The Meat of the Matter

July 17, 2009

cowNorman Gunsell raises a tiny herd of cows — usually 2 or 3 at a time — on his land in Mountain Ranch, California. Gunsell, of Mountain Ranch Organically Grown, focuses mainly on chickens, but once or twice a year, when it’s time to take one of his cows to the big pasture in the sky, he drives seven hours to Eureka to the only processing plant that will “slaughter, cut and wrap” one cow at a time.

“I’m really glad to see people want to support local ranchers,” says Gunsell, but he worries that consumer demand might not be enough to reverse a trend that’s made it very hard for him and other small producers to process their meat for sale. On the other hand, the revival in demand for animals raised the old fashioned way – slowly, on pasture – might have arrived just in the nick of time.

Behind almost every aspect of the food system, there are shadow industries. In the case of meat, that shadow is slaughter and processing, an area that Patty Lavera, deputy director of Food and Water Watch and co-author of a new national report called “Where’s the Local Beef?: Rebuilding Small-Scale Meat Processing Infrastructure” believes is in need of some attention.

“A lot of people think meat comes from the back of the store…and the larger meat industry has done a great job of getting us not to think much more about it,” says Lavera. “But I hope that as people start to think more about their meat preferences – whether it’s for grass-fed or whatever else – that they remember there are several steps between the animal eating grass and them eating the meat.”

meat reportWhy do slaughter and processing facilities matter? According to the Food and Water Watch report, the consolidation and centralization of the meat industry has “hollowed out the infrastructure needed to produce and market meat close to population centers.” In other words, along with a drastic reduction in the number of companies raising livestock in this country, processing facilities have similarly closed and/or consolidated across the country. Since the USDA adopting stricter food safety guidelines in 1998, nearly one fifth of federally inspected plants have closed and when in comes to poultry processing, the report says that by 2007 just two companies — Pilgrim’s Pride and Tyson — slaughtered 47 percent of the nation’s birds.

When meat can’t get processed on a local scale, it’s much less likely to be sold and eaten locally. In fact a 2008 study by the University of California Cooperative Extension found that access to slaughter and processing services here in California was among ranchers’ largest barriers to entry into alternative niche markets, such as farmers’ markets.  

Where’s the Local Beef? is full of recommendations about ways the USDA, which has tailored many of its regulations to industrial-sized producers and processors, can help support and grow the number of small scale processors.

Patty Lavera sees a potential for ranchers to raise many more animals in small-scale sustainable ways, if they had the opportunity to process them easily and safely. Having a plant within driving distance that is willing take a few cows at a time is crucial to successful meat production, but most industrial processors won’t even consider slaughtering animals at the scale that works for small ranchers.

“We heard from ranchers who said that their relationships with chefs and markets and their abilities to respond to what those markets wanted were frozen until they figured out better processing options,” she says

meatMarin Sun Farms’s David Evans has been fortunate by comparison. It’s not easy coordinating slaughter for all his different animals at different plants (the lambs and goats are slaughtered in Dixon, his pigs in Orland, and his chickens in Santa Rosa), but his farm’s grass-fed cows (around 22 a week) need only travel to Rancho Meats in nearby Petaluma.

Although the Rancho operation is stable for now, concern about the plant’s future has prompted Evans to do some proactive thinking. “Marin Sun Farms is working at an appropriate pace to potentially purchase [Rancho] in a few years when the current owners retire,” Evans told CUESA in a recent email.

Evans believes that even with a considerable retrofit and the possible addition of several satellite mobile slaughter units that would allow for on-farm slaughter, purchasing a pre-existing plant would still be much more feasible (even at a 4-5 million dollar cost) than starting a new one. It’s a reality that hints at the tremendous barriers – both bureaucratic and financial – to starting from scratch.

As one solution, Food and Water Watch recommends creating a public funding stream “designated for small and very small plants and not used by existing large plants as a subsidy for their operations.” This kind of funding, the organization believes, could help create a “food infrastructure bank” similar to dedicated public funding that exists for other national infrastructure, such as highways and airplane landing strips. 

After all, says Patty Lavera, “bringing food to market is part of the infrastructure of our society. We need to start seeing it as that.”

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