We Need More Local Meat Processors and We Need Them Now

Reader Contribution by Rd Copeland and The Sunflower Farm
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The Sunflower Farm Grass-fed Beef

By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the reports of farmers euthanizing whole herds of hogs, cattle and chickens, some of which may be true, but however, at this point, are limited in actual numbers. There is definitely a major problem being exposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has closed off or limited meat production and distribution in the past 30 days.

Last week, the grocery store in my hometown ordered 60 boxes of meat from their distributor, yet only received 18 boxes, all at higher prices. There are also reports of farmers now seeking to sell direct to customers, many of whom are butchering their own hogs and chickens. Or the ranchers are hauling beef cattle to processors for slaughter that is picked up a week or two later by the consumers.

Unfortunately, there are not near enough small butcher shops remaining in the country to process enough livestock to feed everyone who eats meat, as the slaughter and butchering operations have been centralized by the world’s largest meat packers, such as JBS-SA, Cargill, Tyson, and other multinational ag corporations that do business here in the U.S. and abroad. So how did we get here?

The Industrial Meat System

Most cattle ranchers make the mistake of contracting with the “order buyers” from big feedlot operating companies, known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO’s (just the Panhandle of Texas has over one million head of cattle in these feedlots). The ranchers then get sold on using growth hormones to speed up the growth of yearling cattle and are offered a set price for all their calves to be bought and sold into the factory farm system. The calves go off to the feedlots at a year old, where they begin eating nothing but grains — mostly soy and corn, mixed with numerous additives. This carries on for six to eight months, then on to the factory farm processing plants.

That’s where our food system breaks down, and the factory farms gain control of the beef (pork, chicken and turkey, too). Now those big corporations control the price paid for cattle, the distribution of the meat, its processing, and ultimately, the price paid by the consumer. The price fluctuates wildly when calamity, war, fuel shortages, drought, or a global pandemic happens. They also control the grain prices and its production in many states that gets fed to the livestock in the feedlots.

The Prime Act: A Law for Local Butchering

All is not lost, yet. There’s a bill filed in both the U.S. Congress (and in the Texas legislature. Check your state’s legislature for similar bills.) commonly known as The Prime Act. The law would allow “custom meat processors” to slaughter and butcher livestock, brought in by farmers and ranchers, to be resold to the public by the rancher, a grocer, a restaurant, or the butcher shop itself.

As of now, a government inspector must be on site at the processors (USDA, Texas Department of Agriculture) to sign off on each head to be resold, and there are not nearly enough inspectors to go around, as most of them now work in the big factories where they still only check every few head. Picture government inspectors at seaports and docks checking shipping containers — one of the thousands of shipments actually get opened and checked. The Prime Act would allow periodic inspections of these small butcher shops, and training of their butchers on site to suffice, and also provide for more inspectors to be trained and paid by the Feds or the States.

Back in my youth and in my hometown of Olney, Texas, local ranchers hauled their fat steers to the Olney Livestock Auction for sale where the beef cattle were bought by local grocers, families, and butcher shops like Gibbs Meat Processing and Locker, and a bigger one in Fort Worth called Ebner Brothers. A couple weeks later, the beef was on the shelves in the grocery stores or in the freezers of local residents.

Some ranchers would add corn to the diets to fatten up the steers for 90 days, but not all of them would as it was too expensive for most. Once in a while, a steer would get injured at the sale barn, and my dad and uncle would buy it and send it straight to Gibbs locker for butchering.

How is the Industrial Meat System Responding to the Pandemic?

Our food system was broken before Covid-19, but it has now been widely exposed as such. Big factory farm processors have workers elbow-to-elbow cutting the beef carcasses up, and that’s how so many workers became infected with the virus. The factories that once had 500 meat cutters now have 50 left on their lines who aren’t sick, so the supply is drastically cut back.

It’s their own fault for allowing the viral contagion, and now they are running a public relations campaign to get bailed out by the taxpayers. Politicians who know nothing about the system in place are making the decisions, if not those politicians who are on Big Ag’s corporate payroll via campaign donations. Our corporate-owned media will jump on the bandwagon of scare tactics, bolstering the factory farm PR because they advertise with them, and it’s easier and cheaper than investigative journalism.

So, there will likely be meat shortages, higher prices, and a bailout for JBS, Cargill, Perdue and the handful of other major companies, instead of breaking that system and starting over with the localized butcher shops and inspectors we need to right our food system.

Can We Build a Local Meat Processing Industry?

The only way to stop it and secure our food is to break this centralized, corporate control. I’m hopeful, however doubtful, with so many corrupt politicians running the “red states” where most meat production happens. But that might change if people are forced to eat Spam or do without meat for the rest of the year.

Here’s how you can help:

Call your state and congressional representatives and ask them to support H.R. 2859, the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption Act — also known as The Prime Act — which is sitting in Congress for two years now. This bill expands the exemption of custom slaughtering of animals from federal inspection requirements.

Under current law, the exemption applies if the meat is slaughtered for personal, household, guest, and employee uses. The bill expands the exemption to include meat that is: slaughtered and prepared at a custom slaughter facility in accordance with the laws of the state where the facility is located; and meat that is prepared exclusively for distribution to household consumers in the state or restaurants, hotels, boarding houses, grocery stores, or other establishments in the state that either prepare meals served directly to consumers or offer meat and food products for sale directly to consumers in the state.

The bill does not preempt any state law concerning (1) the slaughter of animals or the preparation of carcasses, parts thereof, meat and meat food products at a custom slaughter facility; or (2) the sale of meat or meat food products.

Local Meat Processing Can be Safer

Some may think this expansion of small processing plants isn’t safe; however, the constant recalls of factory-farmed meats have increased both in numbers of pounds and in frequency. In 2018, JBS-SA, the world’s largest meat-packing and sales company, issued recalls for 12 million pounds of beef, which had already sickened almost 300 people with salmonella poisoning. Twelve million pounds of meat in 16 states were recalled over an eight-week period before the problem was identified and the final recall issued.

The massive packing plants, which employ thousands working in extremely close quarters, have done little to alleviate the problems associated with food-borne illnesses, not to mention the spread of Covid-19 among employees as of late.

Food Safety News issued a report October 5, 2018, stating “The JBS recall, which was expanded by 400,000 pounds on Thursday, caused Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro – Connecticut, to call for the USDA-FSIS to update ground beef safety standards that have not changed since 1996.”

“FSIS no longer monitors ground beef against the 1996 standard, nor do they require beef processors to designate Salmonella as a hazard in the plant-specific plans to reduce contaminants,” wrote the Connecticut Democrat. “That is unacceptable and has put people across the country at unnecessary risk to food-borne illnesses.”

Local Butchering Supports a More Efficient, Local Economy

Factory farming (CAFO-style), factory meat processing, Big Ag marketing and sales are not sustainable, especially when their cheap labor force is forced off the job. Of every dollar spent today for meat, the farm share is 14 cents, and marketing and sales gobbles up 86 cents.

Improve efficiencies. Small processors like the ones we use here in north Texas, have one butcher working on one beef carcass at a time, and about 10 feet between their butchers, instead of assembly lines with numerous workers handling the different cuts off thousands of carcasses. At the small processor, once our carcasses are quartered, they are cut specifically to our instructions (bone-in ribeyes, 85% lean ground beef, short ribs or English cut, and so on.), carefully packaged and labeled, then immediately go into the freezers for added safety.

Boost local economies. You can also help break this unsustainable food system by seeking out local farmers to buy meats from directly thru co-ops, CSA’s, and farmers markets, by raising chickens in your backyard for egg production, by investing in local processors and butcher shops, and by purchasing only pasture-raised meats.

Support more nutritious meat. Pastured meats are by far more nutritious, it is better for the livestock not being confined and fed diets of grains and additives, and better for our environment.

Address environmental health. Pastured livestock limits or completely rids the use of antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic chemicals used to grow the vast amounts of grains fed in the feedlots and halts the runoff of those chemicals into our water supply.

I’ve said it before: It ain’t rocket surgery. Keeping control of our food system in the hands of farmers and ranchers, and direct sales to consumers makes for a sustainable, safe, and healthy food system. Please do your part today.

RD Copeland raises pastured beef in north Texas on his organic farm and weekend retreat, The Sunflower Farmwhere visitors can check in to a cob-cabin getaway or take one of RD’s permaculture seminars. Read all of RD’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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