A small win plus a new battle for small farms.

posted on

July 9, 2024

I know you value farm fresh food and care about the fate of small family farms, like ours.

After all, that’s why you’re here with us – opting out of the questionable industrial food complex.

And part of defending small farms is understanding the issues facing the local food movement.

Of course the overarching issues are complex, vast and ongoing, but recently two regulation updates have happened that are of interest.

These are: the USDA’s “Product of the USA” Final Rule and the USDA’s RFID Tag Updated Animal Identification Rules.

Spoiler alert – you don’t have to worry too much. Neither of these regulations will make-or-break One Straw Ranch’s current ability to bring you farm fresh meat. You won’t get fear-mongering from me.

But with food regulations there is always a trickle-down effect, and I know so many of our customers, like you, want to stay informed.

And also to hear about things from a farm perspective, rather than that of whatever interest group is behind the media releases.

I have to say, when I read about farm regulatory news like this, I usually have one of several reactions:

Shake my head, roll my eyes, heave a deep sigh of frustration, take a calming breath of problem-solving preparation, or utter an appalled exclamation of horror.

I invite you to read about the new regulations and then decide for yourself which is appropriate. LOL.

At the bottom there is even a call to action if you want to directly help us protect small farms.

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First up – the USDA’s “Product of the USA” Final Rule, dated March 11, 2024.

This is the regulation I’m denoting a “win.” But honestly, I’m having a hard time phrasing it as such.

Basically, it’s a regulation stopping meat packers from lying to consumers about where their meat is coming from.

Is that a win? I guess so.  But I struggle to give the USDA a pat on the back for stopping fraud they’ve known was happening all along and should never have let happen in the first place.

Anyway…

As you are a One Straw Ranch customer, you have likely, at some point, perused our guidebook to understanding the different meat labels on grocery store meat: 5 Meat Labels Demystified. Click this link if you want to download a new PDF copy.

This new USDA ruling applies to Meat Label #1 – Product of the USA. In the guide we explain the previous policy that allowed meat to bear a Product of the USA label as long as it passes through a USDA inspected plant. That means that a piece of beef from a cow grown anywhere in the world, under any conditions, can be shipped to the USA in a box, and as long as it was re-packaged in the US it could bear that label.

Good grief. Is that really what you expect to get when you see Product of the USA?

In explanation of the new ruling, the USDA cited growing consumer mistrust of the food system. Hmmmm. I wonder why… (I hope you've got an umbrella to shed my dripping sarcasm ;)

Now, I’m not usually a fan of extra regulations, mostly because they rarely, if ever, benefit real food and small farms. But the Product of USA label has been an outright deception to the consumer and a detriment to small farms who are actually raising beef on US soil. I know when I’m shopping (not for meat, obviously) I look for that logo. It gives me some confidence that the production practices had at least a degree of oversite regarding the human, environmental and social costs of manufacturing. 

Does this affect us directly, or the food you buy from us? No.

The Product of the USA label is a voluntary label. And you know we don’t use labels because we don’t need them. We know you, and you know us. Through weekly emails and direct conversations, we personally and transparently communicate our production practices to you more clearly than any label. But I am glad that this deception will no longer be practiced on those who don’t have a farmer they trust and can buy from directly.

But buyer beware. Establishments are not required to comply with the new regulatory requirements until 1/1/26. So in about a year a half, if you see that label you’ll know the animal was actually born, raised, slaughtered and processed in the USA.

Unless of course the USDA changes its mind again before then… A little bit of history:

Way back in 2008, a regulation was passed in the Farm Bill called Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling or MCOOL. You know that package of cashews you just picked up at the store? Somewhere on the package it will tell you what country the nuts came from. Same with pretty much any other food product you can buy. Well, MCOOL was supposed to do that for meat which was otherwise excluded from country of origin rules. Makes sense that meat would be treated the same as any other food.

However Congress quickly repealed MCOOL, ostensibly because the World Trade Organization said it violated some sort of trade tariff that I can’t even begin to parse out as an explanation.

But it seems like the multi-national mega meat packers were pretty happy to have MCOOL repealed, too. I would like to imagine that things would shake up a bit if that bargain steak at the grocery store had a big ol’ Product of Brazil stamp on it (or pick your favorite rainforest denuding country).

Regardless, we ended up in a place where for nearly a decade the Product of the USA label meant less than nothing – and consumers didn’t know it. Going forward, you may still not know where the grocery store meat comes from. But at least you won’t think it comes from the US if it doesn’t. Stay tuned for further developments on that front.

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Second, a new battle for small farms – USDA/APHIS Updated Animal Identification Rules dated 4/26/24.

It requires that cattle and bison moving between states must now be tagged with Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tags.

Interstate movement of cattle is already being tracked by APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) for animal disease traceability regulations, but to this point farmers were allowed to use plain ear tags.

What is boils down to is more expensive tags, plus the equipment and facilities to read them, and a whole lot more hassle – but only for small to medium sized farms. Because the big feedlots get a lovely loophole. They are exempt from tagging each animal and can use one RFID for a whole huge group of cattle that stays together (which is what happens in CAFO situations).

To clarify, RFID tags on live cattle do nothing to increase food safety, because all ear tags are removed at time of slaughter and once into the system the meat is not traceable back to ID numbers. (In a package of grocery store ground beef there is, on average, bits of 700 different cows.)

This issue of RFID tags has been coming up for years, and small farms and advocacy groups have fought it each and every time. In addition to the increased costs to small farms and the loophole for the big companies, the USDA’s other motives are questionable in their benefit.

I’ve heard RFID tags called a solution looking for a problem.

Call me a skeptic. All I can say is that when the multi-national mega meat packers and the ear tag manufacturers are so excited about it, I’m prone to be suspicious of the actual motives.

This suspicion is not assuaged by the USDA press release’s emphasis that the most important benefit is to the export market.

Does this new ruling affect us directly, or the food you buy from us? Not very often.

The rule is only about moving animals between states – mostly dairy cows, breeding cows, and show stock. Since we’re in the business of raising beef, not selling live breeding animals, we are mostly exempt (for now).  

But perhaps you remember meeting our herd bull, Fender? He came from Oregon, from a breeder we’ve worked with several times. And we have to get new bulls and breeding stock every couple years. When that time comes, we’ll have to figure out the whole RFID ear tag thing because there simply aren’t that many breeders in our state. Or we can stay in-state and drastically limit our access to genetic diversity, which promotes resilience.

So it’s a pending irritation for our farm at the moment. But a HUGE problem for so many small farms across the country. Imagine the problems for dairies or farms whose business is in selling breeding stock, or taking their animals to shows/fairs, or who simply live near a state line and want to do business with their neighbor.

I also worry that once the USDA has bulldozed the tags into place for dairy, breeding and show stock, beef cattle are not far behind. Things just keep getting harder and harder for small farms.

Because the fact is, we already have animal disease traceability system plan to track disease, and according to advocacy groups, like the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, the USDA hasn’t provided any data to show the new tags will significantly increase traceback of disease. According to the same advocacy groups, there has been no accurate economic analysis proving the benefit.

There is such widespread rebellion in the US cattle world against RFID tags that the USDA is ear tagging (haha, appropriate wording) $15M of taxpayer money for electronic tags and infrastructure to stimulate compliance.

The outcry from cattle ranchers and farmers is so great, that there are already two measures being promoted to counteract the RFID tag regulation. Normally when new regs come down on small farms we just have to grin and bear it, so the fact that countermeasures have been enacted so quickly is insightful.  

You can help by calling your senators and representatives and asking them to support both the pending solutions:

1. Rep. Hageman and Sen. Lummis Joint Resolution

    Rep. Harriet Hageman (R - WY) and Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R - WY) introduced a resolution pursuant to the Congressional Review Act that would nullify the new APHIS rule.

    2. Sen. Rounds Bill

      On May 9, 2024, Sen. Mike Rounds (R - S.D.) introduced a simple bill (S. 4282) to that would prevent APHIS from implementing the rule. The bill reads, "The Secretary of Agriculture shall not implement any rule or regulation requiring the mandatory use of electronic identification ear tags on cattle or bison.”

      Representative Derek Kilmer 202-225-5916

      Senator Maria Cantwell 202-224-3441

      Senator Patty Murray 202-224-2621

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