As a career carnivore, I was up at my freezer locker in my local town taking an inventory of what I could use for the barbecue or spit or pit (I was planning for all three options) for July Fourth. Hauling out the goat frozen whole late last year, I started chatting with Bob, the proprietor of this small, wholesale meat establishment, about the sausage-maker in San Leandro, Calif., who'd just killed three government food inspectors, two of them federal employees from the USDA, and one from California's Department of Food and Agriculture.

On June 21, Stuart Alexander, proprietor of the Santos Linguisa Factory, murdered these unfortunate regulators while failing to dispatch a fourth, whom he'd vainly pursued down the road waving his pistol. He's now awaiting trial. I remarked to Bob that Mr. Alexander seemed to have had a rough passage with the food inspectors. At the time of the killings, he was operating his factory without a license, and outside of it was a defiant sign put up by Alexander complaining that he had been unreasonably hassled by the health police.

Bob gave a sigh, and said that though, of course, the killings were a dreadful business, he could understand why Alexander might have been driven over the edge. Over the past three years, partly in response to the outbreak of E. Coli in one unit of the Jack in the Box fast-food chain, the USDA has been imposing a whole new batch of regulations, such as higher temperatures for food processing. "Frankly, Alex," Bob said, "if the standards imposed on small and medium meat processors had stayed the way they were written at the end of last year, I'd be out of business today, and so would about 90 percent of the meat processors of my size."

The feds are red-taping small meat businesses into a nightmare labyrinth of "voluntary compliance" schedules and record-keeping, most of which are entirely unnecessary, and in some cases, entirely wrong-headed. Even though there are strong arguments for maple chopping blocks, Bob and his fellow butchers are forced to use either rubber or plastic surfaces that sweat unhealthily and are hell on knives.

No surprises here. A lot of the history of food regulation in this country has turned out to be a way to finish off small, quality producers by demanding they invest in whatever big ticket items the USDA happens to be in love with at the time; said love objects usually turning out to be whatever the big food processors are using. That's the reason why it's hard to get decent sausages or hams.

There have been health problems down the years, there's no denying. The meat inspection act of 1906 gave inspectors from the Department of Agriculture the power to inspect meat-packing. The act was passed after public outcry following the publication of Upton Sinclair's Jungle. Sinclair was hoping to expose the horrible degradation of workers in the slaughterhouses. The Jungle had some grim stuff about rats in the cold rooms where the meat was stored. The public was unmoved about the packers, but very concerned over rats in the sausage. Teddy Roosevelt successfully turned the shock over these new inhumane food factories into a small "consumer protection" issue. The meat inspectors became readily domesticated by the meat factory owners, but could take out their frustrations when dealing with small, one-of-a-kind artisans. The same lap-dog inspector who could be marched across the killing floors of Armour or Swift without raising a bleat became a mighty lion of public health when dealing with a deal butcher or sausage maker.

The big packers and processing plants get to participate directly in the writing of the laws that set the standard practices that the inspectors march out to enforce on all the little producers not part of the Meat Syndicate.

Remember, over 70 percent of the hamburgers, wieners, beef or pork ribs, chickens and butterflied lamb legs on those July Fourth grills will have gone through one of only 10 packing companies across the country. These big packers are cozy with presidents and governors and chairmen of congressional committees. The day that they decide the only safe sausage is a nuked sausage, only sausages labeled "Real" (the official symbol for irradiated food) will be legal. Until then, the name of the game for the regulators is to find out what machines and temperatures are standard for Big Meat, and rush out to close the little folk down if they have not already bankrupted themselves by having to buy the new equipment.

I have friends in the coffee business who run a couple of espresso drive-throughs, and are regularly driven crazy by the health regulators, who can suddenly require that they dump all their milk because it's 2 degrees too warm, even though the places are so busy the milk is delivered daily.

Wherever you are, compare the espresso vendor with the hot dog vendor on your street corner. So confident in the USDA-inspected-and-approved sausage -- the dead little sausage appropriately called "wiener" -- are local health departments that pretty much any hot dog stand at all is readily approved. And for good reason. Hot dogs have been found in perfect condition buried in landfills. This is not considered a sign of worry or consternation about hot dog standards, but a triumph of modern chemistry.

To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.