As we move into the last two weeks of the 2017 Legislative Session, the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee (HAFC) is working on, among other things, S.9, and act relating to poultry processing, or what we fondly call the “Chicken Bill”, though it includes other poultry such as turkeys. Henceforth, I will refer to them as “birds”. S.9 is a chance to advance economic development opportunities for farmers and discuss food safety.
When I started chairing the HAFC nine years ago, our committee, at the time, developed two general principles for the work we would do. After a very good and lengthy discussion, we settled on our top choices – #1- food safety and #2 – economic opportunity for farmers. Those two have stuck with us all these years and have guided our discussion on S.9.
To give a little historical perspective, in 2006 the Legislature passed the original “Chicken Bill”, which allowed farmers to raise and process up to 1,000 birds per year without inspection. At that time, farmers could sell their uninspected birds only at farmers’ markets and from the farm to individual customers. The birds had to be sold whole, not cut into parts, within the State of Vermont. They had to be labeled with identifying information including the name of the farm and the producer, the address including zip code, and language saying “Exempt per 6 V.S.A. Sec. 3312(b): NOT INSPECTED. Additional language regarding safe handling and cooking instructions was required as well.
A year later, we allowed farmers to sell to restaurants licensed by the Department of Health, which continues to the present, but they have to meet certain requirements. In order to assure that the restaurant has knowledge that the birds are uninspected, we require the same label information mentioned above including the safe handling and cooking instructions.
Additionally, the menu must have language that says “poultry processed on the farm and not inspected”. This is a sort of “Buyer Beware” measure that is meant to protect the restaurant owner, farmer, and customer. Initially, there was concern that this would be like a “skull and crossbones” so there was some pushback. However, there was a realization that there is other verbiage on menus about consuming raw or undercooked eggs, seafood, etc., so this addition was, ultimately, not a big deal.
We also require that the poultry producer, when first selling birds to a restaurant, procure a signed statement indicating that the restaurant is aware that the poultry is exempt from inspection and that the menu must have the required language on it. The producer must keep that signed statement for as long as they are selling poultry to the restaurant and must have a similar statement from each restaurant they sell to.
Recently, it has come to our attention that a number of poultry producers are finding that their business is such that the 1,000 bird maximum is limiting. One farmer would like to expand his production so that he can bring his daughter into the business.
In response to that positive development, the Senate Agriculture Committee worked on S.9, which would create three levels of production, each with different requirements. The 1,000 bird exemption would remain exactly as it is now. The next level of exemption would allow farmers to produce up to 5,000 uninspected birds with some additional infrastructure and sanitary requirements and label approval by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. From 5,000 to 20,000 birds, the facility requirements and sanitary performance standards would be those of what is essentially federally required in an inspected facility. It should be noted that the federal government allows for the production of up to 20,000 uninspected birds.
This issue is a perfect example of the tension between food safety and economic opportunity for farmers. We want consumers to have confidence that their poultry is safe and unadulterated but we also want our farmers to prosper without undue expense. Some producers may balk at what is required in the 1,001-5,000 level but the increased potential for income might be an incentive to invest in some additional infrastructure improvements. We also know that the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets has a history of working with producers to find commonsense
solutions to problems.
One of the real concerns is Salmonella contamination. It is estimated that approximately one million foodborne illnesses are caused by Salmonella yearly in the U.S. For the vast majority of people, it is a matter of abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and fever 12 -72 hours after having been infected. No one enjoys this sort of experience but people generally get better after several days. However, an estimated 19,000 people need hospitalization and 380 die yearly from the illness so it can be very serious. All of this can be avoided, however, with proper handling, preparation, and cooking.
It is extremely important that poultry be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit and maintained for at least fifteen seconds. It is also important to remember that if you are handling the poultry on counters or in sinks, Salmonella can be present and get on to other things that you may be washing like vegetables. If you are cooking the vegetables to at least 165 degrees there is no problem but if it is lettuce or other produce for a salad, it could be.
What concerns me when we have these discussions about locally-produced uninspected poultry is that there seems to be the assumption that commercially-produced poultry processed in inspected plants is Salmonella-free. That is definitely not the case. Years ago, I remember an investigative report done by a Boston-based television station that revealed that a frighteningly high percentage of chickens bought at supermarkets were contaminated with Salmonella. I have been assured that the number has gone down but it is still significant. The point is that whether you buy your poultry from a supermarket or from your local farmer, you must handle and cook it properly.
What is clear from the testimony we took from all of our farmers was that each thought their chickens tasted the best! I can say that, as someone who raises chickens, I feel the same way – there is nothing like locally-produced or homegrown chicken to spoil you for anything else.