On Tuesday morning, Governor Gary Herbert spared one locally-raised turkey from becoming Thanksgiving dinner. But this is a story about a local poultry producer who is not allowed to sell any turkeys this year, because state regulators don’t approve of his methods.
McDowell Farms business is mostly conducted in front of a duplex in Salt Lake City, across the street from an LDS Church. This is where Danny and Shawnee McDowell sell eggs and meat raised on a farm with partners in Vernal. It’s usually a busy time, but this year, they have no poultry to sell. Their five-year-old daughter Saffron McDowell says they will be having pizza this year on Thanksgiving.
Danny McDowell says he and his wife started raising and selling poultry in 2010 for family and friends. Last year, they sold about 700 chickens and 200 turkeys, a drop in the bucket compared to the five million turkeys produced in Utah each year. But the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food informed the McDowells earlier this year that they have been selling poultry products unlawfully.
“They think our birds pose some sort of risk somewhere to someone, although our birds are cleaner and raised a lot healthier than anything you get from the big warehouse style raising of chickens or turkeys in the industrial model,” McDowell says.
He says he’s never received any customer complaints about his birds and as far as he knows, no one has gotten sick. But he says an undercover state agent contacted him by email, then came to their home to buy a bird last winter.
“They came into our house, pretending to be our friend and wanting to buy local, you know pastured poultry, and then proceeded to take that and put it under lockdown at the Utah Department of Ag as evidence,” McDowell says. "We've pretty much been treated like criminals."
Travis Waller, Director of Regulatory Services for the Department confirmed that his staff did conduct an undercover investigation.
“It’s not uncommon for us to go and make a purchase to see how their operation functions,” Waller says. “Sometimes people are not real forthright with accurate information.”
From the investigation, regulators determined that the McDowells were selling birds from their home that were not processed in a licensed facility and were not properly labeled. In this case, Waller says the state has no way of verifying the safety of the product.
“We have no idea where it’s coming from, and we have no idea what conditions that product was transported, if it was properly refrigerated, if it was in filthy conditions, and then we have no idea what the interior of the home looks like, if it’s stored in a conventional refrigerator, and other foods are dripping on it or it’s contaminating other foods,” Waller says.
Department of Agriculture officials told McDowell that if he wants to sell poultry, the birds must be slaughtered in a licensed, inspected facility. McDowell says a facility like that would cost at least $20,000, an investment which doesn’t make financial sense for his family when they’re only selling a few hundred birds a year. He thinks the state is over-reaching in its crackdown on small poultry producers.
“It just seems so ironic and smells of a little hypocrisy here in this state where we’re supposedly small government type folks, and yet we have this battle going on and we’re the bad guys and big state government are the good guys in this case,” McDowell says. “The sacrifice is all the people who want to just have an option for local food that’s raised a different way.”
“The regulations may seem cumbersome for the producers, but they’re there to protect public health,” says Larry Lewis, Public Information Officer for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. State meat inspection manager Noel McSpadden backs him up.
“There’s no way we can 100 percent guarantee the product is safe and wholesome unless we’re actually there to inspect it,” McSpadden says. He says when it comes to poultry, they’re most worried about salmonella and campylobacter, and with open-air slaughtering and processing, they cannot ensure that there will be no contamination.
Still, there’s a contingent of Utahns who think they should have the right to take that risk, like Josh Daniels with the Libertas Institute, a libertarian policy group.
“If you want to buy food, it’s your right to buy food,” Daniels says. “If you want to enter into a contract with a small producer and buy a specialty product that they produce, or an alternatively grown chicken, or pork or organic beef, or whatever it is, you ought to have that right. Those producers shouldn’t be held to large industrial safety standards when you know what you’re buying.”
Daniels and the Libertas Institute are pushing for a Food Freedom bill similar to one that was recently passed in Wyoming, so that farmers selling directly to consumers would not have to abide by the same safety standards. The Utah legislature is expected to take that up in next year’s general session.
In the meantime, Larry Lewis says the staff at the state agriculture department are not trying to stand in the way of small poultry farmers.
“The department is hearing the concerns of the small producer, and we’re doing what we can to accommodate them, but not to the point of endangering the public,” Lewis says.
As of Monday this week, the department issued a rule change that allows small poultry producers to share a processing facility. The news was a welcome surprise to Danny McDowell who says that will help mitigate the cost of compliance for him and others. But he says he’s still going to fight for a Food Freedom bill, because he doesn’t think the state should be involved at all with a small farmer selling directly to the consumer.