Back in the day (i.e., 30 or 40 years ago), small slaughterhouses existed throughout the US; this was great for small farms since livestock could be processed locally without much hassle or expense. Unfortunately, the transition to factory farming spawned the creation of huge, highly mechanized, corporate-controlled mega-slaughterhouses, which ultimately put most small, independent slaughterhouses out of business.
Although industrial slaughterhouses are able to churn out cheap meat faster than you can say "big mac," they also have a disturbing tendency to severely compromise food safety. Quick summary: processors try to maximize profits by running production lines at breakneck speeds, making it easy for meat to be contaminated by pathogens from manure (yes, manure, yes in your burger). Meanwhile, government regulations and inspections are lax, and manufacturers combine meat from many different animals and slaughterhouses when creating products like ground beef. These factors make it easier for contaminated meat to be distributed widely, thus increasing the risk of outbreaks of foodborne illness.
The shift to mega-slaughterhouses also created serious challenges for sustainable livestock farmers. These industrial facilities are unsuitable for most small farmers since they can’t (or won’t) separate sustainable meat from the factory farmed stuff - and because big processors prefer to deal with industrial farms capable of continuously supplying a tremendous volume of livestock.
Meanwhile, many sustainable farmers must transport livestock long distances to reach the few remaining small slaughterhouses - this is time consuming, expensive, and stresses the animals. Furthermore, while most mega-slaughterhouses are USDA inspected (this enables the meat to be sold across state lines), many small slaughterhouses are state inspected, which restricts the meat to in-state sale, thus limiting the farmer’s potential customer base.
Though some sustainable farmers resort to slaughtering livestock on their own farms, regulations vary by state and locality (so it’s not always a viable option), and again, the meat can’t be sold out of state. As a result, despite growing consumer demand for sustainable meat, some farmers choose not to raise livestock simply to avoid the cost and inconvenience of meat processing.
On the upside, some big strides have been made in addressing the slaughterhouse dilemma. One innovative solution is the mobile meat processing unit (MMPU), which is essentially a mini slaughterhouse that fits into a tractor trailer. Since MMPUs are driven right to the farm, they eliminate the expense and inconvenience of transporting animals, and can serve farmers in a large geographic area. As an added bonus, a USDA inspector can travel with the MMPU so that all the meat is USDA inspected.
Another noteworthy development is the proposal of new inspection regulations by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS); under the proposed rule, certain small, state-inspected processing facilities will receive inspection services from federally trained and supervised inspectors, which will allow meat from these facilities to be sold across state lines. This will enable small processing facilities to enter new markets, making it easier for many farmers to sell sustainable meat.
Learn more about the proposed FSIS rule by participating in a webinar conducted by the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network.
Time: Today! Tuesday, Oct. 20, 10-11am PST/1-2pm EST
go to http://connect.extension.iastate.edu/nichemeat/ and follow instructions.
Read the FSIS news release.