In Georgia, local birds may take scenic route to your plate

This is part one of a two-part article. Read part two here.
On his delivery runs around metro Atlanta, farmer Chad Carlton regularly encounters customers requesting pastured poultry to go with the pastured beef, pork and lamb that he raises on his farm near Rockmart. Carlton would love to be able to meet the demand. But the chaotic state of poultry inspection rules in Georgia makes it awfully hard for him to do that.

“The closest custom processor that will process those birds for me is in Bowling Green, Kentucky, about 6 1/2 hours away,” Carlton says. “The broilers are something I’d love to do more of, but I can’t make it feasible.”

State inspection rules have created a Catch-22 for Georgia farmers who want to process modest numbers of poultry. The source is a complex intersection of state and federal rules and non-rules that leave small-farm operators at best confused—and more often discouraged from raising and slaughtering chicken and turkeys for their meat.

Farmers processing fewer than 1,000 birds a year now have an option. The Georgia Department of Agriculture had planned to release by Memorial Day new guidelines clarifying its stance regarding on-farm slaughter of less than 1,000 birds a year. But farmers wishing to raise a few thousand birds a year—enough to make a bit of money, but not so many that the birds become a full-time operation—are effectively forced to truck their live birds over state lines to turn them into a salable product.

“The demand is just through the roof,” says Jennifer Owens, Georgia Organics advocacy director. Adds environmental attorney Kurt Ebersbach, “Whatever standards that are good enough for 1,000, should be good enough for 1,500, should be good enough for 2,000.”

Small-scale solution
The new under-1,000 guidelines make clear how farmers can legally sell small quantities of poultry. Farmers meeting certain requirements will be able to slaughter up to 1,000 birds per year on their own farms. They can sell the whole birds on site directly to consumers either frozen or fresh (within 48 hours of slaughter). They can also sell frozen birds directly to consumers at farmers markets, provided they have a mobile vehicle license. “That’s the way these folks selling grass-fed beef at farmers markets are going about it right now,” says Oscar Garrison, division director of consumer protection for the Georgia Department of Agriculture. “The reason these guidelines are being done is to clarify and to give them a registration process so we know who they are.” The guidelines do not permit the practice of “open-air” processing, requiring instead that farmers maintain a sanitary building.

The issuance meets a pledge that Gary Black, the state’s new agriculture commissioner, made during a speech at the Georgia Organics conference in Savannah in March. But for producers of more than 1,000 birds per year, local-food advocates say the ag department still has work to do.

Code confusion

Georgia is among 25 states that have given up their claim to a state-run poultry inspection program, instead opting to allow federally mandated poultry inspection to fall under USDA oversight. The USDA, in turn, sets different standards depending on the size of the operation. For processors of more than 20,000 birds per year, it requires that a USDA inspector approve each and every bird that comes off the assembly line. Producers of fewer than 20,000 birds a year are exempted from bird-by-bird inspection. (All producers must follow sanitary practices, however.)

Those laws have been on the books for a long time. But in 2003 the state, apparently in response to the avian flu scare, adopted regulations that negated the inspection exemption for producers of between 1,000 and 20,000 birds per year—in double-negative vernacular, that means it required bird-by-bird inspection. At the same time, it mandated that the Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture establish a state poultry inspection system to do that work.

Rex Holt, director of the meat inspection program with the Georgia Department of Agriculture and author of the 2003 language, says the purpose was to clarify and condense rules that already existed, in bits and pieces, in Georgia code, and to pave the way for a state-run poultry inspection system.
Here’s the rub: That inspection system has never been put in place. Although authorized to use funds from its meat inspection program, the Georgia Department of Agriculture has never created a poultry inspection program.
“The state has a program on paper but not in practice,” Ebersbach says. Holt says that the meat inspection program’s funding is not sufficient to also run a poultry inspection program.
The practical result is that small-farm operators have been trapped in a kind of no-man’s land. “USDA says you’re fine if you’re under 20,000 birds per year and don’t have bird-by-bird inspection, while Georgia law says,  ‘We don’t care if you’re under 20,000, anything over 1,000 requires inspection,’” Ebersbach says. “But GDA is failing to provide the required inspections. So people like Chad Carlton have three choices: Go across state lines, as Chad is doing; operate illegally; or stay out of the market altogether.”
Next week: Farmers’ options and what they mean to consumers.