99-acre Wabash County farm at center of Indiana food safety debate

January 29th, 2016

News Coverage:

1/27/2016 9:21:00 AM

99-acre Wabash County farm at center of Indiana food safety debate

Mackenzi Klemann, Wabash Plain Dealer

NORTH MANCHESTER — The Hawkins Family Farm has found itself at the center of a debate on agriculture’s farm to fork movement and food safety.

The small North Manchester farm is run by father-son duo Jeff and Zach Hawkins on a 99-acre lot, processing poultry, beef, pork and produce sold at the farm and to restaurants in the region.

The Hawkinses take pride in what they see as a movement in agriculture away from industrial-scale production and toward locally-grown, locally distributed foods. But a scuffle last year between the farmers and the Indiana State Department of Health could produce significant changes to regulatory law in Indiana and force the farm to change the way it does business.

“We’re just a tiny, little Wabash County farm,” Jeff Hawkins said. “It’s crazy, but here we are.”

Two bills under consideration by the Indiana General Assembly are seeking to close what State Sen. Jean Leising (R-Oldenburg), author of Senate Bill 71, considers a loophole in current regulations regarding farms that sell directly to restaurants.

“It’s a whole new era and everyone that knows anything about meat knows that poultry is the highest bacteria meat,” she said, noting that she is concerned about the safety of farm to fork trends if regulations are not applied.

Poultry born and raised on the farm is processed exclusively at the Hawkins Family Farm under a federal exemption that allows mid-sized producers to slaughter poultry without undergoing certain inspections, also known as antemortem and postmortem inspection, and is currently being sold to restaurants in Roanoke, Fort Wayne, Warsaw and Wabash County.

Leising considers the lack of inspection at slaughter time unsafe for restaurant purchase, but the Hawkins and area restaurants are currently fighting to keep what they consider scale-appropriate regulations in place.

“One of the things this exemption provides us is the flexibility to butcher our birds based on the birds at the farm, not some third party,” Jeff Hawkins said, noting that farm to fork legislation passed by State Sen. Jim Banks (R-Columbia City), who represents Wabash County, in 2014 led him to begin selling his birds to area restaurants.

After working with the Indiana Board of Animal Health for nearly a year, Hawkins said, he and Zach were able to construct a small slaughter house at the farm to accommodate state regulations and business needs.

Hawkins explained that, for him and his son Zach, who rely on part-time weekend help to slaughter nearly 200 birds per week during the producing season, it’s difficult to transport the birds to state-inspected slaughter facilities.

“We really thought we had a success story,” he said, noting that he believes operations at his farm are safer than those at industrial-scale regulatory slaughterhouses.

But in September of 2015, the Hawkins Family Farm and Joseph Decuis, a Roanoke restaurant, were issued a cease and desist letter from the Indiana State Department of Health after legislators discovered that poultry slaughtered on the farm was being sold to the restaurant without an inspector on-site.

“It’s difficult for me to say hold on, you want to be farm to fork, you want your food to be of good quality, so why wouldn’t you let an inspector on your property,” Leising told the Plain Dealer about the issue. “There wouldn’t be this fight and it would still be farm to fork … it would make it safe under the scientific standards of today.”

The Indiana Attorney General’s Office in November issued a report stating that under current federal and state law, the Hawkins Family Farm could resume the sale of its inspection-exempt poultry, however.

Leising, who is chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that she does not understand why the Hawkins family and area restaurants are fighting so hard against her proposed regulation, filed under Senate Bill 71 and House Bill 1267.

The Hawkins, however, believe operations at their farm are safer than those of industrial-scale operations and question why Indiana legislators are fighting against an innovative movement in agriculture.

“The point that we’re making is that we’re very transparent,” Zach Hawkins said. “The inspector becomes more valuable as the distance between the producer and the consumer grows. We’re not against inspection or regulation … But here, it’s part of a very small system and so some of those regulatory mechanisms that have been developed for a big system don’t apply. Again it doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any kind of an inspection system, but what we’re describing, this relationship between producer, consumer and government that amounts to an inspection system, it’s just a different kind.”

“We don’t want to give the impression that somehow we have a perfect system,” Jeff Hawkins said. “We take sanitation very seriously … but when you’re dealing with food, anything can happen anywhere.”

The Indiana House Agriculture Committee is set to conduct a hearing on the proposed regulation on Thursday, just days after county officials signed a resolution standing behind the Hawkins Family Farm.

Representatives for the Indiana State Department of Health did not return requests for comment as of deadline on Tuesday.