Beef, pork, lamb, tilapia fish and chile bratwurst can all be had at the Durango Farmers Market, but chicken? No such cluck.
Nutritionists urge consumers to eat less red meat, but buying locally raised poultry is strangely difficult in a town where so many chickens roost.Everybody and their grandma has a chicken in their backyard nowadays. Something needs to be done with those chickens when theyre done laying eggs. It would be nice if those chickens could service us at the end of their life as well, said Ian Chamberlain, manager of Sunnyside Meats.
Sunnyside is the only USDA-approved slaughterhouse in the region. But it cant harvest chickens because poultry cant be mixed with other kinds of meat for food-safety reasons.
The lack of a local processing facility for poultry boils down to reasons of economy and regulation, but not necessarily in that order.
Not to sound ironic, but is it the chicken or the egg? Are we going to have the processing plant before a chicken farm, or are we going to have a chicken farm before we can warrant inspected processing? Chamberlain said.
Judy Rohwer, a Cortez farmer, is frustrated by conflicting messages she gets from the government.I have a few butcher chickens right now for my own consumption, she said in an email. I believe there is a demand for these guys. People are tired of the government making them eat unhealthy foods. Amazing that you can legally buy marijuana but its illegal to buy a fresh butchered chicken from the farmer!
Eating farm-fresh chicken seems to be a delicacy reserved only for the not-so-squeamish those game enough to pluck and slaughter it themselves.Theres nothing that prevents you or I from purchasing an unslaughtered bird from a farmer, (but) its not something I would be comfortable with, said Jeff Lawrence, director of environmental health and sustainability at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Julie James Ott, who raises hens for the laying of eggs at James Ranch, said the consumer demand is high.
Wouldnt it be great to get meat chickens raised on pasture? The best food. (Chickens) out in the fresh air eating grass along with feed really does add to the health and the flavor of the meat, Ott said.
Chamberlain has chickens in his backyard for eggs.
That means I will never buy a carton of eggs from the store again. Once you have the real thing, you never want to go back.Ott raised butcher chickens on her farm many years ago when Colorado allowed inspection exemptions for producers of fewer than 20,000 chickens.
But Ott soon learned that butcher chickens, or those raised for their meat, did not adapt well to the local elevation.These chickens are selectively bred to grow quickly, becoming plump and slaughter-ready within nine to 11 weeks of birth.
In the mountains, the hybridized chickens would die two weeks before processing. Their hearts would give out, Ott said.
At the time, James Ranch had its own processing equipment.
For a farmer now to get chickens to the nearest processing center means crossing the Rockies, where at such elevations the stressed-out birds essentially explode, said Darrin Parmenter, La Plata County extension director.
Pitying the chickens compelled Ott to get out of the meat business.
It didnt feel ethically right to support the industry, she said.In isolated Durango, people dont always comprehend the magnitude and scale of the nations food industry, said Chamberlain, who has heard many complaints about the unavailability of chicken inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.A facility in Alabama is doing 100,000 chickens in a day. Our community could not support that in a year, but I get people with 10 chickens in their backyard saying We want inspection. They dont get it, he said.
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Many states such as Wyoming have their own meat inspectors to keep up with the demand, but Colorado never has had its own inspection program, Lawrence said.
So Colorado has the USDA to perform the inspections.The USDA allows for inspection exemptions for producers of fewer than 20,000 chickens, but Colorado requires all chickens that will be sold for meat consumption to be slaughtered under inspection, said state and federal officials.The best way we can ensure safety is to mandate the inspections regardless of the number of birds inspected, Lawrence said.Lawrence said food-borne illness hits one in six Americans each year and costs $60 billion. Having appropriate but not over-burdensome requirements protects the consumers.Raw chicken has a higher level of bacterial contamination like salmonella, he said. You can eat a steak rare as long as you sear the outside. You never do that with chicken. You cook it thoroughly. It inherently has bacteria.
Lawrence urged local producers to work with the USDA.
Any producer of birds could approach the USDA and say, We want this inspection, Lawrence said. Regardless of size, the USDA will provide inspection to them. It doesnt negate communities from getting (chicken) at all. It is available to them if they want it. All were ensuring is that the bird is processed in a way that wont pose an undue health risk.But Chamberlain said that it took Sunnyside nine months to arrange for a USDA inspection when the facility opened 10 years ago.Inspectors work on-site to make sure the slaughter and the processing of the meat are handled safely.
To comply with regulations, the USDA suggests that small producers form a cooperative and establish their own slaughter facility or contract with a facility that is inspected by the USDA.According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, the only two such facilities are located on the other side of the Rockies.
Many locals think the solution to Durangos problems of scale is to start a mobile slaughter unit that would travel from farm to farm accompanied by a USDA inspector.
Steve Bornmann, director of consumer services with the Colorado Department of Agriculture, was skeptical.You still have to have a brick-and-mortar processing facility to process what the mobile slaughter brings in, Bornmann said. It still has to be cut up under inspection and then packaged and wrapped. It is cheaper to haul the live animal to the slaughter plant than it is to drive the slaughter plant from place to place.But Chamberlain thinks there is such a demand for chicken that the poultry could be sold whole, making the processing or the slicing and dicing of the chicken into different parts unnecessary.
In the meantime, people still wonder what to do with their chickens.
Chickens that lay eggs usually are not very edible as meat, producers said.
Linda Illsley, owner of Lindas Local Foods Cafe, said many people offer her their chickens for free.I have people coming up, saying I have 100 chickens. Its yours. Do you want them? she said. They dont understand it has to be USDA (approved).