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Illinois butcher is beefing up area’s organic meat supply
By TIM ALEXANDER
Illinois Correspondent

EUREKA, Ill. — Scott Bittner says that as a butcher in this small Woodford County town, he’s not sure if sensational newspaper headlines warning of the possibility of BSE-tainted beef finding its way into the nation’s food supply or just an overall desire by Americans to know the origins of their food is the driving force behind the upsurge in interest in organic meats in recent years.

But as the state’s only butcher who is certified to process organic meats, he’s uniquely prepared for that upsurge in interest.

As far back as 2003 public health concerns rising from the discovery of a BSE-infected dairy cow have helped fuel a marketing bonanza for organic beef.

“Certified organic beef has become the new gold standard for safety,” said Ron Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Assoc., to the Christian Science Monitor.

Bittner, who has owned and operated Bittner’s Eureka Locker, 110 4-H Road, for 13 years, said his recent certification as the only state-approved processor for organic meats came about out of necessity, not through public demand.

“I have some farmers that are actually organic producers. In order for them to call their products 100 percent organic, they have to go through a facility that’s also certified organic. The two of us combine to make an organic product,” said Bittner, putting the process in simple terms for a reporter.

Those organic farmers, who include Emily and Denny Wettstein and Marilyn and Larry Wettstein from rural Eureka, bring pork, beef or lamb to Bittner nearly every week for processing.

“Otherwise they can’t have the organic seal affixed to their products,” Bittner explained.

“They had sold their organic products at farm markets in the past, but couldn’t call it 100 percent organic because the processor wasn’t certified.”

According to literature from the Organic Trade Assoc., the philosophy of organic production is to provide conditions that meet the health needs and natural behavior of the animal. Organic livestock are given free reign to the outdoors, fresh air, water, sunshine, and pasture, and are fed only 100 percent organic feed, such as corn straight from the field.

Organic practices prohibit feeding animal byproducts to livestock that would naturally eat a strictly vegetarian diet. Livestock cannot be fed plastic pellets for roughage or formulas containing urea or manure and cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones, which is common practice in commercial agriculture.

For an animal to be raised for organic beef, its mother must have been fed organic feed for at least the last third of the gestation period.

In processing operations such as Bittner’s that handles both organic and non-organic products, processors must segregate the handling of the meat and use specialized cleaning agents after processing. Bittner said a yearly inspection by the state-certified Midwest Organic Services Assoc. also part of the conditions of his certification as an organic meats processor.

“They inspect your operation but also make sure a clear audit trail exists,” said Bittner. “If there were ever a question about a product, I would have to be able to show documentation that it was produced as an organic product.”

It’s that “traceability” combined with the knowledge the animal was not exposed to toxins consumers of organic beef find comfort in, say organic supporters.

“Every year it seems like more people are looking for organic products,” said Bittner. “When I first started this business, you really didn’t hear that much about organic. Now we’re getting phone calls on a weekly basis from people either looking for a processor or for the product.”

Bittner’s Locker is in the process of expanding its retail area and within a month plans to offer organic meats from local producers to the public. Though he doesn’t expect the general public to immediately line up for organic meats, he does expect the area’s more health and environmentally conscious consumers to come calling.

“Organic sales will probably only account for one or two percent of our sales initially,” Bittner predicted.

This farm news was published in the March 29, 2006 issue of Farm World.

4/19/2006