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General News    H4'ed 5/29/20

Even As Covid-based Meat Crisis Leads to Shortages, USDA Focuses on Crushing a Small Meat-Producing Farm

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Amos Miller, the Pennsylvania Amish farmer who has been trying to work through a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) court action against his farm for four years now, is normally a soft-spoken philosophical man. But he gets nearly agitated when asked about recent USDA meat inspections at his farm. "They want everyone to obey the letter of the law, and then they don't do it. I think it is high time they start walking the same line."

"Walking the same line," to Miller, means in this period of meat industry upheaval more than 15,000 Covid-19 infections among workers at corporate meat plants around the countryabiding by safety, social distancing, and mask protocols. Here is what Miller said in a recent newsletter to the many hundreds of members of food clubs he supplies around the country:

"USDA investigator Paul Flanagan has been visiting the farm quite often the past several months with no disposable boots on, etc. So, one day we reminded him of that. He checked his vehicle and couldn't find any. Then he left and now Miller's Organic Farm is being fined $2,500.00 for not allowing them access to the facilities at that time. Yes! These are the things us farmers are dealing with out here."

There's more, and it's even more disturbing: "Recently, since the pandemic, he was here, walked right into the office with no social distancing, no mask, no boots, etc. Is this the way of putting our farm at risk with what the large processing meat facilities are experiencing?"

Miller's concern is understandable. No one knows which, if any, coronavirus-contaminated meat plants Flanagan visited prior to barging in on Miller's farm, what viruses he was carrying on his boots or breathing onto the workers at Miller's. The president has ordered meat plants to continue operating, despite protests from workers that they are being placed at undue risk of illness from Covid-19. The CDC has provided guidelines for improving safety for the workers, like spacing them apart, but there have been many complaints that they aren't provided with essential protective equipment and clothing. Miller understandably wants not even the slightest connection to such mass sickness and contamination.

I contacted the USDA for comment last Thursday, and spoke with a public information official with the FSIS (Food Safety and Inspection Service). He promised to get back to me by the end of business last Friday. I figured he'd follow through, and tell me that as far as he knew, Flanagan and all USDA inspectors were following social distancing and mask protocols as recommended by the CDC.

The USDA official didn't get back, even after I left a message reminding him of his commitment to provide comment. Why not? We can only speculate. One thought that crossed my mind is that possibly USDA inspectors are following the highly questionable safety model of their boss, the president, who refuses to wear a mask in his public appearances with other people, and taunts those who do as being "politically correct." If he doesn't, why should his subordinates in the federal bureaucracy, like meat inspectors?

While the USDA launched its current effort against Miller four years ago, it added legal heft a year ago when the U.S. Justice Department filed suit against the farm, accusing it of trying "to hide behind a private-membership-association structure in an effort to thwart federal laws." Food clubs have become increasingly popular over the last decade as a way to provide ordinary people with healthy food produced by small farms, outside the corporate commodity system. Ostensibly, the USDA wanted Miller to send his farm's cattle, chickens, and other animals for slaughter in USDA-inspected slaughterhouses; his farm's animals have long been slaughtered on the farm, and butchered by Mennonite butchers with extensive experience. There's never been a report of illness or bad meat from the farm.

The case has been overseen by a federal judge who, while he has generally acceded to USDA requests, has tried to steer Miller toward settling amicably with the agency. And in recent months, it seemed as if the case might be heading toward a peaceful agreement; Miller filed for a USDA custom exemption last year, whereby he can provide meat to members as owners of the animals, and the judge earlier this year allowed Miller to sell to members hundreds of pounds of frozen meat the agency had impounded.

But USDA regulatory pressure in the form of aggressive inspections has continued unabated; early this year, the USDA inspector Paul Flanagan, who has been involved in the case since the beginning, began showing up every two weeks, according to Miller. When one of Miller's workers requested that the inspector wear safety booties before coming into the main farm building, he responded that he didn't have any along, and left. Shortly after, Miller was fined $2,500 for refusing an inspection.

Then, in early May, during the height of the pandemic, Flanagan showed up again, this time not only without booties, but without a face mask, and walked into the main building, surprising, and alarming, Miller's workers (Miller wasn't present). "They told me he walked right in. There was no social distancing or mask. My staff was not very comfortable."

What makes the USDA affronts even more upsetting to Miller is that, like many small farm meat producers, he's been inundated with new prospective members desperate for good food in the wake of the corporate system's near-collapse over the last few months. He figures he's turned away more than 100 individuals who wanted to sign up as members, and receive his farm's meat and other foods, in part because of uncertainty about his own meat supply amid USDA harassment.

He is pushing his members to contact their U.S. reps to complain about the abuses against his farm. He also encourages them to push for passage of the PRIME Act, which would allow for intrastate sale of custom-slaughtered meat, but that has been stalled in Congress.

For now, Miller is discouraged. "We've lost so many farms in our area over the last 18 years because of all these regulations"Small farms are waiting to supply people during these shortages." Miller understands that speaking out about USDA harassment and laxity on safety could inspire the agency to send in agents in hazmat suits and shut him down in reprisal, but he's at the end of his rope. "We have to stand up."

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David E. Gumpert is author of "Gouster Girl," a historical novel about white flight in 1960s Chicago, told through the eyes of a white teenager involved in an interracial romance. He is co-author of "Inge: A Girl's Journey Through Nazi Europe," (more...)

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