Farm to Table Food Safety
I've occasionally encountered a potential customer who is a little hesitant to buy direct from a farmer because they believe that there may be inadequate safeguards protecting them in comparison to grocery store meats. Actually, there are a very specific list of rules for farms who wish to sell direct to consumers. While you may occasionally see a rouge Facebook post from someone trying to skirt these rules, legitimate direct to consumer farms like us are monitored for compliance and held accountable.
How do I know if the meat I'm buying is safe?
The best place to look for information about the meat your buying is the label. The label provides you with a wealth of information about the product you're about to eat. Some of the important items you can find on the label include the following.
The labels will have the name and address of both the packager of the meat and the seller of the meat (if different): Accountability is an important aspect of food safety. Knowing who is responsible for the food you are buying from the butcher all the way to your hands is essential information.
The label will have a marked weight:
Since most meats are sold by weight, it is important to have reliable weights on packaging. Unless you are buying a bulk package, like a quarter beef or half hog, the weights of each package must be present.
The label will have a USDA stamp:
Meat that is sold by the package must be processed in a facility with a USDA inspector on site. This is (one of) the reasons I do not process my own animals. The cost to start a facility from scratch that meets the criteria is massive. (I've looked!) There are surprisingly few facilities in Kentucky with this ability, and we are fortunate to have a great relationship with our processors.
It is important to note that there are several non-USDA inspected facilities that operate as custom slaughterhouses. Custom slaughterhouses do not need to be USDA inspected as they are not technically selling meat. They provide butchering service for individuals who own their own animals. This 'loophole' is often used when farmers sell whole, half and quarter beef to customers. The customer is technically buying the live animal and paying the processor to process their newly acquired animal. This does not necessarily indicate the facility is unclean, unsafe or otherwise lower standard than a USDA facility. It only means that it is not visited by USDA inspectors and the animals are not inspected by said inspectors. Meat processed in this fashion will typically be marked 'not for sale'.
The label will have safe handling instructions and ingredients:
The safe handling instructions offer storage and cooking directions for the specific item and the ingredients list everything in the package. For basic cuts of meat there are very few ingredients, but there can be more for seasoned items like bratwurst or porkburgers.
The label will have a best by date:
Frozen meats are safe for a LONG TIME, but they can still degrade in quality over time. Consuming your products before the best by date ensures that the product will be of optimal quality. It is worth noting what dates on food packaging actually mean, as most consumers do not recognize the difference between best buy and use by.
If the packaging is marked 'best by', that means that the product is expected to have no discernible loss of quality if consumed before that date. It can be considered a guideline and is not related to food safety. Best by dates are typically found on frozen foods and dry goods.
If something in your refrigerator has a use by date, this indicates that the product is safe to use until that date but may contain harmful bacteria past that point. Use by dates are true expiration dates. Most refrigerated items and other perishables have use by dates.
In addition to the rules that guide the processing of our meat, there are additional rules that ensure that our product remains safe while in our care. We hold a permit from the Lincoln Trail Health Department to handle and sell our meats to consumers. We are subject to inspections from the health department just like the restaurants you visit. You've probably seen a percentage score posted near the door of a restaurant.
In the same way, the inspector will visit our facility to inspect our labels, storage methods and temperatures and issue a score for us to post. They take their jobs very seriously and can pull our permit if they find something out of compliance.
Above and beyond:
We like to keep our inspector happy, so we have instituted a few additional safety measures that help us make sure things are going well in our freezer. We store our products in a walk-in freezer with generator backup to ensure freezing capacity. We also store our products on shelves in boxes that are labeled by product and date. Aside from making it much more efficient to pack orders, it also prevents a product from getting 'lost' in the bottom of a freezer and inadvertently going past its date.
Finally, we have added live internet tracking of our freezer temperature and humidity. Not only can we prove to our inspector that we are storing meat at the proper temperature right now (which is the requirement), we can also prove that it has been at the right temperature for the past month (at least). Aside from tracking the temperature, our freezer sends us alerts concerning temperature, humidity and door open/close status. If anything gets out of our set parameters, we can quickly look into it and see if we have a problem. It definitely beats the old frozen quarter trick!
Our customers trust us to provide a product that is safe for them to feed their family. Hopefully this glimpse behind the scenes of farm to table food safety will make you feel even more at ease the next time you visit our freezer to pick up some of our beef or pork.