The four largest American meat packers slaughter and process more than 80 percent of beef in the United States. Three of these same companies, along with an additional fourth, process more than 60 percent of America’s pork. In addition, the four major companies in broiler production slaughter and process more than half of the U.S. chicken supply. The same slaughter figures apply to turkey. And about 10 years ago, more than 80 percent of cattle slaughter took place at only 22 plants in the U.S., even though more than 6,000 meat plants operate under USDA inspection.

This is the state of the meatpacking and poultry industry in the U.S., according to a study, Concentration in Agricultural Markets, by Mary Hendrickson and William Hefferman, of the Univ. of Missouri’s Department of Rural Sociology. Other studies show a similar concentration in boxed-beef production, as well as increasing mergers of slaughter and processing firms and corresponding losses in the number of small and very small meat and poultry processors. In fact, with the exception of Pennsylvania, New York and several others states, fewer small meat and poultry slaughtering establishments are remaining in business.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the number of slaughterhouses in the U.S. has diminished over the past decade-and-a-half. USDA reports that between 1992 and 2008, the number has dropped from 1,211 slaughterhouses to 809, a loss of one-third of the facilities in the country. And the problem is many of those small slaughterhouses don’t have much capacity to begin with, and many of them can’t keep up with demand. At the same time, the number of small farmers has increased by 108,000 during the past five years.

There has been a recent demand spike for slaughter from small farmers who want to sell the meat and poultry they raise locally, which is part of the growing “local food” movement. The idea is to have meat slaughtered locally and then eaten locally by consumers who live in the region. Because they want to sell the meat or poultry in the region where they live, either to grocery stores or restaurants, these animals must be slaughtered and processed at either federally inspected establishments or in about 26 states, under state inspection “equal to” USDA inspection. Mobile slaughter unit operators are subject to the same regulatory requirements that apply to brick-and-mortar facilities.

However, large meatpacking firms won’t accept animals from small farmers and ranchers for slaughter – they stay busy keeping pace with their own plants’ capacity. Additionally, they can’t keep track of small batches of meat because they don’t make profits on smaller volume orders. That leaves the shrinking number of smaller slaughterhouses, which often don’t have the capacity to take care of small farmer needs. So there is a need to build greater slaughter capacity in some rural areas, where it is lacking.

A mobile opportunity
One alternative proposed by farmers and ranchers in the “local food” movement is the use of mobile slaughterhouses – small slaughtering facilities that can be moved place to place by truck. In fact, in New England, Whole Foods, a national chain of upscale supermarkets, is studying the idea of using mobile slaughter units to slaughter poultry. The goal is to provide poultry growers enough of a profit to turn it into a sustainable food-supplying system. Once the system began operating, farmers could also sell chickens they process by mobile slaughter and processing to other retail stores as well, according to Whole Foods. The grocery store would post a picture of the farmer who raised the birds at the meat case and tell customers how the chickens were raised. Farmers would be able to raise, say ,? 1?,000 birds as an addition to their main agricultural production. The program, still in the planning stage, might start in Connecticut where slaughter facilities are few and far between. Currently, most farmers who want to have birds slaughtered and sell them as “local food” have to take the animals to Vermont, New York or Pennsylvania for slaughter.

But not all small processors think this is a great idea. Amy Sipes, John’s Custom Meats, Smiths Grove, Ky., a small processing facility, doesn’t think mobile slaughter units are necessarily the answer to the scarcity of slaughter facilities. “I don’t see these mobile units as something to help the farmers in the long run,” she says. Instead, the meat processor thinks more brick-and-mortar slaughter facilities are needed and should be built. Sipes believes steps should be taken to strengthen the small slaughterhouses and to fix facilities already existing and already under inspection that can easily help farmers process their poultry and meat. “I’d rather see more smaller meat-processing facilities, especially slaughterers, than mobile units.”

Sipes believes there is a safety concern when the idea of expanding the number of mobile slaughter units is brought up. “Small and very small slaughterers are already there. They’ve been operating, in some cases, for many years. They’re already under inspection, so you don’t have problems to deal with. With mobile units, I see all kinds of problems. How is the inspection going to be carried out? Will the inspector travel from place to place along with the mobile unit? There are many issues to be settled when you talk about mobile units.”

All in favor?
Nevertheless, USDA is encouraging the spread of mobile slaughter units in the U.S. The agency is helping to pay for some mobile slaughter units and is helping to construct a facility near the Quad Cities in Illinois and Iowa. USDA is also trying to make the public aware that a lot of food for consumption is produced close to home. As part of this effort to connect consumers with local producers of food, the agency is sponsoring a program called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.”

FSIS sponsored two Webinars on mobile slaughter units on Jan. 20 and 21, highlighting inspection issues unique to mobile slaughter units, as presented by industry and agency experts. The agency says the units are a feasible option for small livestock producers wanting to provide safe and wholesome poultry and meat to local and interstate consumer markets.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is a supporter of the units, saying demand is high, “particularly in the Northeast, where there is indeed a backlog and lengthy wait for slaughter facilities,” he said.

One area where mobile slaughter units are being used is Washington State. Over the past 30 years, many USDA-inspected meat slaughtering facilities in the state have closed and have not been replaced. Since the Department of Justice rates the U.S. beef industry as “highly concentrated,” this has resulted in reduced profits for small and midsize farmers and has encouraged concentration at the slaughter, processing, retail and producer levels.

Even the small number of USDAinspected facilities in the state overstates the availability of USDA processing for independent farmers. The few USDA-inspected facilities remaining have minimum head requirements or work only on contract. And in the past 10 years alone, approximately 10 percent of small meat processing operations across the country have ceased operating, continuing a trend occurring since the 1980s.

Jonathan “Jay” Healy, director of USDA’s Rural Development Agency for Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, says very few USDAcertified and inspected slaughterhouses remain in Connecticut or the rest of Southern New England, hence, the interest by Whole Foods in the mobile units. “I was an agriculture commissioner in Massachusetts for 14 years,” he says. “And I always felt a long-term avenue for farmers to survive would be access to slaughterhouses, which doesn’t exist up here to any great degree.”

He said a mobile-slaughter unit has been developed by a group of small poultry processors based at the New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI), in Belchertown, Mass., and connected with Tufts Univ. in Medford, Mass. “Under the USDA producer-processor exemption, farmers can process their own birds raised on their own farms.

Slaughterhouse for lease
A mobile slaughter unit is now available to processors to lease and use on their farms, provided they have completed the required training.

“The unit is a mobile poultry slaughterhouse on wheels that travels from farm to farm, and producers can lease the unit to process their own birds on their farm for direct markets, as long as they meet all the regulatory requirements,” Healy says. “The MPPU comes with poultry cones, a rotary scalder and plucker, chill tubs, hot water hand-wash sinks and eviscerating stations,” he says. “The producer is responsible for labor, electricity, water and propane hookups. And money is currently being raised to pay for a second slaughter unit.”

Dr. Christopher Raines, assistant professor of meat science and technology at Penn State University, thinks the mobile slaughter units are a boon for states with very few small slaughtering and processing plants. Raines pointed out red meat mobile slaughter units exist in Washington, run by groups including the Puget Sound Meat Producers Cooperative, Island Grown Farmers Cooperative , Thundering Hooves Group in Walla Walla, Texas and Alaska. Poultry slaughter units are being used in California, in the Sierra Foothills, in Kentucky, North Carolina, at the Community Agricultural Development Center in Colville, Wash., in Vermont, Montana and Massachusetts.

Raines says “local food from local farmers” has a high resonance with more consumers today. “They like the idea of eating food coming from their area. They also like the idea of helping their local economy. Then there are elements of eliminating the ‘middle man’, moving away from the extremely processed food that forms a big part of our supermarkets and groceries, and the idea of our food animals going through less stress. And the other growing factor is many of these foods going to farmers markets, where people like to buy them.”

USDA’s Healy doesn’t expect large numbers of mobile slaughter units to appear or for them to take over the slaughter and processing industry, including the small industry. Instead he views the appearance of mobile slaughter as a technology with slow, steady growth.

“It’s another option for the meat and poultry industry, and for agriculture. I certainly don’t view it as competition with the large packinghouses, or even the remaining small slaughter industry. But maybe it’s a development that will allow farm kids to come back after they’ve graduated from college and get involved in their family’s farm business, instead of going away and doing something else having nothing to do with agriculture.” •

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent and a feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. With a background in editing and writing for daily news publications, he also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates.