As COVID-19 spread across the country over the past two years, a There was a shortage of meat. And it wasn’t for a lack of animals. The pandemic spread quickly in large, crowded slaughterhouses, force them to close temporarily. Farmers and ranchers suddenly had nowhere to send their livestock. Grocery store shelves were empty; Meanwhile, animals that had reached maturity were killed and buried in the fields.
Like many vulnerabilities that COVID-19 has exposed in our food system, the slaughterhouse shortage was a disaster that awaited us. Small meat producers have long suffered from a lack of access to processing facilities. Slaughterhouses for small and organic farmers and ranchers have been in dire need for decades – a problem known as the ‘meat processing shortage’.
This is important because the farmers and ranchers who meet the demand for local meat – many of whom adhere to organic practices – deserve our support. she are often smaller businesses with a focus on animal welfare, protecting the environment and selling fresh, wholesome food directly to their communities. Small slaughterhouses also support local food supplies, generate local revenue and create jobs that often pay and encourage high hourly wages healthier and more flexible Working conditions. Consumers are becoming aware of the many benefits of small-scale livestock farming and processing, and it’s not surprising that they exist increasing buyer demand for meat produced by these processes.
But these small plants cannot keep up with the demand. They face a number of financial, labor and regulatory hurdles. Meat processing regulations are largely written for large processors and only work for those who have achieved such economies of scale almost impossible for small processors to keep up. This worsens business consolidation and creates a marketplace where Large farms slaughter and process the vast majority of the meat in our food supply. For example easy Four companies now control more than 80 percent of the market for processing beef.
As a result, small and certified organic producers have lost almost all preference, convenience and flexibility when it comes to when and where to slaughter their livestock. Without significant scaling, these farmers cannot get into the large facilities and currently face a 6 to 18 month wait on slots in slaughterhouses. Worse, many must travel for hours and hundreds of miles to reach a facility willing to take them. These long journeys are not only expensive, labor intensive and polluting; They are also distressing for the animals, a particular problem these farmers try to avoid with high animal welfare standards. This unnecessary stress also affects the animals quality of the finished meat that these producers take great care in providing.
Organic meat farmers face additional challenges. Because of the National Organic Program’s strict standards, certified organic farmers who do not have access to certified organic processing facilities cannot market or label their products as organic or use the USDA Certified Organic seal—even if their animals were raised in accordance with organic became norms. At a time Organic meat is one of the fastest growing organic food categories on the marketis another hurdle hardworking farmers face in communicating the integrity with which their product was made.
Fortunately, promising legislation is in the works. In February 2021, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Strengthening of local processing law both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. The bill provides processors employing 500 workers or fewer with the means to grow and expand to meet the demands of both producers and consumers. It also supports a scale-based approach to slaughter and processing – something current regulations fail to accommodate. Many established national organizations support the bill, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the American Association of Meat Processors, the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network, and the National Farmers Union. Public input is vital, and now is the time to contact members of Congress and express your support for the bill.
Consumers can also support local and organic producers by buying directly from local farmers and ranchers at farmers’ markets and through community-supported farming programs. Some farmers offer herd participation programs, which allow consumers to buy an animal from a local herd, pay the rancher to care for the animal, and collect the meat when the animal is harvested. With such a regulation, consumers can safely buy organically certified animals, even if the meat cannot be labeled as such due to the lack of access to certified organic slaughterhouses.
From supporting policies that increase access to slaughterhouses to carefully choosing how and where money is spent on meat, supporting small and organic meat producers is vital. It will help build the resilience of our food system in the face of future challenges beyond COVID-19 and help build healthy communities from pasture to fork.
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Photo courtesy of Leon Ephraïm, Unsplash