Why I Can’t Sell Meat

BBThisisnotmeatSticker copy

A number of years ago, when I first got into buying my meat farm-direct and butchering it myself, I had an interesting conversation with one of my farmers, when I asked why they didn’t just slaughter and butcher themselves (they were having a hard time finding a slot at a slaughterhouse for my order). She said that in Illinois not only can you not legally sell an animal you slaughtered (or butchered) yourself, you can’t even give it away.

I still haven’t been able to corroborate that “no gifting” rule, as, if I recall correctly, in Illinois hunters can donate the deer they kill and field dress to charity organizations (although there may well be some special rule that allows for that specific practice only). But clearly there are plenty of rules that pretty much prevent anyone small from being able to legally butcher and exchange money for meat.

One of the major impediments to a profitable life facing small farmers are the statutes in most (if not all) states against the sale of meat butchered on the premises due to a variety of one-size-fits-all rules and regulations (the fabulous Joel Salatin has done a lot of advocacy on this issue and still can only process chickens on his farm). Illinois (as a consummate nanny state) might be one of the worst offenders. Reading through, as one example, the IL Sanitary Food Preparation Act (410 ILCS 650), a few things clearly emerge that would prevent any small farm, much less an individual, from meeting the criteria. There are other regulations too (beyond just food-specific ones including business licenses, zoning regulations, etc.), but I’ll just highlight a bit from this statute for now.

(There is one fascinating exception written into the law. Small beekeepers producing honey are exempt from all the regulations (see Section 7). The bee-keepers’ lobbying group must be strong! But then again, beekeepers wear those scary looking suits, carry smoke puffers, and voluntarily walk into swarms of bees. I don’t think I’d want to mess with them either.)

Two particular highlights from ILCS 650:

From Section 3: “every building, room, basement or inclosure [sic] occupied or used for the preparation, manufacture, packing, storage, sale or distribution of food shall have an impermeable floor made of cement or tile laid in cement, brick, wood or other suitable material which can be flushed and washed clean with water.” [Now, I’m not saying something like carpet would be a good floor covering on which to butcher, but there are certainly plenty of other scenarios besides cement or tile, and flushing and washing clean with water isn’t the only way to properly clean a floor post-food prep.]

From Section 10: “It shall be unlawful for any employer to require, allow or permit any person who is affected with any communicable or sexually transmitted disease to work, or for any person so affected to work, in a building, room, basement, inclosure, premises or vehicle occupied or used for the production, preparation, manufacture, packing, storage, sale, distribution, or transportation of food.” [This is the one I’m going to research further to write about, because, you know, HIV or herpes or HPV, for example, are clearly food-borne illnesses and should prevent people from working. Right? No. Absolutely not.]

So, what’s an artist to do given these legal constraints? (For that matter, beyond small farmers who should have the right to self-butcher on site, the regulations prohibit, for example, a neighborhood food coop buying a whole animal and having a skilled member breakdown the animal into cuts to sell to others. It may even prohibit a group of friends going in on an animal together if only one of them is doing the butchery.) I think a lot about issues of risk and ethics (in fact I’m teaching a class called “Risk and Ethics in Performance” at SAIC next spring that covers food-borne illness risk, in addition to things like exposure to blood-borne pathogens, public nudity, civil disobedience), so I’ve given this a lot of thought both as to how to creatively circumvent these rules and allow people to determine their own risk level without government intervention.

The fear that drives the nanny-state laws to be one-size-fits-all, instead of making exception for individuals and small providers, stems from the question “but what if someone gets sick?”. When we get sick from food, we want to blame someone else. And often, blame can and should be placed (for example in clear-cut cases of negligence). From my perspective, as long as the consumer (or gift recipient) is aware of the circumstances of butchery, they can make an educated choice whether to buy from that provider or to use the gift. We all have our own levels of risk we’re willing to take. Sometimes people get inadverently sick. Life happens. Would you sue your neighbors if they invited you to a dinner party and unintentionally gave you food poisoning?

I’ll give an example from the non-meat world as to how ridiculous regulations agaist gifting self-butchered meat are (people tend to have a particularly weak fear threshhold for meat items, due to media hype over mass, industrially produced food-poisoning incidents). I have received plenty of jars of homemade canned items over the years, some of which I know have a pathogen risk (being low-acid and thus at risk for botulism, which in my mind is a far scarier risk than something like E. coli). Given this, if I don’t know anything about the person’s food preparation background, I’ll gently ask what cannning method the person used. If such items were pressure canned, I’ll happily consume the contents. However, if water-bath canned, I’ll graciously accept the gift, but won’t use it—too risky in my mind. How many people use gifts of home-canned food without ever considering the circumstances of production? The gifting of jars of preserves is not banned by law (at least as far as I know…in Illinois, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was!).

People who take on projects like home canning and home butchery, from my experience, have really done their homework (I’ve never asked about canning procedures and gotten the wrong answer). No one wants to get anyone sick. Small farmers and small butchers can’t risk their reputations by getting people sick—so they have to take extra precautions. They also don’t have the profit margin to absorb the losses, like the giant, unethical, commercial-industrial producers.

For thousands and thousands of years people have been butchering meat under conditions quite different from what the IDPH (and the USDA) specify. And they’ve been fine. There are unwritten rules that need to be followed. Meat can only sit out at room temperature for so long before problems start. (You’d be surprised how long that is—I know I was surprised when I started reading butchery and food science books and articles. How many of you have traveled outside of the first world and seen animal carcasses hanging outside butcher shops all day? Believe it or not, that’s totally ok, because those animals were almost definitely slaughtered that morning.) Meat raised under proper conditions (or wild, hunted meat) does not have the same pathogen risk as animals in CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations). With the advent of things like ice and refrigeration and soap and bleach, risk can be virtually eliminated.

So…how, as an activist, can I work within our fear-based, nanny-state system that prohibits me from butchering meat and selling it (or even giving it away). Well…I can transform it into “not meat”. I can transform it into art. Thus the “This is not meat, this is art!” labels were born. I am clearly labeling my artistic product as not meat. The person who voluntarily takes (or, through the Indie Go Go campaign, signs up for) a meat gift knows the circumstances of the artwork’s creation. If he or she decides to eat it, than that’s his or her decision. There are no laws against, for example, buying a million-dollar painting, then cutting it up into tiny pieces and eating it. You, as meat-art recipient, may do what you will with your gift!


One thought on “Why I Can’t Sell Meat

  1. Meg

    I wonder how even large corporations can fully comply with Section 10- that seems impossible to enforce unless every person was given a full screening every day, and no one can do that.


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