Expanding Meat Processing Options for Beginning Farmers


A recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS) raises important questions about the availability of slaughterhouses and processing plants for local meat producers and “…the extent to which these may constrain or support growth in demand for locally sourced meats.”  The report looks at the types, locations, number, and other characteristics of slaughterhouses.  Of particular concern to young famers  is that ERS concludes that  access to federal- or state-inspected slaughterhouses and processing facilities is limited in certain parts of the country.  In addition, alternative small-scale slaughter facilities may not be financially feasible in all parts of the country because of a lack of consistent output from the facilities.  Some methods of addressing this problem include the use of mobile slaughter units (MSUs) and other alternative methods of slaughter.

Photo by Robfromamersfoort on Flickr

The number of livestock farms selling their meat locally is relatively small, but consumers have been increasingly interested in how meat is produced, how animals are raised and slaughtered, and the kind of diet that they eat.  Locally marketed meat products usually include particular attributes relating to production system type–such as grass-fed, natural, or certified organic–and some consumers are willing to pay a higher price for these types of meats for reasons of quality, animal welfare, or environmental implications.  In order to translate this premium into profit for the producer, the price must be “…high enough to absorb the costs associated with the production program and supply chain, including processing.”

ERS notes in this report that the “local meat sector” can vary in terms of the scale of production and marketing outlets.  Local sectors can be as simple as selling an animal to a neighbor.  They can also be much more complex, with a set of producers raising animals in a certain designated production system, which then sells to restaurants and retailers.

All meat and poultry produced for retail in the United States must undergo inspection, before and after slaughter.  The three basic types of inspection are federal inspection, state inspection, and inspection at Talmadge-Aiken (TA) plants, which are inspected by state employees acting as agents for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).  Federally-inspected and TA-inspected meat can be sold interstate, but state-inspected meat can only be sold intrastate.  TA is active in only nine states.

Young farmers should know that there are several exemptions to the requirement for inspection.  For example, the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) “…exempts from inspection animals slaughtered for the household use of the owner, his/her family, employees, and nonpaying guests.”  Livestock owners can use this exemption to sell a share of a live animal before slaughter.  The consumer, as the new owner of the animal, pays the meat processor directly for slaughtering the livestock.  The meat must not enter commerce and has to meet certain labeling requirements.  Additionally, the slaughter establishment must meet certain requirements, such as humane handling and sanitation requirements.

Also, depending on the state, small-scale poultry farmers can usually qualify for one of several inspection exemptions if they sell less than a certain number of birds each year.  Two common exemptions are a 1,000-birds-per-year limit and a 20,000-birds-per-year limit.  However, not all states offer these exemptions, and poultry farmers in states that do offer them usually face additional requirements such as sanitation rules, annual facility inspections, and more.

The ERS study identified certain parts of the country that seem particularly deficient in terms of local slaughter capacity.  For beef, these areas include Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, the area around the Appalachian Mountains, and scattered counties in the West.  For pork, this includes the West Coast, Colorado, parts of Texas and Oklahoma, the northern Midwest, and much of New England.  For chicken, there is particularly low slaughter capacity in the Northeast as well as the northern Midwest and Pacific Northwest.

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture

One specific way of addressing the lack of slaughterhouses for local farms is the use of mobile slaughter units (MSUs).  ERS reports that these units are “…a self-contained slaughter facility that can travel from site to site.”  When an MSU is used, livestock and poultry do not have to be transported to a slaughterhouse.  Instead the federal inspector travels with the mobile unit to the actual farm.  This shifts transportation costs from the farmer to the MSU.  MSUs do have the disadvantage that slaughter costs per pound are generally higher than they would be at a fixed facility.

ERS identifies aggregation as another option to increase slaughter capacity.  With this method, a group of producers who raise animals under the same set of standards can collectively provide a small- or medium-scale processor with steadier business.

 Solutions such as these are addressed fully in the ERS report, and beginning farmers should consider some of the options outlined if they are in an area without many meat processing options.

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