As more and more people seek locally grown, sustainably produced meat, the farmers who want to oblige them often have a problem: No nearby slaughterhouse to process their animals. As a result, farmers must truck their animals long distances — which means more stress on the animals and higher costs to the farmer, who inevitably must transfer those costs to consumers.
A rising number of small-scale and often mobile abattoirs (slaughterhouses) are providing farmers with an economical and efficient solution. In order for this option to spread throughout the continent, however, a support system of owners, farmers demanding the service, cooperative inspectors and hungry customers will be required.
According to a recent report from the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, in 2005, just three companies were slaughtering nearly 84 percent of the cattle and more than 60 percent of the hogs in the United States. This centralization increases health risks, because it allows meat contaminated with E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter or other pathogens to simultaneously sicken people in many states. Regulations designed to reduce the risk cater to these giant meat processors by mandating paperwork and expensive inspections that are burdensome to small-scale facilities.
Mobile abattoirs, transported in specially equipped trailers, bring the butchering — and sometimes processing — facility directly to the farm (or to a central location near several farms). These high-tech, state-of-the-art operations provide a place to humanely kill and safely process animals that have not been stressed in transport. Pioneering projects in California, Montana, Nebraska, North Carolina, Washington and other states have enjoyed surprising successes. Among their benefits are lower startup costs, lower processing costs for farmers, and higher-quality meat for shoppers because the animals released less adrenaline and other hormones before slaughter. Perhaps most important is the abattoirs’ ability to provide communities with fresh, local, humanely processed meats.
Local and regional meat processors are the key to creating a system in which organic, grass-fed and sustainable meats become more affordable and accessible. “Despite the odds stacked against them, some small slaughterhouses and processors are finding ways to survive,” says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. But their continued success will require policy reform. “It’s time for the USDA and other government agencies to make sure their regulations work for more than just the largest players in the meat industry,” Hauter says.
You can read more about mobile abattoirs in Rural Cooperatives, a magazine from USDA Rural Development.