The Center of My Plate
By Lisa M. Keefe, editor of Meatingplace in Print. (The views and opinions expressed in this blog are strictly those of the author.)
Headlines across the country fairly leapt out at readers:
- “Illinois slaughterhouse biggest nitrogen polluter of waterways in U.S.” (Chicago Tribune)
- “Del., Pa. slaughterhouses illegally dumping wastewater, pollution report finds” (WHYY, Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del.)
- “Sussex County chicken plants highlighted in water pollution report” (Wilmington News-Journal)
And why not? The Environmental Integrity Project’s October report is catnip for journalists: “Water Pollution from Slaughterhouses: Three Quarters of U.S. Meat Processing Plants that Discharge into Waterways Violated their Permits, 2016-2018.” In it, the organization analyzes public EPA records on chemical discharges from slaughterhouses nationwide. Nitrogen especially is of concern because there’s plenty of it in livestock waste and it contributes to dead zones in otherwise rich habitats like the Gulf of Mexico.
The media coverage, and the report, are careful to note that the slaughterhouses rarely violated legal limits. The report is not blowing the whistle on illegal discharges. Rather, the group calls for greater regulatory oversight at local, state and national levels, and smaller allowances for the meat packing industry in general.
The industry would be better off if the report had focused on violations of permitted effluent amounts. By raising concerns over an existing policy or law, the group is looking for changes that would have consequences far beyond those who do break the law. Companies with nary a black mark could incur thousands, or millions, in additional compliance costs.
Consider these other examples, cited by Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity and President of Look East, in his newly released book, “Size Matters: Why we love to hate big food”:
- The ban on slaughtering downer cows for human consumption — a result of the Hallmark Westland case — is estimated to cost one farmer in Greenville, Wis., $3,000 to $8,000 a year. Industry-wide the price tag is about $1.9 million in lost cattle sales annually.
- The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), spurred on in part by the salmonella deaths caused by tainted food from Peanut Corp. of America, costs U.S. fruit and vegetable growers between $13,000 to $30,000 a year.
- Despite fees charged to food manufacturers and importers to underwrite the FSMA’s cost, the legislation is expected to cost the government — er, taxpayers — a net of $2.2 billion over five years.
Arnot notes that decades of disappointments in the institutions and organizations that underpinned American society in the 20th century have created a deep distrust of large companies. In the wake of historic levels of consolidation in the meat industry, meat companies are some of the biggest in the world. The level of consumer distrust seems about the same.
So while it may seem like the EIP in its report takes potshots at companies that didn’t actually break the law, the issue is much larger than that one report. Better wastewater technologies are available, better disposal methods are being used in places, companies that are in violation don’t always have to aggressively negotiate a lower fine, or no fine at all. In this and so many other day-to-day operating decisions, companies can seek to rebuild consumers’ trust themselves. Or, they can pay the government’s price for providing it.