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know your abattoir: there’s a shortage of local slaughterhouses, and it’s kind of a big problem

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The following cross-post comes from Field Notes from Maggie’s Farm, the blog from the Learn to Farm Program at the Farm School, and serves as an announcement of an exciting ongoing future partnership between this program and the Greenhorns Blog. Today, Farm School student Sophie Mendelson gives us a compelling run-down of the current quiet bottleneck crisis in sustainable meat– and what to do about it. 

Now in its 28th year, the Farm School in Athol, MA provides comprehensive educational programming in agriculture for youth, visiting schools, and adults. (Read more on their programming here!) Watch for more original posts on this blog from Sophie Mendelson, a student in their Learn to Farm Program, talented writer, and past and future farmer.

Know Your Abattoir: How to Keep Sustainable Meat Sustainable
by Sophie Mendelson

If consumers want local meat, they need to go to bat for local slaughterhouses.

At Adams Farm Slaughterhouse in Athol, MA, they play classical music on the kill floor. Cattle carcasses—seemingly as big as dinosaurs—hang by the hock from metal hooks fitted to a track in the ceiling that winds around the perimeter of the cathedral-like room. As the carcasses move along the track, they are divested of their blood, their skins, their internal organs, their heads, their hooves, and ultimately their integrity as a saw divides the animals neatly down their line of symmetry. This is how a “side” of beef is made.

The door to the holding pen opens and there is a great rattling as a cow enters the first segment of the indoor chute. A worker steps forward to urge the animal into the final compartment of the stunning pen, but this is a smaller cow, and instead of proceeding smoothly through the Temple Grandin-designed system, it begins to turn in the chute—an option not available to a larger animal. The worker attempts to redirect by prodding the cow from behind; metal clangs as the animal presses against the bars in resistance. The worker prods again, with little luck.

Noticing the commotion, another worker makes his way over to the chute. Instead of pushing from the rear, this man approaches the cow’s head. He reaches through the bars and strokes the cow’s chin. The animal stills. The man leans forward and appears to whisper something to the cow. Then, gently, he takes the cow by the ear and guides it into the stunning pen.

As soon as the animal crosses into this final compartment, a gate slides closed behind it and, with a bang, a stun gun sends a bolt through the cow’s forehead. It collapses to the ground.

It’s a complicated kind of tenderness that’s required to soothe an animal into the slaughter chute, and it takes a special kind of person to do that work, with care and precision, day after day, week after week.

Ed Matsby is the general manager and spokesperson for Adams Farm. He says that the public often thinks that the people who work on a slaughterhouse kill floor must hate animals. Really, Matsby says, it’s the opposite. The kill floor operators are his workers who care about animals the most: hunters and farmers who understand that a seamless death is as integral to animal welfare as a happy life.

It’s workers like these that Matsby and his team spend so much time identifying, training, and attempting to retain. In return for hard work in what’s by any account a demanding job both physically and psychologically, Adams Farm strives to be a quality employer—one of the few offering good wages and benefits in Athol, a former factory town that, like many other former factory towns across the countries, has floundered in the post-industrial decades.

In addition to acting as an important economic driver in a job-strapped small Massachusetts town, Adams also provides an essential service to small-scale livestock farmers throughout New England. This is because Adams is an anomaly in more than just its attentive treatment of animals and good labor policies; it’s mere existence in an increasingly consolidated and commodified American meat industry makes Adams farm unusual—and essential to farmers facing few other options.

In articles describing the state of the American meat industry, the metaphor of an hourglass is invoked repeatedly to illustrate an infrastructure bottleneck that stands in the way of a truly robust local food movement. As the number of small farms raising some version of “sustainable” livestock rises, so to does consumer interest in feel-good meat. But while supply and demand are both on the upswing, the number of slaughterhouses licensed and willing to transform that supply into a consumable product is actually on the decline. 

A combination of sweeping food safety regulations and unchecked corporate consolidation are responsible for the current infrastructure squeeze. The Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906 required farmers to bring their animals to USDA-inspected plants if they wanted to sell commercially across state lines, but it still permitted states to make their own rules about in-state sales of meat processed at so-called “custom” slaughterhouses not subject to daily federal inspection. Then, in 1967, congress passed the Wholesome Meat Act, which prevented meat processed at state-inspected facilities from being sold at all post-slaughter.

Since the passage of the WMA, 70% of American slaughterhouses have either closed or been subsumed by one of the handful of meat industry giants responsible for the overwhelming majority of slaughters in this country: four companies are responsible for over 50% of pork, chicken, and turkey slaughters, respectively; only three companies slaughter 90% of American beef.

Those few independent processors that survived the WMA now face a new challenge. A law introduced in 1998 requiring all slaughterhouses, regardless of scale, to adopt Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety plans has disproportionately affected small plants that simply cannot absorb the additional tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually that it costs to implement regular testing of all meat, whether or not a problem has been identified. This is analogous to requiring low-income families to visit the emergency room monthly for well-person check ups, and then demanding that they pay out of pocket. The financial and logistical burden is simply too much, and many more small processors have buckled since HACCP plans became mandatory.

Ironically, these regulations designed to protect consumer health are actually preventing consumers from accessing what would be the highest quality meat on the market: healthy animals slaughtered in a minimally chaotic setting by skilled workers handling fewer animals with greater care over the course of a day. The current one-size-fits-all regulatory framework is not working. It’s time to differentiate between huge commodity plants and small community-serving plants in the legislature.

It’s also time for the communities that are served by these small plants to show up in support of the processors providing them with their highly-coveted proteins. Sunny pastures and long-lashed cows make for appealing neighbors—holding pens and kill floors, less so.

Slaughterhouses aren’t cute or sexy in the way that small farms have become, but they’re the only way to get an animal from that cute, sexy field to your cute, sexy fork.

With appropriately scaled processing facilities so few and far between, many small farmers must make slaughter appointments months in advance and transport livestock hundreds of miles there and back again—increasing the cost to farmers (and therefore consumers), stressing animals, and undercutting the “local” nature of the product. If consumers want local meat, they need to go to bat for local slaughterhouses.

So where do we go from here? Former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has promoted farmer-run local cooperatives or mobile facilities as alternatives to traditional, third-party plants. While some farmers have found creative ways to incorporate slaughter into their businesses—Walter Jeffries’ “nano” slaughter unit at Sugar Mountain Farm in Vermont; the Island Grown Farmers Co-op’s mobile slaughter unit in Northwest Washington—many farmers are operating at maximum capacity in order to simply raise their animals, let alone slaughter and butcher them.

Placing the onus on farmers to come up with surrogate mechanisms for animal processing obscures the responsibility of legislators to create a viable regulatory environment for essential small-scale slaughter infrastructure. It also ignores the unique skill set cultivated by dedicated slaughter professionals like the ones Ed Matsby works so hard to identify—professionals who can softly calm a frightened cow, confidently bleed it out, and precisely dissect its meat in one fluid sequence of movements.

Here are three proposals for infrastructural changes that might stand a better chance of helping small-scale slaughterhouses (and as a result, the local meat economy) remain viable:

  1. The Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act: Introduced by Reps. Thomas Massie (KY-R) and Chellie Pingree (ME-D) in July 2015 and picked up in the Senate in March 2016, this bill would re-permit individual states to allow the sale of custom-slaughtered (meaning state, as opposed to federally, regulated) meat within state lines. This would bring the regulatory framework back in line with pre-WMA requirements, reducing the financial and logistical burden to both farmers and small-scale slaughterhouses. Industrial meat producers who typically sell their products in many states would still be required to use USDA-inspected plants, thus maintaining tight food safety oversight for the most likely perpetrators of poor practice while allowing smaller farmers only interested in in-state sales to deliver their product to local consumers in a greater quantity at a fairer price.
  2. Implementation of surveillance cameras inside slaughterhouses: In a 2014 op-ed for the New York Times, Nicolette Hahn Niman proposed the use of camera footage to ease the burden on over-extended USDA food-safety inspectors. A camera system is a much cheaper accountability mechanism than the current requirement of an on-site inspector, particularly given the federal hiring freeze and already limited number of inspectors employed by the USDA. Camera footage for small facilities could help pinpoint instances of contamination or poor practice and  keep facilities accountable to regulations while reducing the paperwork burden of HACCP and daily inspection. Footage could also help reduce the potentially devastating impact of a recall on both small slaughterhouses and farmers by eliminating the need for sweeping recalls that dispose of large quantities of uncontaminated meat as a hedge against the inability to accurately isolate the moment of contamination and its reach.
  3. Financial and regulatory support for professional mobile slaughter and butchering operations: Farmers shouldn’t have to do it all, but slaughter and butchering professionals who want to go mobile could provide a tremendous service to farmers (and by extension, consumers) by entirely eliminating the stress and logistical challenge of transporting livestock. USDA grants enabling the construction of compliant mobile facilities and regulations permitting the sale of meat processed in such facilities are essential to supporting and maintaining this kind of creative problem solving.

And, of course, swag: Who wants a “Know Your Abattoir” bumper sticker?

Sophie Mendelson is a student at the Learn to Farm Program at the Farm School  which offers a year-long, work-based, experiential immersion in the practical skills of diversified, sustainable farming. You can follow her, and her fellow student farmers, throughout their year learning to farm on their blog, Field Notes from Maggie’s Farm. Read more of Sophie’s writing on the Huffington Post and in Modern Farmer.  

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