Last week there were plenty of customers at market asking what I thought about the ICE raid on the poultry processing plant in Mississippi or of the fire at the Kansas beef plant. Would they in any way impact what I do? Reading the snippets of news devoted to these events gave the impression that there would be no one to slaughter beef or chicken in America thus leading to shortages and price increases.
First, if you are shopping at the farmers market for your meats, these two events will not hinder your access to locally raised and processed meats. The two processing plants only handled livestock they contract farmers to raise (poultry) or through aggregate purchasers who travel to regional public livestock auctions buying by lots that may number in the thousands of animals at any one time (beef).
The farmers you encounter at market have their meats processed at local USDA-inspected abattoirs who perform a service—the slaughter, cutting-up, fabricating (making sausages, burgers, bacon, etc.). While some butcher shops may have their own storefronts selling cuts to individual customers or contracts to supply restaurants and retailers, many specialize in taking care of the niche producers who pale in comparison to how the majority of meat is raised and sold in the U.S. We are the true 1%.
Currently, five companies are responsible for over 60% of poultry grown and processed in this country, including Koch Foods Inc., the company targeted in the ICE raid. To offer some scope of the industrial poultry industry, in 2017 Americans consumed 9 billion chickens. Yes, billions. Compare that to the average pastured poultry grower selling direct to the customers who raises 3,000 a year and the exemption from federal inspection set at 20,000 birds a year for small producers.
Here’s a few more statistics to gain perspective. According to the North American Meat Institute, in 2017 meat and poultry production in America:
- 2 million cattle and calves
- 7 million turkeys
- 2 million sheep and lambs
- 121 million hogs
The Tyson’s beef plant that burned down last week had the capacity to process 4,000 cows a day. Your typical farmers market meat vendor patronizes small regional plants that process 4-40 cows per day, some only slaughtering one or two days each week. These plants are typically family-owned businesses employing family and local community members. Many span two or three generations.
The advantages of purchasing your protein from local farmers are many. As niche producers, each farmer is able to ensure agricultural practices that set them apart from their industrial counterparts, the largest being pasture-raised. While I tend to focus on the measurable benefits—more healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids, more vitamins and minerals, and reduced chances of pathogenic foodborne illnesses, customers are more concerned with animal welfare issues, regenerative environmental practices and social justice concerns.
Over the last thirty years I’ve watched as consumers have gone from completely oblivious as to how that steak on their plate got there to the micro-management of an eater’s checklist before their meat hits the grill. I’ll admit that sometimes it can be frustrating when customers’ concerns are a product of egregious industrial food practices that leaves me wanting to shout, “Why do you think we do what we do here at the farmers market?”
Unfortunately, as the demand for locally produced meat increases, access to USDA-inspected processing is becoming more challenging for producers, many who must schedule processing dates in advance of the animals’ actual birth! Building new meat plants are expensive ventures, costing into millions of dollars. Smaller custom butcher shops are opting to retrofit their operations to meet criteria for federal inspection. Having experienced this process, however, the costs, paperwork and time are still prohibitive. It took two years to have a federal inspectors perform several hours’ worth of work to sign off—mainly on paperwork—to bring one of the plants I now use online.
Smaller meat processing plants are subject to the exact same rules, requirements and regulations as their large, industrial counterparts which can become onerous when enforced by federal inspectors, especially those lacking common sense. For example, industrial meat processors must keep a log of the lots of beef trim used in the production of ground meat. According to the Beef Checkoff Program, the United States is the largest importer of beef in the world purchasing trim (what is left over after carving up premium cuts) from 22 different countries to meet the demand for lean ground beef. That means the burger you buy in the grocery store or eat at a fast food establishment could be sourced from multiple countries. Furthermore, since it has been processed in the United States it can be labeled as Made in the USA since the Country of Origin label (COOL) laws have been struck down.
However, small-scale processors are required to keep the exact same paperwork even if the numbers will always be zero as many pride themselves on customers getting back 100% of their livestock.
In other instances, small-scale plants are targeted for increased enforcement, especially with pork. Multiple states have declared all pigs raised outdoors, as opposed to industrial hog barns holding thousands of animals on concrete, to be considered feral. This requires and additional layer of regulation, including specialized labeling not required by industrial producers since they can prove their animals have not interacted with the natural world.
These days I’m more concerned with African Swine Fever, a highly contagious hemorrhagic fever which has already decimated hog populations in over two dozen countries in Asia, Africa and Europe. While the U.S. remains vigilant against any outbreaks, keep in mind that the largest pork producer in this country, Smithfield, is owned by China where over half of all the pigs in that country have already died or been culled due to the virus.
Unlike commercial slaughterhouses which are demanding faster line speeds and less federal oversight, small-scale butchers have the ability to better examine each animal, turning away diseased animals, thus preventing them from entering the food supply.
While most livestock disease outbreaks, like Newcastle disease in birds, develop geographical hot spots, the numbers are staggering and can cause nationwide shortages. In 1971, a major outbreak in southern California infected 1,341 flocks, caused 12 million birds to be euthanized, cost $56 million, took 19 months to end, and seriously threatened the nation’s entire egg and poultry supply. Currently, an active outbreak has state officials euthanizing millions of birds again, including thousands of beloved backyard pets.
Yes, we’ll continue to answer questions about feed, housing, pastures and husbandry practices, but more importantly, customers need to understand that the politics of their plates are becoming increasingly complex. Your producers do not operate on a level playing field when it comes to meat production in America, even more so with the advent of fake and lab-grown proteins masquerading as meat.
So next time you’re tempted to compare your favorite farmer to the industrial meat complex, remember they are focused on quality, not quantity. By supporting a robust regional meat industry that includes both producers and processors, customers also help to ensure access to safe food while keeping their dollars hard at work to sustain their communities. Remember, for every dollar spent at your farmers market, that investment get multiplied ten times over as farmers, too, patronize the local businesses that keep their farms functioning.