their open-source HACCP plan, potentially saving each business tens of thousands of dollars. Hunter hopes that through increased information-sharing over collaborative platforms, innovations in food safety will reduce operational challenges.

The other important issue affecting small processors more heavily than large ones is the trending belief that meat should be cheap. Many people want high quality at the lowest price, but cheapness comes with a rarely talked-about cost to someone along the production trail— usually the small processors and farmers.

Reports the USDA, “Local meat farmers and consumers are often startled that local meats can cost more than twice as much as commodity meats. To some degree, this is due to economies and diseconomies of scale: large, specialized plants handling large volumes of similar product can operate at a lower cost per unit than small plants that offer multiple services and small-batch, artisanal production. Certain costs, such as regulatory compliance and offal disposal, may be disproportionately high for smaller plants with no dedicated staff and lower volumes over which to spread those costs” (Emphasis added. Gwin et al., 2013).

Buer, Durand and Hunter agree that there’s a great need for more consumer education targeted at valuing the many people and steps involved with putting quality meat on the table, appropriate and sustainable pricing, and not shying away from cooking one’s own meat.

Says Durand, “The industry has made meat so scary. [Home cooks] fear that they won’t cook it right and will disappoint people.”

Buer warns that "the time of magic in the food movement may be waning." He wonders whether "consumers are willing to get on board, or will regulations determine what is on our dinner plates? The future lies in people connecting with food in a more direct way."

To help foster this direct connection, Buer made an exciting announcement on November 21: "Our exile is over, and we are back as a school of butchering and charcuterie!" Starting with a hands-on Whole Hog Butchering class on January 25 in Milwaukee, Buer hopes to keep the spirit of high-quality, artisan meat production alive through educating consumers about where to source and how to prepare good meat. (Learn more and register for the class at bolzanoclass.)

“In consumer society we don’t realize our individual power,” Durand says. “We don’t realize how personal it is to have a real connection with community. Consumers mean everything to store keepers. This is incredibly powerful. Don’t be afraid of crossing the threshold and building relationships with those who raise, process, butcher and market your food. It’s a deeply personal thing to have a consumer transaction."

[1] Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points,” a process control system designed to identify and prevent microbial and other hazards in food production. Under the Pathogen Reduction and HACCP Systems regulations, USDA requires that all meat and poultry plants design and implement HACCP systems.


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Jessica Luhning is a writer intrigued by the origins of great flavor and inspired by people and places that care about good, clean food. With an M.S. in Geography and Natural Resource Planning she founded and guided the helm of the Wisconsin-based consulting firm EarthVision for seven years. Now exploring the mountains, forests and farms of central Oregon, she relishes in her new remote role as Grant & Resource Development Manager for Organic Valley. Writing, eating, planting, scheming and day-dreaming make full the spaces between honest work and family escapades.

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