There are more than 800 federally inspected slaughterhouses in the United States, according to recent USDA data. Another 1,800 are operated by states or are “custom” slaughterhouses—where sales are severely restricted to prohibit, for example, sales to grocers. But figures showing a proliferation of custom slaughterhouses are misleading. The thirteen largest U.S. cattle slaughterhouses account for 56 percent of all cattle killed in this country. The figures are similar for hogs (twelve plants account for 57 percent of all slaughters) and other livestock. Commercial plants processed 47.3 billion pounds of red meat (including cattle, pork, sheep, and other hooved animals) in 2014.
USDA requirements for slaughterhouses the agency inspects are part of the problem. They’re so complex that the agency itself funded a report in 2012 for the purpose of establishing “a streamlined regulatory proposal that could be carried forward in future years to make the USDA inspection system less onerous to smaller facilities that could perceivably be built or utilized in more small local communities.” That sounds great. But the report writers concluded that their mission was damn near futile. “After the numerous conversations and meetings, it became apparent that no one with the USDA or . . . working as professionals within the meat industry,” they write, “believe[s] that streamlining regulations will ever occur.”
On-farm slaughter accounted for just 93.4 million pounds of red meat—or a paltry 0.2 percent of meat slaughtered commercially.
Despite this dire conclusion, small farmers do have some choices for operating outside of the USDA system. But these choices come with serious drawbacks. A 2013 report by the Spokane, Washington, Spokesman-Review detailed the problem. Farmers and ranchers are free to use slaughterhouses that are not inspected by the USDA. But meat from animals slaughtered there “must be sold to the consumer before it is butchered.” That means consumers must buy cow, not beef. And they often have to buy hundreds of pounds at a time. “Since a steer yields about 400 pounds of meat, that’s often too much for a single family,” reported the Spokesman-Review. “Several families can go together to purchase an animal, but that’s more hassle for the rancher. And it doesn’t address the needs of individuals who just want to purchase a few steaks or some ground chuck.”
This helps explain why on-farm slaughter accounted for just 93.4 million pounds of red meat—or a paltry 0.2 percent of meat slaughtered commercially. This figure includes mobile slaughterhouses, vehicles that travel to farms to slaughter livestock without forcing them to undergo the discomfort and stress required by lengthy travel. All of this helps explain why Rancho was the only independent USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in all of Northern California in 2014. It also explains why most small cattle farmers are forced to use USDA facilities and pass up the local slaughterhouse. Some even literally drive by the latter on their way to the former. “I’m a beef farmer myself,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) told me in 2015, “and when I take my animals to be processed, I drive past a custom facility three miles from my house and travel three hours to a USDA facility.”
He’s out almost $400,000 even though the hundreds of his cattle that Rancho slaughtered were cancer-free.
How did we get to this point? As the Washington Post reported in 2010, the “processing, marketing and distribution networks that once made small farming viable . . . disintegrated in the last 30 years as U.S. agriculture went through a dramatic consolidation.” This dramatic decline has occurred even as “demand for pasture-raised niche meats is soaring,” reported USA Today that same year. In other words, the demand for niche meats is rising fast, but supply is being suppressed artificially by the lack of slaughterhouses.
These problems aren’t just evident with cattle and pig slaughter. Consider poultry. Small farmers can slaughter up to 20,000 of their own chickens in a year. And if you’re raising and slaughtering that many birds, chances are you can justify the cost of investing in your own processing facility. But very small operations can’t afford to do so. And that hurts the smallest poultry farmers, because slaughterhouses are often difficult to find. For example, Massachusetts lacks a USDA-approved poultry slaughter facility.
That program is a bad one for small, sustainable farmers and consumers.
The impact of limiting where animals can be slaughtered has real world consequences beyond mere inconvenience, including the Rancho recall. The USDA’s mandatory recall ensnared not only cancerous cattle processed from (and by) a few bad actors but also that of every other producer who’d had an animal slaughtered in the Rancho plant in the past year—out of what the San Francisco Chronicle termed “an abundance of caution . . . to make sure none of the cancerous meat commingled with healthful beef.” That includes cattle sent to Rancho by celebrated grass-fed farmer Bill Niman, who told the Chronicle that he’s out almost $400,000 even though the hundreds of his cattle that Rancho slaughtered were cancer-free and he could prove to the USDA that those cattle were not commingled with the diseased meat. Niman’s wife, Nicolette, an environmental law attorney and author of the book Righteous Porkchop, penned an excellent New York Times op-ed lamenting the recall as an overbroad reaction akin to chopping down hundreds of different orchards thanks to one bad apple. “The Agriculture Department’s tools for safeguarding the nation’s meat supply are blunt and clumsy instruments, especially when dealing with independent farmers,” she wrote. These USDA policies aren’t just stupid—they’re also reckless. And the alleged “abundance of caution” the department claims to be exercising now—after the fact—is entirely the result of its own recklessness.
The Rancho recall is part of a much larger problem that’s existed for decades in the USDA inspection process. That program is a bad one for small, sustainable farmers and consumers. As you’ll learn in chapter 5, the USDA inspection program is now under fire from a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress who support small farmers, including some, such as Rep. Massie, who are themselves small farmers. As you’ll learn, Rep. Massie, a Republican, and Democratic colleagues such as Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) and Jared Polis (D-CO), have cosponsored a bill that would permit farmers to expand options for selling meat locally that’s been processed by local slaughterhouses.
Although USDA food-safety rules make selling sustainably raised meat a tough slog, you’re about to learn that state and local food-safety rules are often no less complicated. Food-safety rules that govern the sale of fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, and other foods you buy at farmers markets and other local outlets can make doing business difficult— or impossible—for local farmers.