slaughterhouse shortage threatens local meat markets

Michael Burns michael at
Thu May 13 10:25:14 EDT 2010

In case you missed this Ithaca Journal story:

Finger Lakes livestock farmers cope with shortage of slaughterhouses

By Karen Miltner • May 4, 2010

In some respects, John Bermon's livelihood as a small-scale livestock farmer
hangs on a thread.

The owner of Aberdeen Hill Farm produces pasture-raised pork, lamb and beef in
Gorham, Ontario County. Before he can sell his meat at nearby farmers markets
or deliver it to customers in the Rochester area during winter months, he
drives his animals more than 80 miles to Troy, Pa., where they are slaughtered
and processed in a small, family-owned facility that is inspected by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture. Depending on the time of year, that trip can be a
weekly occurrence.

If the Leona Meat Plant gave up its USDA inspection or went out of business,
Bermon's business model would fall apart.

So too would a lot of other livestock farmers in the Finger Lakes who rely on
small-scale USDA-inspected slaughterhouses to move their meats from pasture to

The demand for locally grown, pasture-raised niche meats is soaring, thanks in
large part to the local foods movement, the concern over foodborne outbreaks
and media focus such as the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. There are
many small, sustainably bent livestock farmers such as Bermon at the ready to
meet that demand.

"The bottleneck in the process is the lack of USDA slaughter facilities," said
Jim Ochterski, agriculture economic development specialist at Cornell
Cooperative Extension of Ontario County.

The Pennsylvania facility, for example, already is booked through 2011.

"As each of these operations close, it is one step closer to a service that
the community can't get locally," said Greg Atwood of Copper Creek Farm in

After the Macedon, Wayne County, slaughterhouse he used shut down, Atwood
shifted his beef farm to a cow-calf operation, selling weaned calves to a
finisher. He still sells some of his grass-fed beef to local consumers, taking
some of his animals to Joe's Meat Market in Ontario, Wayne County, the closest
USDA-certified slaughterhouse for Finger Lakes farmers.

While other parts of the state show signs of change, Ochterski and area
farmers are unsure of any single solution to the shortage here in the Finger
Lakes. They have formed a task force at the ready to assist any investors who
might want to build a new facility, but maximizing other selling options
appears to be the most immediate way to alleviate the shortage.


In the early 1980s, there were about 150 slaughterhouses throughout New York
that carried USDA inspection; now there are fewer than 40, according to Marty
Broccoli's estimates. He is the agriculture development specialist at Cornell
Cooperative Extension of Oneida County. Ochterski believes the number of such
facilities in the Finger Lakes area dwindled from about eight to one during
the same time period.

The shortage is not unique to New York. According to a 2009 report by Food &
Water Watch, the number of state and federally inspected facilities nationwide
shrunk 20 percent between 2002 and 2007.

Consolidation is one big reason for the national decline. As of 2005, nearly
85 percent of the beef in this country was being processed by the four top
companies. Ditto for pork, with the top four processors dominating more than
60 percent of the hogs.

Other factors also contribute to the shrinkage. Slaughterhouse work is hard
and dirty, the hours are long and the profit margin is slim. As owners
approached retirement age, family members or other interested parties have not
stepped up to take over the business, Broccoli said.

And unlike the mega assembly line slaughterhouses of the Midwest, smaller
facilities need more highly trained workers who understand the entire process
from start to finish. In recent years both skilled workers and training to
develop them have diminished.

HACCP, which stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, a
management plan to address hygiene and food safety risks, became mandatory in
1998, and are especially onerous for small-scale facilities.

"It's hard for the little businesses to comply with all the paperwork," said
John Pagliuso, owner of Joe's Meat Market in Ontario, Wayne County.

HACCP record-keeping requires so many steps to be recorded that Pagliuso has
to pull administrative staff from their desks to monitor and verify what
workers on the kill floor are doing, which slows down work flow considerably,
he said.

"We consider (forfeiting USDA inspection) every day. But most of the people we
butcher for need that federal sticker," said Mike Debach, co-owner of Leona's
Meat Plant, where Bermon and some other Finger Lakes livestock farmers take
their animals.

The alternative is losing a local source of meat altogether. That happened to
Elizabeth McInerney of Brighton, who was buying Katahdin lamb from a Brockport
farmer. He stopped selling meat when the slaughterhouse he relied on closed,
McInerney said. "I really liked that kind of lamb. Now I buy less lamb," she

Some locally raised meats are sold in area natural foods stores as well as at
farmers markets and farm stores. But area livestock farmers don't produce
enough volume to supply large chains such as Wegmans Food Markets.

In order for New York farmers to sell meat from so-called amenable species
(such as beef, lamb, pork or goat) either directly to consumers or to other
retailers, restaurants or wholesalers in or beyond New York state, the animals
must be slaughtered in a federally inspected plant and the meat must bear the
USDA stamp.

These facilities must follow strict federal standards, keep a USDA inspector
on hand and have a CQHACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points)
management plan in place to address hygiene and food safety risks.
Other ways to sell meats

Small-scale livestock farmers do have other selling options, but they are not
always convenient for the average household.

One of them is to sell a live whole, half or quarter animal directly to the
consumer, who then, as the animal's owner, takes on responsibility for
arranging slaughtering and processing.

The practice is commonly known as the freezer meat trade. As long as the meat
is to be consumed exclusively by the owner and will not be resold, it can be
processed at a USDA custom-exempt slaughterhouse, which operates with fewer
requirements than a USDA-licensed facility. A USDA custom-exempt facility must
be inspected on a regular basis, but each meat order is not.

Although she does not have an exact number, there are far more USDA
custom-exempt slaughterhouses in New York state than USDA-licensed facilities,
said Martha Goodsell, a deer and poultry farmer in Candor, who is part of NY
Small Farms Work Team on Livestock Processing Issues.

Angela Bedient of Bedient Farms Natural Beef in Potter, Yates County, sells a
small portion of her naturally grown beef by the half or whole. She would like
to sell more animals this way as there is less handling on her part, but she
understands that fewer households have the cash upfront, which could run $900
to $1,200 for half a cow.

"Anyone who is familiar with buying off the farm knows that is it not an issue
of whether the butcher is USDA or not" because hygiene and butchering finesse,
not USDA inspection, are what really matter, said Bedient, who also sells her
meats by the cuts at farmers markets.

However, Bermon feels more confident being able to offer meat that carries the
USDA stamp; he dreads the thought of going back to the bulk freezer trade.

"The profit margin was smaller and cash flow was far worse for selling live
animals," he said.

Looking for solutions

Though the shortage of USDA livestock processing facilities is hampering
farmers who are trying to meet the growing demand for niche meats, "for the
first time in the last 20 years, things are starting to reverse themselves,"
particularly in the eastern part of the state, said Kathleen Harris,
processing and marketing coordinator of the Northeast Livestock Processing
Service Co. in Sprakers, Montgomery County.

In Washington County, a custom-exempt slaughterhouse recently transitioned to
USDA inspection. Meanwhile in Oneida County, a temporarily closed
USDA-inspected plant will soon open under new ownership, and things look
hopeful for a full-service organic slaughterhouse to open sometime in the near
future as well, noted Broccoli.

The Glynwood Center, a farmland preservation organization in Cold Springs,
Putnam County, is overseeing the state's first mobile slaughterhouse that will
service livestock farmers in the lower Hudson Valley. Similar red meat mobile
processing units are already being used in a handful of states including
California, Washington and South Dakota.

Goodsell is a strong proponent of using the existing custom-exempt and
USDA-inspected slaughterhouses more effectively by encouraging livestock
farmers to extend the window in which they take their animals to slaughter.
This would reduce the backlogging that occurs during the peak livestock
harvesting season of October and November.

Other advocates push the need for more warehouse space for the carcasses to
alleviate the bottlenecking.

Ochterski's Ontario County-based USDA Livestock Facility Task Force has
determined that an investment of $1.4 million to $1.6 million is needed to
build a small-scale slaughterhouse in this region. So far, no serious
investors have stepped up to the plate.

His optimism lies in the swelling number of consumers who are willing to
forfeit USDA inspection and invest in a whole or half animal.

"There is no USDA stamp there so you have to trust the farmer and processor.
The benefit is you get the meat cut up exactly the way you want it, and it
creates is a much deeper relation with the farmer and processor," he said.


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