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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Farm and Consumer Friendly Program in Trouble

Buy Local RI Campaign Needs State Help
By Frank Carini,

The Department of Health (DOH) is the latest state agency/institution to punch a hole in Rhode Island’s paper-thin Buy Local campaign.

DOH officials recently issued a blanket restriction of meat and poultry sales to Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Market Mobile. This decision basically means the DOH is prohibiting any meat that goes back to a local farm after appropriate processing at USDA-certified facilities from entering the wholesale chain without a wholesale license.

It’s a rigid enforcement of the law, and one that needs to be amended to better support Rhode Island’s local food industry. The state’s food safety and inspection services are the same ones mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is fine, except Rhode Island doesn’t have the same livestock production facilities as, say, feedlot pig farmers in North Carolina or concentrated animal feeding operations in the Midwest.

Rhode Island has a much smaller livestock footprint than most of the country, and laws written to better protect the public from large, polluting factory farms in Texas don’t necessarily work in the Biggest Little. There needs to be some flexibility. Small, non-industrialized operations in Rhode Island don’t produce the same large-scale health risks as Big Ag. They shouldn’t have to cut through the same red tape.

Rhode Island restaurants buying meat and poultry from the local livestock industry through a local distributor isn’t a public health crisis set to explode. It shouldn't be governed as if it is. The healthier and safer option isn’t buying bulked-up beef, pork and poultry manufactured on factory farms hundreds of miles away and delivered by tractor-trailer.

The Buy Local RI mission is to “build a strong economy and vibrant community by promoting locally owned independent businesses, strengthening our state’s merchant and commercial associations, and providing a unified public resource where businesses and individuals can find and connect to local products and services.”

While many Rhode Islanders, small-business owners and local farmers work to make this vision an important reality, elected officials and state agencies frequently ignore their campaign promises, the press releases they write, the websites they have built and the proclamations they make.

For example, in 2004, the General Assembly dubbed Yacht Club Soda as “Rhode Island’s Official Soda.” In fiscal 2011, legislators spent $24,000 of taxpayer money to buy soft drinks from corporate giant Coca-Cola. They didn’t spend a cent of taxpayer money on soda from the local bottler in North Providence.
Yet, Buy Local RI’s Facebook page features a photo of Yacht Club Soda bottles.

The Department of Health’s recent decision seems like nothing more than bureaucratic nitpicking, and trying to get an explanation from DOH officials for what seems like regulations in need of tweaking is like asking Vinnie Barbarino why he didn’t do his homework.

Corners shouldn’t be cut when it comes to protecting the public’s health and the food we eat, and nobody involved in this situation should endorse lax regulations. We also shouldn’t wait for an illness outbreak or a public health scare before deciding to better regulate local meat and poultry.

But it’s also discouraging to see a growing business concept built around locally sourced foods hindered because of fear, lack of DOH staffing and resources, or, worse, to pacify the greedy feedlot industry that has nothing invested locally and brings with it a massive carbon footprint. It's frustrating to watch everyone else involved in this important issue working to make it happen while state officials stand their ground on the sideline with their fingers in their ears.

Local chefs and farmers care more about our well-being and local economy than the industry that injects cattle, hogs, chickens and turkeys with growth hormones and antibiotics, fills burger meat with ammonia-bathed “pink slime” and treats animals disturbingly cruelly.

Local restaurants and livestock raisers know their survival depends on the quality of their products. These local entrepreneurs realize that all it takes is one food-borne illness resulting from the consumption of locally raised meat to thwart Rhode Island's growing local food movement.

Instead of stalling this movement’s momentum, the state should be doing a much better job of actually embracing it.

Frank Carini is the executive director of ecoRI News.