Latest trend in high-grade meat: 'locally slaughtered'

by Bryan Salvage
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LOMPOC, CALIF. — Smaller, local ranchers along California’s central coastal area have a new beef cattle slaughtering/packing service: a mobile butchering vehicle that caters to small ranchers offering premium meats marketed as free-range, grass-fed and sustainably raised, according to The Associated Press.

"Locally slaughtered" may not appear on meat labels, but the practice allows local, smaller ranchers to do what their ancestors took for granted: raise animals from manger to cuts of meat. "They are treated like animals should be treated when they're harvested here with, I believe, dignity and respect," said Elizabeth Poett, 29.

Increasing interest in meat from free-range cattle and more than $180,000 in government grants helped give ranchers in the remote area the momentum to get the mobile unit on the road and cut out the middlemen between farms and shoppers.

Food recalls traced to large slaughterhouses are also leading some shoppers to seek shorter paths from stable to table, said Debra Garrison, chief executive of the Central Coast Agricultural Cooperative, which deployed the unit in May.

Cattle once grazed in pastures and ranchers butchered them, but that changed in the early 1900s when the government required meat inspection at federally regulated slaughterhouses. Beef production has since become consolidated with 76% of the nation's cattle slaughtered in 26 plants, each capable of handling more than 500,000 animals a year, said John Nalivka, president of Sterling Marketing Inc.

Once raising animals to harvesting age, ranchers now mostly sell calves to big feedlots that fatten them on corn-based feed before sending them to slaughter. Those changes have closed most small regional slaughterhouses, with the number of processors nationwide decreasing from a peak of 1,665 in 1976 to 630 in 2008.

In recent years, more ranchers have gotten into the pasture-raised beef niche. Eatwild.com, which promotes grass-fed meat, listed only 50 ranchers when Eatwild.com went online 10 years ago. Today, it lists approximately 1,300, with up to five — mostly new — added every week.

Now that most local slaughterhouses are gone, ranchers are trying the mobile unit, which costs $240 per animal for slaughter and butchering. By the end of this summer, six ranches will be using the "mobile harvest unit," a tractor-trailer outfitted with knives, meat hooks and a freezer that is based on a similar unit in Washington state.

The vehicle employs three butchers and shares a U.S.D.A. inspector from a local meat-packing plant. Although it charges nearly three times as much as a stationary facility, with the nearest slaughterhouse hours away costs equal out once trucking expenses and time away from the ranch are factored.

Ms. Poett's boneless rib eye steak costs $22 per lb.; a similar cut from conventionally raised cattle costs $11.99 at a Vons supermarket in Los Angeles. But one customer, who buys beef from Ms. Poett at the Santa Barbara farmer's market, said she's happy to spend more for better quality meat that supports an enterprise she believes in.

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