Government regulations keep locally raised chicken sales from taking flight
Shayn Bowler, the owner of Utah Natural Meat in West Jordan, raises and butchers 5,000 chickens and 500 turkeys each year, selling them to customers hungry for local, all-natural meat.
Three other farms too small to have poultry processing plants of their own have relied on Bowler's government-approved facility to also get their birds slaughtered and prepped for resale to consumers.
It's an arrangement that has worked well for more than two years and initially had the approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But recently, Utah meat inspectors began looking into the regulations and decided to reverse approval. Now, Bowler can process birds only from his farm, not others.
The decision while based on safety concerns leaves the small farmers and their customers in a lurch. Unless they spend thousands of dollars to build their own processing plant, there is no legal way for them to sell their chickens.
The decision comes at a time when more and more consumers seek out products made from animals that have been humanely raised and not given additional hormones or unnecessary antibiotics.
"It's very discouraging," said Julie Clifford, owner of Provo's Clifford Family Farm, who had more than 200 chickens processed by Utah Natural Meat last year. A similar number of chickens were processed from the Christiansen Family Farms in Vernon and the McDowell Family Farm in Wanship.
"I really should have never been allowed to do it," said a disappointed Bowler, whose farm also raises and sells beef, pork and lamb as well as eggs and milk.
Bowler speaks for all the small farmers involved when he says he is frustrated by the regulations that seemingly keep small farmers from thriving.
"It's hurting our economy," he said. "More and more people desire something raised locally that's clean and natural, and there are farmers who want to give it to them. But because of the law and regulations, there are no other options."
Safety concerns • The situation isn't lost on state agriculture officials. "It's a problem we have with urban chicken farmers," explained Noel McSpadden, manager of Utah's meat inspection program. "They have nowhere in Utah to harvest their birds."
McSpadden said Utah Natural Meat is allowed to process poultry through a small-farmer exemption of the Federal Meat Inspection Act. Under the exemption, Bowler can process up to 20,000 birds that he raises each year. He is able to sell those birds to consumers who come to his farm as well as to restaurants and grocery stores.
Bowler could decide to operate under a different federal exemption, which would allow him to buy the birds from other farms. But the farmer would have to first make costly changes to his facility, and it would limit who could buy the ready-to-cook birds.
"When you look at the numbers versus the outcome, it's probably not economically feasible," McSpadden said.
Keeping chickens from different farms separate is a public safety measure, McSpadden explained. A farmer knows what his or her birds have been fed and their lifelong health conditions. They may not always know the healthy factors at other farms. And it's that unknown health risk that could ultimately cause an outbreak and a product recall, he said. "The regulation is really there to protect the public."
A matter of choice • While the regulations are black and white, Gwen Crist, a leader with Slow Food Utah, wishes there were "a gray area" that would meet state and federal health and safety guidelines but still create more poultry choices for those seeking local, all-natural products.
"You go to the farmers market and there's local beef, pork and lamb, but getting chicken has been challenging," she said, adding that similar processing dilemmas are taking place in communities around the country.
"It's not uncommon," she said, pointing to a Jan. 20 article in The New York Times about the increased demand for humanely raised pork and the lack of slaughterhouses available for processing.
It's likely to continue as more and more people seek out locally produced foods, Crist said. "It's not just a fad."
In fact, state agriculture officials and farmers believe that if there were more demand, small farms may find it financially feasible to band together and build processing facilities.
Until then, "there should be room in the middle for some type of system for these small producers," Bowler said. "It can be done in a healthy fashion that's safe for consumers."