'Local' appeal of beef inconclusive in Northeast

by Meat&Poultry Staff
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HARTFORD, Conn. – A study commissioned by agriculture departments in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut reveals slaughtering New England-raised cattle and selling the beef locally is based more on idealism than economic reality, according to The Associated Press.

The study tried to determine if the local foods movement, which has made inroads in getting more schools, hospitals and other institutions to buy locally grown fruits and vegetables, could be extended to beef. A major portion of developing that market is getting those institutions to buy locally, and many are hesitant to pay a premium for local beef.

Distributors and foodservice companies will not spend money on locally processed beef until producers invest time and energy to develop the markets and until demand rises, the New England Beef to Institution Marketing Study stated.

This spring New England agriculture officials commissioned the study because some farmers said they would prefer to send cattle to nearby slaughterhouses to sell locally produced beef and save on transportation costs. Officials also want to increase local food production to make the region more self-sufficient in case disasters ranging from massive snow storms to terrorist attacks make it impossible to bring in food.

But this region has just a few slaughterhouses equipped to process beef on a large-scale basis.

The study stated increasing local sources of ground beef for sale to schools and other institutions "is still largely an idealistic marketing strategy driven by interest groups" rather than by producers, processors or buyers.

Schools are "not yet begging" for locally processed beef, said Katherine Sims, founder and executive director of Green Mountain Farm to School Network, a Newport, Vt., broker between schools and farms. Money is a big issue, she added.

Study authors surveyed 431 institutions, such as schools and school districts, colleges, universities and hospitals. They found such institutions are under cost pressures that may limit access to local sources of ground beef. Roadblocks to bringing local food to consumers include inadequate distribution, higher costs or perceived higher costs of local food, insufficient storage facilities and little access to nearby beef processors, the study revealed.

Even if demand were high for local slaughterhouses, it's not enough to warrant construction of new plants because the return on investment would be too low, the study added. Renovating slaughterhouses, however, could be an alternative, the study relayed.

Agriculture officials also want to promote locally produced beef just as they boost locally grown fruits and vegetables. For example, New England dairy farmers could make money from dairy cattle that can be slaughtered for beef, but most of the approximately 71,000 head of cattle -- about one-third of the region's 216,100 dairy cows – are sent to auctions out of state, "only to be sold back into our markets," the study said.

The goal should be to reduce costs by establishing cooperative ventures.
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