The Meat of the Matter: On Black Earth Meats and Bolzano
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia 1
Editor's Note: We're so proud to announce that "The Meat of the Matter: On Black Earth Meats and Bolzano" received Edible Communities' 2015 EDDY Awards Critics' Choice Award in the Feature Article-Food Artisan category. "The Meat of the Matter wins for examining a complex issue in an unbiased and historically-based way," said judges Brent Ridge and Josh Kilmer-Purcell. You can read what else the judges had to say here. We are thrilled with the result. Please, enjoy.
Meat is a personal and rarely, if ever, neutral subject. As author Robert Kunzig puts it, “[Meat] is unhealthy, nutritious, cruel, delicious, unsustainable and all- American…the stuff of fierce debate” (Kunzig, 2014). The debate is not over the braising, roasting, grilling and sautéing of meat—the foodie porn that has saturated the media (but unfortunately few home kitchens). It’s over what happens before the meat arrives on the plate—the raising, killing, slaughtering and butchering that delivers meat from beast to bite.
Today’s meat politics push quantity over quality with increasingly consolidated, streamlined industrial systems designed to raise livestock in confined spaces, slaughter behind closed doors, butcher and process for efficiency, and preserve for global shipment and long shelf life. The industry endgame is about building and supporting a system that produces a lot of cheap meat that can be distributed anywhere in the world. And it’s a system that has gifted the world with social, economic and environmental compromises.
Attempts to clean up the industry have resulted in increased regulations that, instead of providing transparency for consumers, reward big over small, often hurting those who raise, slaughter and process animals on family farms and in small community butcher shops. Too big to fail is scary, but too small to survive is even scarier.
Wisconsin is at the heart of the debate. Just ask Scott Buer of Milwaukee’s now closed Bolzano Artisan Meats and Bartlett Durand of Black Earth’s now shuttered Black Earth Meats; or the more than 200 farmers who were left high and dry with the highly contentious closing of both businesses in 2014; or the 50-plus retail outlets and restaurants left to source quality meat from other processors.
In 2010, Edible Madison featured both Black Earth Meats (summer, issue no. 1) and Bolzano Artisan Meats (winter, issue no. 3) as two successful—and growing—small, artisan, meat-based businesses with a triple-bottom-line approach to building a healthy food system in Wisconsin. These businesses mattered. And they still matter. They were critical pieces to this state’s regional food system. What happened between then and now to bring these businesses to their knees?
Passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act, and later, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, “put federal inspectors in all packinghouses whose products entered interstate or foreign commerce. Government inspectors began grading beef and pork in the 1920s; in 1967 Congress required states to perform the same inspection and grading duties in plants selling within state boundaries” (Wade, 2005). Wisconsin is one of 27 states with state-operated meat inspection programs, giving roughly 300 processors the ability to process and sell meat within state lines without federal inspection.
After World War II, American meat consumption sky-rocketed, and the industry was increasingly consolidated. In 2000, average U.S. meat consumption reached 195 pounds per person, 57 pounds higher than in the 1950s (USDA, 2003). Peaking in 2007, consumption is trending downward as attitudes about meat change due to high prices, health concerns and environmental impacts.
Limiting fatal contamination is one of the industry’s key performance indicators. From 1998 to 2008, American eaters experienced 13,352 foodborne disease outbreaks, which resulted in an estimated 629 deaths per year from land animals. While worrisome, these numbers are relatively low, considering a typical industrial slaughterhouse can process up to 400 cows, 1,000 hogs or more than 3,000 chickens per hour.
Regulation is good. Regulation saves lives. But the system is highly complex and caters to big agri-business. It assumes that all meat is contaminated regardless of farming, slaughter or processing practices. It assumes consumers can’t be trusted to handle and prepare meat properly. It remains the number one hurdle in creating equitable systems that allow access to minimally processed, local and humanely raised and processed meat. With that said, food safety regulations are here to stay, which means innovation is needed to find solutions for the complexity and cost associated with the alwaysevolving industry standards.
Scott Buer and Bartlett Durand devoted their lives and bank accounts to the belief that building a local/regional food system based on providing the highest quality meat would create a lifeline for family farms, grow higher wage jobs, and build a more sustainable food economy in Wisconsin. They also believed—and still believe—that the simple act of eating can have profound impacts on human and environmental health and well-being.