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Where’s the Beef? Current Needs, Creative Solutions, and Cooperative Opportunities in Regional Red Meat Processing

April 15, 2022
Paul Dorrance (Pastured Providence)

Consumer demand for local, humanely-raised and pastured red meat has never been higher. Producers have both the desire and capability to grow into and meet that demand. So what is the issue? The simple answer: major consolidation within the meat processing industry over the past two decades. In 2002, small- to mid-sized processing facilities made up 79% of the market share in the meat processing industry. However, by 2018 a whopping 53% was held by just four multinational companies. At the same time this gargantuan oligopoly was enjoying historical profits, the overall number of slaughtering plants in the U.S. shrunk by 70% since 1967. This saga of consolidation, loss of skilled agricultural labor, and forgotten connection with our food is, in my opinion, one of the greatest national tragedies of our time.

This clear consolidation of the meat processing industry, along with workforce issues for both processing and inspection personnel, has created a bottleneck within the processing supply chain that effectively keeps producers from growing and consumers from eating what they want. A global pandemic further exposed the existing cracks in the corporate infrastructure, with grocery store shelves going empty while hundreds of thousands of animals were euthanized and left to rot. Meanwhile, small and local producers like me were (and still are) fighting tooth and nail just to get a slaughter date for animals that haven’t even been born yet! Against this backdrop of corporate greed, with the support of a USDA Local Food Promotion Program planning grant, our team* undertook an effort to determine if the concept of “mobile” meat slaughter and processing represents a possible solution to this supply chain issue in Ohio and Central Appalachia.

The project’s approach sought to explore the issue through a multitude of avenues, including an electronic Needs Assessment Survey, site visits to existing and start-up mobile units, in-person interviews with producers, consumers, and industry professionals, as well as two stakeholder summits (notably one held in conjunction with Ohio Food Policy Network’s Summit in November 2021). Over our 18-month effort, the team vigorously evaluated both the limitations and possibilities that a mobile slaughter and processing unit presented.

A very general version of our conclusions include:

  • There is a clearly defined need to address the processing bottleneck
  • Contrary to popular opinion, a mobile unit is completely legal in the state of Ohio
  • While viewed as desirable by both slaughter and inspection personnel, mobile wouldn’t directly address existing labor issues
  • Mobile requires additional logistics, including follow-on cold storage and processing/packaging
  • Mobile works best when solving a specific issue (geography, zoning, land use, etc)
  • The relatively low cost represents real potential as a startup or scale up business tool
  • More research needs to be done to identify and quantify the benefits gained in carcass quality through the lack of transport stress

Ultimately our team determined that, while mobile processing doesn’t represent a “silver bullet” to the meat processing bottleneck, it absolutely deserves a place at the table as policymakers, financiers, farmers, and entrepreneurs consider their options. To that end, our team will be creating several Fact Sheets sharing our conclusions in depth, as well as completing a feasibility study and business plan for a prospective mobile unit. These tools will be released on our website and sent to our email listserv. If you are interested in receiving those products and keeping in touch, you can sign up via this link.

Massive thanks to the Ohio Food Policy Network for your interest in this project, for keeping food at the forefront of policy in this state, and for continuing to invite farmers into these critical discussions… our team appreciates everything you do!

* Project team:

  • Angela Blatt, Director of Research and Technical Assistance, Council of Development Finance Agencies
  • Paul Dorrance, Pastured Providence Consulting
  • Rachel Tayse, Seeding Resilience
  • Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet)

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