State Regulators Shut Down Utah Chicken Farm Despite No Complaints

Editor’s note: Libertas staff recently became aware of problems Christiansen Family Farms was having with regulation from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. Recent puzzling enforcement actions by state regulators have effectively shut down their small chicken farm operation.

The following is an edited transcription of an interview Libertas conducted with Christian Christiansen of Christiansen Family Farms, a small family ranch where they produce beef, pork, and chicken.

Libertas Institute: Tell us about Christiansen Farms—how did you start and what do you do?

Christian Christiansen: We started toward the end of 2007 and at first all we intended to do was raise meat for ourselves. After raising one pig for ourselves, we thought “why not raise another and sell it to offset our costs?” So we started doing that and the person we first sold our extra pig to raved about how good it was. They told all their friends, family, and neighbors about it and they all started calling us and asking us to raise an extra pig for them, and we said “yeah sure, no problem!”

Pretty soon we had a list that was 10 to 12 people long! We quickly realized that we better go out and buy some more pigs, and things just took off from there. Since then, we have focused on heritage breeds of pigs—primarily the berkshire pig. The berkshire pig is known for its high meat quality, juiciness, heavy fat marbling, darker color, and deeper flavor. Its basically the Kobe beef of pork.

Our priority is to ensure that the animals are raised humanely and naturally. For example, we don’t dock tails or clip teeth, we don’t use “gestation crates,” and we don’t use antibiotics. We let our pigs free range—even our feed is GMO free. We try and do everything as naturally and healthily as we possibly can. While pork is our primary focus, we also offer grass-fed beef that we buy from some neighboring ranches, and we also have been trying to raise poultry—but the processing regulations over the last few years have made it almost impossible to do that.

LI: What exactly are those processing regulations and how do they make it difficult for you to operate successfully?

CC: Well, there are the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines which are generally what the state of Utah has chosen to adopt. Federal guidelines become a base standard because a state is prohibited from enacting regulations that are less restrictive than the USDA’s. But the state can impose stricter regulations than the USDA.

However, from my understanding, and what state officials have told me, Utah has chosen to adopt the USDA regulations and not enforce anything more restrictive than what the USDA has established. So, that is where I believe confusion, and what seems like miscommunication between different agencies, has become a problem—one agency not knowing what the other agency is doing or enforcing.

LI: Have you had any problems with confusing enforcement of these regulations?

CC: Yes. Our first problem came back in 2009. At that time we had the head USDA inspector for the state of Utah come out and visit our farm. We showed him what we were doing and what we are all about. He was very enthusiastic and excited to see our approach as a small poultry producer.

The USDA has exemptions for poultry processing if you are classified as a small producer, which we qualify for. Anything under 20,000 birds per year is considered a small producer. We were nowhere near that—we are talking maybe 1,000 or 1,500 birds per year for our operation. The exemptions allow you to process “on location” at your farm as long as you meet safe and sanitary guidelines to produce a healthy and safe product. At that time, we were actually processing in our driveway underneath a canopy! We had large amounts of ice in order to cool the meat as quickly as possible and our process followed all sanitary guidelines. We even had the assistance of a licensed poultry butcher.

The head USDA inspector (basically the boss of all the USDA inspectors for Utah) signed off on what we were doing at that time. Then, a couple months later in early 2010, we received a notice from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food (UDAF) that what we were doing was illegal. At the time I was told that the State of Utah, while it had adopted the USDA processing guidelines, had not adopted the federal exemptions for small producers. So, I got this nasty letter threatening me with a criminal Class B misdemeanor if I continued to process poultry. At that point, we stopped raising birds. Then this same crackdown came to several other small farms like ours, including a farm called Utah Natural Meat in West Jordan.

LI: What did you do after being shut down?

CC: Well, we tried another approach. Utah Natural Meat had a lot more resources available to them and were able to build a small processing facility—an actual building with stainless steel everything. They built it under the assumption that other farms like mine would utilize the facility to help offset some of their investment costs. We began an agreement with them to be able to use their facility and we have been doing that for a couple of years now.

Then, just recently, UDAF came in once again and decided that because there isn’t a law that specifically permits a farmer to process at a facility he doesn’t own himself, such a farmer cannot process at that facility. So they shut us down again and would not allow us to process our poultry at Utah Natural Meat’s new facility any longer.

After that, I wanted to clarify the decision from UDAF and so I asked a question to the head UDAF inspector for Utah clarifying that “while there isn’t a law that prohibits me from doing this, UDAF is stopping me because there isn’t a law that explicitly allows me to do this?—a law that specifically states that if I don’t own a facility I am permitted to rent or lease one?” and the response I got was that my assumption was correct.

LI: Did the Utah Natural Meat processing facility you had been using also qualify under the USDA “small processor” exemptions?

CC: Yes, it qualifies but it also meets even the USDA guidelines from what I understand because it has been built to the same sort of standards. Really it’s just the fact that I don’t own that facility—that is where the problem lies according to the UDAF state inspector. After venting my frustration to the UDAF inspector, and explaining what had happened back in 2009 with them shutting me down even though I had the USDA’s blessing, he was perplexed and said that if I had the USDA’s blessing I should have been okay to process as I was originally (on location in my driveway under the canopy).

In talking with him, he made some reference to another state agency that is an enforcement agency of some sort and explained that he only represents the inspection part of the agency and not the enforcement part. He suggested that there may have been some confusion between those agencies—they are both state agencies so I guess basically the one doesn’t know what the other is doing.

LI: Did you find it odd that the state regulators were more restrictive than the federal regulators despite the previous okay from USDA?

CC: Yes, I found it extremely strange. We work closely with federal inspectors in our beef and pork processing and typically the federal inspectors are the ones that are considerably more strict. It is a lot more difficult to work under federal USDA guidelines than if you process under Utah state inspection alone. However, state inspection restricts the meat to distribution within Utah only. We process our beef and pork under USDA guidelines so it can qualify to be shipped anywhere in the country; all our pork and beef is labeled with a USDA stamp. The USDA guidelines are perceived by customers and restaurants to be a higher standard.

However, when it comes to working with poultry inspectors it seems to be the complete opposite. The USDA has been very supportive and willing to help us get answers to questions. The head poultry inspector for the USDA in Utah came out to my farm twice and sat down with me really excited about what we are doing. In fact, the USDA inspector in Utah rose up through the ranks in the USDA as a poultry inspector specifically—which is not as common in western states like Utah (it is much more common back east and in the south).

So, to have someone with his specific expertise in poultry was really beneficial for us. Then, to have the the state of Utah come in all confused and not knowing what is going on, sending out nasty notes, and threatening prosecution for Class B misdemeanors was really confusing to me.

LI: Could you be arrested for violating the UDAF order?

CC: Possibly, I’m not exactly sure. I was threatened with a Class B misdemeanor but I am not sure exactly how they would go about enforcing that on me. In my other job I have to maintain a security clearance, and so even the threat of a Class B misdemeanor puts my job on the line and is a risk I cannot afford to take. If you are familiar with the documentary Farmageddon it highlights the arrest of families in California selling raw milk where full blown SWAT teams came in with guns and riot shields. I didn’t really want to risk that!

LI: What other sorts of regulations do you face that threaten your business and your ability to provide the products your customers want?

CC: The UDAF actions concerning our poultry operations have been the most significant. For other things it can depend a lot on the particular inspector. We try to run our business honestly and always on the “up-and-up.” We never want to jeopardize our product because something was not handled safely or properly—it’s bad for business. I don’t want to sell a product that would make people sick—I wouldn’t be in business for very long that way! We try to do everything according to regulation. There can sometimes be confusing regulations surrounding refrigeration, freezers, and meat transportation and distribution. There are a lot of regulations. Often the recommendations from regulators is for measures that are too costly or inefficient.

LI: Have you had any previous complaints or citations for safety or quality?

CC: No, never. We are meticulously careful to control our processes so that our product is the freshest, healthiest, and most natural meat you can buy. We have never had any quality complaints with our poultry. The only complaints we have ever heard are that we are always sold out!

LI: Are these UDAF enforcements necessary for health and safety or do you think it is more just government largesse trying to solve non-existent problems?

CC: Large government is definitely part of the problem. I have another farmer friend in Utah who has run into problems with this as well. My friend is actually acquainted with a state legislator who apparently looked into the matter and found that there is some sort of agency board or committee that decides or guides how these state regulations are enforced. It’s basically a committee that makes determinations on enforcement for new issues. Specifically, for example, small scale poultry production has never come up because there has not been a demand for it until more recently—so this is all new to them.

Well, my friend told me that this legislator found that there are five individuals on this regulatory board that decide how the rules and regulations will be interpreted and enforced and apparently two of them actually represent large poultry producers in Utah. He wondered if this uptick in enforcement was really just the efforts of the bigger producers trying to squash out smaller farms—somewhat out of jealousy because we command premium prices that are higher than the commercial commodity prices they receive.

LI: Do you feel UDAF has been fair in their enforcement?

CC: I am not sure. I think misunderstanding with USDA and overly strict enforcement is the best way to describe it. In the past, when I have had issues with UDAF, I have always asked for copies of letters in writing including the regulations. As I have reviewed those regulations that these letters refer to, I notice that those regulations don’t seem to say what the regulators say they do. Their response is that they choose an enforcement method that “errs on the side of caution.” But, you’re talking major stretches in interpretation.

Historically, the USDA has scaled back its overly broad or strict interpretation and enforcement. For example, there is a farm back east in Virginia called Polyface Farms. Polyface Farms is run by a fairly popular farmer named Joel Salatin who is sort of the face of the natural, humane, non-antibiotic, movement in farming. Salatin has written quite a few books and he once got in trouble for processing poultry under a canopy where he does thousands and thousands of chickens. The USDA came in and said this wasn’t safe and he basically replied: “What do you mean? The fresh clean outdoor air is safer than some stuffy enclosed processing plant.”

The USDA response was that the rules clearly state that all your surfaces have to be “sanitize-able” and you don’t have walls on your buildings. He argued that all the surfaces contained in his processing area were “sanitize-able” but that there was no rule claiming he had to have walls. He actually took his case to court where he ended up winning because he was able to demonstrate that his product had literally a hundredth of the bacterial contamination than multiple randomly picked sources from the grocery store. After that case, the USDA started to adopt a more cooperative enforcement approach for poultry.

LI: Is it possible that UDAF is playing favorites with various producers in Utah?

CC: I’m not sure. I could see how they are catering to the poultry industry in a cooperative enforcement way but then not being sensitive to the needs of all producers including small producers in addition to the large commercial producers. There is a processing plant in Moroni that is USDA inspected and processes all the turkeys grown in that area. The problem is that the processing facility is owned by a multi-farm cooperative and you have to be a member of the Moroni turkey cooperative in order to process your birds there. Initially, we tried to get our birds processed at their USDA inspected facility and the association would not let us. That facility is the only USDA inspected facility in the state of Utah that can process poultry—so we are left trying to process under the small producer exemptions.

LI: How is it that large producers are able to process at a facility that they do not solely own and is not located on their premises and yet you are not allowed to do the same?

CC: Because they are not trying to operate under the small producer exemption. Their facility is a full scale commercial processing plant with full time USDA inspectors on site. We were trying to operate under the small producer exemption which is where all the problems have come from. Right now, there is literally no option for me to be able to sell poultry because I cannot get it legally processed.

LI: So, initially you were allowed to process yourself at your farm by the USDA but because Utah regulators interpreted the rules differently you can no longer process your poultry?

CC: Correct. Just to give you an idea of the cost to build even a very small facility like that would be on the scale of $50k to $60k.  When you are only raising 1,000 birds a year (and we make on average maybe $3 per bird) it would take me 20 years to break even while not taking a dime’s pay for any of my labor. It just makes no sense!

LI: Finally, if you were given two minutes to share a message on this subject with the entire Utah legislature, what would you say?

CC:  My message to the legislature would be one of disappointment that this sort of thing occurs in a state that seems to always be railing about how the government needs to be smaller. We started our farm as a licensed business when the economy was at the lowest point of the recent “Great Recession.” Our farm thrived from the beginning and has grown every year through the recession. Our growth, however, has been limited by the UDAF.  Each time we would call them for clarification of the regulations we would get different answers depending on who answered the phone.

I view our business as a unique and valuable asset to the Utah economy. We source all of our grain within the state, we use local butchers (for pork and beef), we helped a neighbor start a side business milling feed for us, and we sold all of our products to local residents. We have now started selling to residents in Las Vegas and ship our pork lard all over the country.  This means that we bring new revenue into Utah—revenue that stays here and gets spent here. Our business isn’t huge, but each of the dollars we generate is far more valuable to Utah than a dollar that some foreign-supplied “big box” store generates.

The state of Utah is “small business friendly” unless you happen to sell eggsalcohol, or poultry (I don’t even dare try to sell to restaurants), in which case our legislature supposedly knows what is best for us—better than we do, in fact. Utah has a blossoming food scene that is healthy for tourism and the local economy.  However, this food scene will never fully blossom until the state gets out of the way and allows restaurants and farms to grow without their regulations holding us back.