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Friday, September 08, 2006

Chicken Pizza & Civil Disobedience: Reclaiming our Food Sovereignty and the Right to Choose What We Eat - by Bob St.Peter

Reclaiming our Food Sovereignty and the Right to Choose What We Eat
This past June, George Schenk, founder and president of American Flatbread, announced his intent to defy Vermont authorities and serve chicken in his restaurant from a neighboring farm that lacked proper state certification. Even though the farm in question is permitted to sell chickens directly to consumers from their farm, they are not permitted to sell them to retail businesses because they do not have a state-sanctioned slaughtering facility. After being served an injunction and being informed that he risked contempt of court and the potential of losing his food license should he serve the contraband chicken, Schenk relented and hosted his "Chicken Event" without the birds in question.

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Interim Vermont Commissioner of Health Sharon Moffatt stated that "the regulations are there to protect the consumer entering into that restaurant and assuming the products have been fully inspected and are safe." But is the state of Vermont also inspecting the factory farms and slaughterhouses that supply meat to McDonald's, Wendy's, and very likely most restaurants and markets in the state? Factory farms that confine thousands of animals indoors 24/7 or in outdoor feedlots where they are forced to live in their own shit? Or slaughterhouses that kill and process upwards of 400 cows an hour, dramatically increasing the chance of severing bowels or intestines and contaminating the meat? Of course not, because most factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses are not located in Vermont and therefore outside their jurisdiction. For that they rely on the USDA, which is notoriously lax in its scrutiny and inspection of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses. According to the USDA's own estimation, 70% of food-borne illnesses in the country, affecting approximately 53 million people, are a result of contaminated meat.

Instead of focusing on the root causes of meat contamination, like unsanitary conditions and processing procedures that value speed over carefulness and reverence, the state of Vermont, like Maine, expends its time, energy, and money forcing small, independent and family farmers to conform to rules and regulations that tax them financially and physically. These rules and regulations often require small farms to increase the size of their operation in order to cover the costs of the state's required facilities, equipment, and licenses. "Why force us to do something which means we get bigger," says Connie Gaylord, the farmer who would have supplied the chicken to Schenk. "It's not feasible financially for us right now" to build a facility as required by the state.

"Why can't local just stay local? Why does everything have to come from far away," she asks. Gaylord, whose farm is literally across the road from American Flatbread, also points out that nobody has gotten sick from eating the chickens they raise and sell. If no one has gotten sick from the Gaylord's chicken, and the consumers are informed about the source of their food, then what's the problem? When did it become necessary to engage in what Schenk calls "entrepreneurial nonviolent civil disobedience" in order to express our right to choose where and from whom we buy our food? Is the state of Vermont acting in the best interest of its citizens, or is it just making it easier for multinational corporate agribusiness to push their factory farmed meat into local markets? If states like Maine and Vermont were making a concerted effort to regulate and restrict the free flow of industrially produced meat then they would have some credibility in their claims of protecting the public welfare. But they're not, so they don't.

Fundamentally, what is at issue here is our ability as consumers to choose what we eat. It is a question of personal and community sovereignty. If a restaurateur wishes to purchase food from a neighboring farm and notifies his or her patrons about where the food comes from, and if the patrons are able to visit the farm themselves, then no government claim of protection can supercede our rights as individuals and as a community to eat what we please. Also at issue here is the right of small-scale farmers and food producers to supply food to their community without unnecessary financial or physical burden. If a state requires a farm to build a slaughtering facility to state specifications, then the state should provide the money for the project, particularly if the reasons for such requirements are public health and safety. Vermont, as well as Maine, essentially require small-scale producers to finance their own expansion in order to access local retail markets, without first making the determination as to whether the product they wish to sell is in anyway unsafe. This is not unlike the conditional requirements imposed upon contract growers by agribusiness corporations. In both cases, the farmers or growers must conform not to their own standards, their community's needs, or their cultural practices, but to the demands of bureaucratic agencies that are not actually doing any of the work. And the farmer or grower has to foot the bill.

The standardization of our food system benefits those who can afford to meet the standards. It also benefits those who have the money and clout to influence legislation and regulations that favor their preferred method of production, in this case large-scale, industrialized, and capital intensive. It does not benefit those of us who desire to eat healthy local foods, support our neighbors, and keep our money in our own communities and out of the hands of those who would rather our rural way of life withered and died.

At the moment our choices about where to buy our food is limited by the number of independent local producers. High land prices, artificially low food prices, consumer ignorance, and unnecessary regulatory barriers make it very difficult for small-scale producers to compete with large-scale, industrialized producers. Change can happen, but it requires cooperation between consumers and producers who must work together to increase our capacity for producing and distributing food within our own communities. It also requires us to make a choice: Will we continue to allow regulators onto our small farms and into the kitchens and restaurants of informed consumers, or will we say enough and regain our food sovereignty?

Chicken, anyone?

Bob St.Peter is the founder of the Independent Food Project, a community action group committed to increasing production and consumption of local foods. He is also the current resident steward of the Good Life Center, the last hand-built homestead of Helen and Scott Nearing, located in Harborside, Maine. He can be reached at
Chicken Pizza & Civil Disobedience: Reclaiming our Food Sovereignty and the Right to Choose What We Eat


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