I guess it is the driving motivations of the commercial meat industry that I am curious about. I fully understand that a business has to profitable to exist--(government bailouts notwithstanding); but it is very popular right now in the "local food movement"--(not that there is anything wrong with supporting the local food economy)--to paint the commercial meat industry as solely concerned with maximizing profit...so much so that the health of the consumers and animals be damned, all in the name of profit.
At an intellectual level, that viewpoint makes little sense to me, because if you inherently sacrifice your business inputs and the outputs utilized by customers, you are dooming the business to eventual failure. However, I have also been exposed to the contrarian emotional-side of the argument--("all commercial animal products are evil because of the big, bad corporations")--and thus, I am intrigued by your experience in the industry: was there a singular focus on maximizing profit; or was there a more balanced approach, integrating profit goals with consumer health, animal husbandry, etc.
Like most things I guess, the truth is somewhere in the middle. I don't think it is as much the local food movement as it is more radical groups that are trying to paint the big-food industry in a bad light. Itís an environmentalist/animal rights issue falsely sold as a food quality issue because they know their real agenda wonít sell with the American people.
That being said, yes, big-food is driven by profit, but it has to be or it doesn't exist. Capital seeks a return. If there is no return, the capital goes elsewhere. When profit is the goal, things are going to happen that might not at smaller/local scale. Animals are farmed more densely. Feed might not be as good Ė though this point is probably debatable. Local/artisan producers will use natural smoke where big food will make much more use of liquid smoke or smoked casings. And, so on. However, when it comes to physical processing, I would argue that big-food likely has a quality advantage that stems from scale.
Where we often lose out on quality is when we insert the big box/supermarket retailers. In many cases, they donít want to have knives (and butchers) for safety and cost reasons. Now in steps big food to take the local butcherís place. Instead of shipping primal and sub-primal cuts, they now ship final cuts Ė in some cases ready for the shelf. Weíve come up with all kinds of clever ways to ways to do this: for example, Cryovac, Modified Atmosphere Packaging (MAP) and oxygen barrier packaging with an outer wrap that is removed just before putting on the shelf that exposes an oxygen permeable inner wrap that lets the meat bloom up nice and pink (and speeding up the shelf-life clock). None of this will ever be as good as fresh cut.
Retailers have also pushed for lower cost to fight it out on the street and big food has responded with things such as ďenhancedĒ meats that are injected with water and chemicals designed to hold in that water. I canít stand this Ė not because it isnít healthy but rather because it is just awful tasting and ruins the texture. We do this with fresh meat and also processed Ė look at cooked ham at you store and youíll find everything from no water added to at least 39% - maybe more.
For the sake of price, you will see turkey in many sausages, bologna, hot dogs, etc. Ė but some people prefer this flavor. It makes it less expensive, but the impact on quality is debatable and a matter of individual taste.
One advantage a local producer would have is not having to deal with the USDA. If he does not ship over state lines, no USDA. Is this a good thing? Like I noted above, big food probably has an advantage when it comes to sanitization and processing technology. Not that a local producer canít match them, certainly they can on the sanitization at least, but they might not have the oversight. They also donít have $billions to lose if they make a mistake. That is a strong motivation to get things right which brings up another factor: lawyers.
Lawyers would love nothing more than to sue big food because big food has big pockets. How does this translate into lower quality? It forces big food to put chemicals into food that are not needed Ė extra preservatives and extra chemicals to cover up the flavor of the extra preservatives. They have to do this because if they didnít and someone does get sick, the lawyers will go to sue and claim that big food did not use the extra preservatives because they are greedy and wanted to save money. Big food is damned if they do and damned if they donít.
Bottom line, local producers may make better tasting food in many cases, but it is doubtful that it is more wholesome. Local food is great, but it is limited in what is available and it is expensive, and if there was no big food, it would be REALLY expensive. You would probably not eat much meat. A simple and often overlooked truth is that many people only have food on the table because of big food. You think there are a lot of hungry kids out there today? Try it without big food.