The Blogging Farmer
Alex Tiller’s Blog on Agriculture and Farming


The Consequences of Unclean Meats
It pays to know where your food is coming from.

Several cultures around the world have proscriptions and rules when it comes to the consumption of meat and meat products. Dietary laws in Judaism and Islam forbid the consumption of pork; Hindus refuse to eat beef; Jains and devout Seventh-Day Adventists refuse to eat any sort of animal-based foods at all.

Oddly enough, some of these dietary laws have a practical aspect. Ham and pork for example can cause trichinosis, a type of parasitic infection, if it is not cooked thoroughly (you can also get it from wild game such as bear meat and even venison).

Eating beef in America has been a tradition since the Spanish colonists invented modern cattle ranching 500 years ago—and even further back than that if you consider the role of that close bovine relative, the buffalo and its role in the diet and lifestyle of Indians living on the Great Plains. Beef is not normally associated with serious diseases if raised and prepared properly. In the old days, when beef was raised by your local farmer or rancher and butchered, packaged and sold locally, it was rarely a problem. Of course, it cost a lot more to eat beef in those days, but most families were still able to enjoy it once or twice a month.

Then came the industrial meat packing industry. Infections and deaths from tainted meat is nothing new—most U.S. casualties during the Spanish-American War were due to tainted meat sold to the Army by the Armour Meat Company (some real patriotism there, I tell you), and the industry in general was exposed by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 novel, The Jungle. The novel had such an impact that it led to the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which forced the industry to clean up its act. This law was amended sixty-one years later with the Wholesome Meat Act of 1967,which required the USDA to inspect all livestock to be slaughtered for human consumption.

For a long time, you didn't hear a lot about e-coli. Then, starting in the 1990s, after years of budget cuts and deregulation that gave big corporations a free hand to do what they liked, it seemed that e-coli from tainted beef was in the news every month. One of the most recent victims was a 22-year-old former dancer from Minnesota. Stephanie Smith contracted e-coli in 2007 after eating a tainted hamburger. After a nine-week coma, she awoke to find herself paralyzed.

Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old former dancer from Minnesota, was paralyzed after eating a tainted hamburger and contracting e-coli. The Sunday New York Times of October 4, 2009 reported: ‘The frozen hamburgers that the Smiths ate, which were made by the food giant Cargill, were labeled ‘American Chef's Selection Angus Beef Patties.’ Yet confidential grinding logs and other Cargill records show that the hamburgers were made from a mix of slaughterhouse trimmings and a mash-like product derived from scraps that were ground together at a plant in Wisconsin. The ingredients came from slaughterhouses in Nebraska, Texas and Uruguay, and from a South Dakota company that processes fatty trimmings and treats them with ammonia to kill bacteria.

‘Using a combination of sources—a practice followed by most large producers of fresh and packaged hamburger—allowed Cargill to spend about 25 percent less than it would have for cuts of whole meat.

‘Those low-grade ingredients are cut from areas of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli, industry research shows. Yet Cargill, like most meat companies, relies on its suppliers to check for the bacteria and does its own testing only after the ingredients are ground together.’

In early May, it was announced that Cargill had reached a settlement with Ms. Smith's lawyers. While Cargill "accepts responsibility" (what a concept!), it's likely that, in keeping with the corporate mentality, they consider Ms. Smith's plight simply part of the cost of doing business.

Would stronger rules and regulations have prevented this, and similar tragedies? Possibly. A lot of people are justifiably angry at government today, but for the wrong reasons. I see most of government as being guilty of sins of omission; the people we vote for and hire to look out for our interests are sleeping on the job. They spend a lot of time, money and resources going after ordinary little folks like Farmer Allgyer (see the post below on “When Worlds Collide”), but seem all too willing to look the other way when huge corporate agricultural firms behave recklessly.

Looks like we're going to have to save ourselves, folks. Getting regionally raised beef at the local farmer's market costs more, but in terms of taste, quality and safety, there's no comparison. And yes I know, even local meat is still frequently processed through the big slaughterhouses and meat packing plants that are supposedly watched over by the USDA.  It’s not a full solution, but it’s a step in the right direction.

It pays to know where your food is coming from.
Posted on May 17, 2010 at Alex Tiller's blog,


When Worlds Collide

I'm not talking about an interplanetary catastrophe such as was depicted in the 1951 science fiction film (with a remake scheduled for release sometime in 2012). Rather, I'm talking about when the old collides with the new—when ancient traditions collide with modern reality—and individual rights collide with public safety concerns (or government intrusion—take your pick).

One morning in April at 5 a.m., agents of the federal government suddenly descended on the dairy farm of one Dan Allgyer of Kinzers, Pennsylvania, for a "routine inspection." (Admittedly, dairy farmers are up and at their jobs by that time of day, but it hardly constitutes "normal business hours.")

The next day, Farmer Allgyer received a stern written warning from the Philadelphia field office of the Department of Health and Human Services: stop selling raw milk across state lines, or your farm and its products will be seized and we will shut you down.

A few months earlier, federal agents trespassed on Allgyer's private property and demanded that he submit to inspections because he had cows—and therefore was producing "food for human consumption."

Here's the rub: Farmer Allgyer is Amish. If you know anything about this sect, you know that the Amish pretty much reject any kind of industrial technology. Although they have had to make small concessions over the decades, the Amish have done a pretty remarkable job of maintaining their old traditions. Furthermore, Amish farm communities are starting to serve as a model for the kind of small-scale, localized agriculture that built this country—and that most of us would like to see brought back.

Besides, people from the Middle East, Europe and North America have been drinking raw milk for centuries, and the majority are no worse off for it. There is even some evidence that raw milk can have some health benefits for certain individuals (see my recent post on "A Dairy Good Idea?").

But let me play devil's advocate here and suggest that maybe raw milk is not a good idea for some people, such as those with compromised immune systems. Farmer Allgyer wasn't hiding anything; his customers were well aware that they were purchasing raw, unpasteurized milk, and presumably were willing to assume the risks that came with drinking it.

It's interesting how the folks in D.C. who are advocating for "small government" are really advocating it for mega firms like ADM, Monsanto and Con-Agra (who really need to be reigned in by responsible elected officials)—but when it comes to the small independent farmers like Farmer Allgyer, that government seems to be getting bigger and more intrusive every day.

What do you think?
Posted on May 03, 2010 at


Hello, and thanks for checking out my blog.  My name is Alex Tiller and I grew up in rural Ohio (Clark County) where my family still owns farmland (corn and beans). I am a member of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers and am also an agribusiness author/blogger. I write about commercial farming, family farms, organic food production, sustainable agriculture, the local food movement, alternative renewable energy, hydroponics, agribusiness, farm entrepreneurship, and farm economics and farm policy. I visit lots of farms in different areas of the country (sometimes the world) that grow all kinds of different crops and share what I learn with you through this blog.
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