Local meat: fad or feasible trend?

Location, location, location: everything in business pertains to geography, especially in agriculture. The majority of cattle operations are located in the Midwest because this is where corn is grown, a staple of their diet. Cattle are close to their food, so packers are close to the cattle. “The average food item on a U.S. grocery shelf has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacations,” (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver).

Most livestock production is vertically integrated, meaning more stages of the production cycle are consolidated into one operation. Cattle production is not like this, which presents one of the limitations of locally-sourced meat. One producer owns the cow/calf breeding operation that is ultimately responsible for getting more animals on the ground while stockers and growers take weaned calves after they reach 500 pounds and grow them to 1,000 pounds. Next up is the finishing phase where cattle are either finished on grass or grain. From here cattle go to a packer that butchers the animal down to different cuts of meat. Finally, the product is ready to go to the restaurant or wholesaler.

Local meat can be a way to get around all these steps and help consumers with their ever-increasing desire to know more about their food source. Smaller operations usually have the ability and aim to take the animal from the beginning of life all the way to the consumer’s plate. A smaller operation means less capital and a smaller margin for error. In animal production, this margin is only a sliver. A slight change in the market can mean the difference between showing a profit or a loss at the end of the year. Markets are all dependent upon the supply and demand relationship, in relation to domestic and international. Markets are determined weeks prior to actually selling the animals, sometimes producers jump the gun and sell when prices are low, cheating themselves out of quite a bit of money per animal. These smaller farms want to vertically integrate, some have gone so far as to include the packing phase in their operations as well. One producer put one in his garage. The obstacles for small operations to vertically integrate lie mainly with financial and federal constraints.

One of the biggest obstacles pertains to the level of difficulty for young agriculturalists’ to start their own production farms and ranches from the ground up. Today’s producers average 50 years old and this is steadily increasing. The farmers have adequately adapted to the intensified system, one that is geared towards efficiency and low prices. Intensification brings plants and animals closer together in smaller places, for higher efficiency and profits. It is part of the reason vertical integration is difficult in the beef industry. This system places value on how quickly and efficiently the can produce food, rather than the quality and localization. Adaptation to a localized food system is sometimes perceived as financially and mentally out of the question. “In short, the current food system stands merely because it is considered the default distribution system.”

New generations excited about localizing meat production have a hard time getting into the industry partially due to high land prices. Erosion, fossil-fuel depletion, high land prices and a mentality of “this is how we have always done things,” present problems for shortening the chain. These long supply chains are not sustainable into the future like they need to be. Many argue the answer is going backwards, going back to when producers took the animals they raised straight to the butcher shop on main street. Unfortunately, most times main street is hundreds of miles away from the nearest meat animal and that butcher shop no longer exists.

There are two sides of the packinghouse spectrum, international on one end and local on the other, with the current, highly used system in the middle. The current system is not conducive for small operations.

Roughly 60 packing plants slaughter an estimated 35 million cattle annually, this leaves minimal room for small producers in remote locations the opportunity to slaughter their animals without losing their investment. The biggest issues with the current system is accessibility for all levels of production. Not only is it an added expense to travel to these locations but it also hurts the local economy by taking these animals to the large packing houses. Small butcher shops once sprinkled the nation, in small and large communities alike. As more of these shops closed over time, revenue was pulled from communities and transferred into  large packing houses. This source of employment and revenue were lost and communities generally shrank as a result of these losses in all local industries. Vibrant local communities experienced a domino effect with one business being forced to shut their doors, and then another, and so on.

The appeal of local meat lies in knowing exactly where it came from and providing high quality products. Restaurants and wholesalers can ask for specific production practices to sell a premium product. This could be USDA Certified Organic, USDA Certified Angus Beef, prime cuts, and grass- or grain-finished beef. Now, more than ever, consumers demand to know where their food comes from. This is a huge drive for locally-grown niche products.

Unfortunately, location often does not conveniently match consumer preferences, notably in the case of grass-fed meat. This has forced consumers to look outside U.S. borders for their desired meat preference. Chipotle began sourcing beef from Australia to appease their customers’ desire for grass-fed, yet cheap meat. This led to an E. Coli situation Chipotle could never foresee, but that just might be part of the inevitable risks of going international. Food coming from an international source is even more difficult to track because of differing standards between countries. We don’t immediately know if Australia regulates slaughterhouses like the U.S. All the more reason to buy local. Most would believe international trade is one of the few options when it comes to grass-fed beef. Some research has been looking into the feasibility of commercialized grass-fed beef competing with grain-fed beef.

The problem with this stems from the availability of forage for cattle, which can take between seven and 25 pounds of forage to produce one pound of beef. It would have taken 200,000 square miles of land to grass-feed all the beef consumed in 2010. This land mass converts to 128 million acres, this would cover roughly 5.5 percent of the U.S. Land used for grazing, including national forests, equaled 714 million acres in 2012 but are steadily declining. Niche market or not, it is just not practical on a large scale given current demand. Land used for agriculture, especially grazing, is steadily declining, same as the number of farms. Some land has been converted into housing developments, urban sprawl, or paved over for highways and shopping malls. This is why most cattle are finished on grain in a Midwestern feedlot, it essentially is more efficient. This default distribution system relates back to the age of the farmers, this is how it has been done since they started in the industry. We all know how stubborn people can be when it comes to their lifeswork.

Traceability in a large packing house ends once the carcass is cut in half. The internal organs and checked by the USDA inspector and after they get the greenlight, the meat goes deeper into the plant. With each step it gets more and more difficult to trace where the meat came from. Back when hometown butchers were common, this was not so difficult. The butcher did everything by hand and usually only with a handful of people, they knew which animal they were working on from beginning to packaging. The globalized system is not conducive for this, producers cannot get meat specifically from the animals they took to the large corporate packing house. If they cannot get the meat from the animal they brought, it is now impossible to sell it as locally grown. Most producers are not the purchasers of the meat from a packing house in the first place. It goes to a wholesaler, restaurant or grocery store from the packer. With only four company’s processing more than 80 percent of all U.S. cattle, it is easy to say to the pitfalls in the large packing house system. Every packing plant in the U.S. has at least one in-house USDA certified inspector, it is illegal to operate without one. This just adds to the cost of operating a packing house, making it more difficult the smaller or more remote it is. Everything about the current intensified system is not conducive for small operations, especially in the locally-grown sector.

Producers on the west coast are taking matters into their own hands, building their own on-site facilities. Many of the limitations for sourcing local meat come from the USDA regulations of packing houses. Innovative producers are finding ways to get around this by either investing in their own facility or utilizing mobile slaughter units. Without proper inspection a producer cannot legally sell their meat. This means they cannot sell it to a restaurant or take it to a farmers market, ultimately defeating the locally grown aspect. Meat not processed at a licensed facility are “for use by a person’s family and their guests only and usually is labeled as ‘not for sale.’” The solution to this lies in investment. Many producers have bit the bullet and put millions of dollars into their own facilities. The real question is will they ever actually see a return on an investment that big? Only time will tell. 

One of the biggest advantages to this investment is the ability of the consumer to actually visit the place where their food is grown. Some large-scale operations do not allow visitors for sanitary and safety reasons. Sometimes utilizing resources is the real answer. The 1901 Meat Co., in Stillwater, Oklahoma, utilizes the meat processing facility on the Oklahoma State University campus. Not many people, including OSU students, actually know their is a fully-functioning slaughterhouse on the campus. By planning around this geographically-convenient resource, 1901 is able to source beef only a few miles from their storefront. If your resources are tapped financially and geographically, then mobiles slaughter units, MSUs, could be your answer. They are significantly cheaper than building an entire facility and can come directly to any location. The drawback is that they are exclusively a slaughter unit, meaning you will still have to find a way to cut and package the meat. It is a start at the very least. MSUs are USDA- and state-inspected, allowing for the cuts of meat produced from the truck to be sold. The future of corporate-style slaughterhouse is not quite as bright as it once was.

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