Butcher cutting up a beef carcass

In July, the Biden administration issued the Executive Order Promoting Competition in the American Economy, directing the USDA and other federal agencies to develop strategies to improve competition in agricultural markets. Cornucopia responded to the USDA’s request for feedback on meat processing infrastructure, underscoring our belief that small-scale and mobile processing would be a boon to rural communities.

Many slaughterhouses and processors have been squeezed out of business by massive industrial processing facilities. Those that are left are in high demand and have little incentive to take on organic certification.

While small processors are efficient and resilient, there are not enough of them. In a formal comment, Cornucopia asked the USDA to increase grants and funding for organic transition and to update infrastructure and equipment for small processors.

We support grants and incentives for new plants or mobile processors in areas where organic and sustainable farmers need them.

The Processing Bottleneck

Access to processing is an ongoing headache for organic meat producers. In order to be sold as organic, livestock must be slaughtered, and the meat processed, at a USDA certified organic facility. The number of federally inspected slaughterhouses is in steep decline in many areas of the country, and the remaining facilities operate at capacity or are located far way, requiring some producers to travel to process their animals. Many farms and ranches who would otherwise enter the organic market are limited by the lack of certified processing facilities.

A dearth of certified organic processing facilities contributes to higher production costs for small- and medium-scale beef producers, giving industrialized production yet another economic advantage. Without a certified slaughter facility within reasonable travel distance, it is nearly impossible to produce organic beef. Certified mobile slaughter units do exist, but using one is often significantly more expensive.

There are many benefits to small-scale processing. Smaller processors are better suited to animals welfare than processors dealing with thousands of animals. A smaller operation can simply give more attention and care to the slaughter of each individual animal. Mobile slaughter units that provide processing on-location also allow cattle to avoid the stress of transport before being processed. This stress is not only an animal welfare concern, but it decreases the quality of the meat.

Infrastructure and Demand During a Pandemic

When COVID-19 struck, large processors with long supply chains utterly failed, frustrating livestock producers and consumers.

The pandemic exposed fragility of industrialized meat infrastructure. While processing at large plants that utilize fast line speeds and cheap labor results in meat that is cheaper, that system crumbles under pressure and ultimately gives eaters less choice.

When the pandemic closed processing plants, many large scale farmers were left with animals they couldn’t process, leading to large-scale livestock culls and meat shortages on grocery shelves.[1] With only four corporations slaughtering 80 percent of the cattle in the US, this problem is systemic. (Watch this video to learn more about the stronghold of industrial beef.)

But regional food systems were able to adapt. Smaller farmers and ranchers saw their demand increase in 2020. This was particularly true for beef marketed as organic and grass fed. When consumers looked beyond their chain grocery supplier, smaller-scale meat processing plants and alternative slaughter services were bombarded with farmers attempting to secure processing for the busy year ahead. [2]

The future viability of authentic organic livestock and poultry production relies on a remedy to the processor shortage.

What can eaters do? Buying from local processors is a vote of confidence in a more resilient and locally-centralized food chain. The price tag of high quality local beef may be higher, but the price tag of factory farm beef reflects savings that are only made by possible by harm to animal welfare, inhumane working conditions that keep industrial beef humming, and consequences for the living soil, water, and air.

Read Policy Director Kestrel Burcham’s public comment imploring the USDA to prioritize organic small organic livestock production—a necessary investment in climate resilient agriculture.

[1] Tyler Whitley. April 30, 2020. “Op-ed: Don’t Blame Farmers Who Have to Euthanize Their Animals. Blame the Companies They Work For.” Civil Eats. https://civileats.com/2020/04/30/op-ed-dont-blame-farmers-who-have-to-euthanize-their-animals-blame-the-companies-they-work-for/

[2] Lisa Held. May 19, 2020. “As COVID-19 Disrupts the Industrial Meat System, Independent Processors Have a Moment to Shine.” Civil Eats. https://civileats.com/2020/05/19/as-covid-19-disrupts-the-industrial-meat-system-independent-processors-have-a-moment-to-shine/

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