Getting Meat to the Table

By Tamara Scully

Jaclyn Burskey of Jaclyn Burskey Custom Meats processes a carcass.
Photo by Ali Kaukas.

As consumers, institutions, retailers and chefs become more educated about food, many are opting to source their meat from locally raised animals that are slaughtered humanely in small-scale plants, rather than purchase feedlot beef from the commodity market. More farmers are adding value to their livestock by finishing the animals and marketing the meat themselves.

When opting to direct-market retail cuts of meat to consumers - via farmers' markets or on-farm stores - or directly to a grocery store, institution or restaurant, federal regulations that govern the slaughter and processing of the animal, as well as the labeling and storage of the meat, must be followed. Poultry is covered under different regulations than red meat, and some species, called non-amenable, are not treated the same as most common meats, such as beef, pork, lamb or goat.

These regulations can be confusing, and even health inspectors and agricultural agents can have difficulty interpreting them. Cornell's Small Farms Program recently released a guidebook for producers called "Guide to Direct Marketing Livestock and Poultry," and it also named livestock processing and regulations as the number three priority for small farm viability in New York state. Scale-appropriate, consistent processing regulations and accurate interpretation of regulations are two points identified as major factors that need to be addressed in order to grow the availability of local meats.

Whether an animal is being sold whole, quartered or in halves, it must be slaughtered in a USDA-inspected facility, or in some states a state- licensed facility with the same oversight. Maine and Vermont are the only northeastern states with state-inspected facilities. Under USDA or state inspection, an inspector is on-site and directly examines the carcasses, as well as the entire process, to ascertain that everything is conducted appropriately and that the establishment's Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) procedures are followed.

HACCP costs have been burdensome to many smaller USDA-inspected facilities, as they do not achieve the economy of scale to absorb costs and often have to hire additional staff to handle paperwork. Advocates for regulatory change often ask for small plant exemptions or tailored regulations to ease the financial burden on smaller slaughter and processing facilities. Meat for retail sales must be processed - butchered, packaged and labeled - under USDA inspection as well, with some exemptions for commercial establishments, such as butcher shops, restaurants and others who will further process and sell or utilize the meat in their establishments.

Custom-exempt facilities do not work with USDA or state inspectors, and meat from these plants must be labeled "not for sale." These plants do not have a USDA (or state) inspector on-site, and are only permitted to process animals for the animal's owner, who is prohibited from selling any of the meat. The meat can only be fed to household members, employees and nonpaying guests of the animal's owner. Custom-exempt facilities still must meet health inspection requirements, keep accurate records and follow sanitation guidelines.

Some plants offer both custom-exempt as well as USDA-inspected services. The fact that a plant can offer USDA-inspected services does not mean that all meat at the plant is slaughtered and processed under USDA inspection, a potential point of misunderstanding for small-scale livestock producers.

Direct meat sales spur movement

Chelsea Bardot Lewis, senior agricultural development coordinator with the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, co-chaired the New England Meat Conference held in Concord, N.H., in March. The conference was designed to bring meat producers, processors, agricultural educators, government policymakers and consumers together, where they could develop the necessary resources and connections to make regionally produced, sustainable meat the choice for every table.

Lewis, who co-authored a 2011 paper that assessed New England's capacity for meat slaughter in relation to meat production, has noticed that the demand for USDA-inspected slaughter and processing facilities has increased across the region, even in the short period of time since the paper was released.

While her study found that the USDA-inspected processing capacity has been utilized at a higher rate than the USDA-inspected slaughter capacity, Lewis feels that there is some legitimacy for the need to improve USDA slaughter access as well. Each Northeast state varies in its accessibility of USDA-inspected slaughter and processing. For some, there is likely to be a need to add facilities, while better utilization of existing facilities could solve some of the immediate issues in other localities. Lewis predicts that an increase in capacity will be needed across the New England region as small livestock producers continue to evolve and the demand for local meat increases.

"A lot of producers are starting to scale up," Lewis said, noting that there has recently been less drop-off in slaughterhouse traffic each spring. She said there is opportunity on both the demand side and the supply side to develop initiatives to promote the growth of the industry as a whole.

In need of change

While a familiar complaint from producers pertains to the lack of available USDA facilities, many slaughterhouses have months of downtime, with not enough product coming through to keep them busy. Adding more slaughter facilities could mean less work for everyone, with only the fall slaughter season trade bringing a demand for services.

Seasonality issues, which result in long wait times for a slaughter slot and keep animals on the farm longer than necessary, add cost to the farmer. One way to manage the onslaught of fall scheduling is to educate both consumers and more small producers about freezer meat sales. Traditionally, farmers would raise a few head of cattle or hogs and offer them for sale as freezer sides. Since the animal was sold preslaughter, the meat would be processed at custom-exempt facilities. Consumers realize a price savings, as the cost of inspection and labeling incurred with USDA-inspected services is not necessary. Since the farmer has presold the animal, they are assured of their profit, do not have to invest time to package, label, store and market individual cuts, and can sell at a better per-pound cost.

Producers who opt for live animal sales can access custom-exempt facilities on behalf of their customers, who are more likely to purchase the animal live if the farmer arranges transport, slaughter and processing for them. Diverting animals that do not have to go through USDA-inspected facilities can ease the fall wait time for those who do require USDA inspection for their chosen sales venues.

As more producers raise animals for direct sales of individual retail cuts, many are opting to slaughter year-round, keeping a steady supply of a full array of meat cuts in stock. While feed costs might be incurred when high-quality pasture is not available in the cold months, these farmers are able to offer a regular, consistent supply of meat, retaining customers and income from meat sales year-round. Customers can shop just as they do at a grocery store, selecting the specific cuts they desire and purchasing in small quantities. Year-round slaughtering for sales of retail meat cuts means steady work for the USDA slaughter and processing facilities and eases the demand for fall slaughter slots.

Consumer education can help to increase the demand for the freezer meat trade, and move these presold animals from the USDA slaughter line, easing congestion. Consumer education efforts can also help the farmer engaged in the sale of individual retail cuts to sell the entire animal, not just the popular cuts.

"There is a lot of meat on the animal that is not familiar [to the customer]," Lewis said. Customers traditionally seek out distinct cuts, such as tenderloin, which is not abundant, while passing up the chuck steaks, eventually leaving producers with freezers full of plentiful, but not trendy, meat cuts.

Finding large institutional buyer markets to purchase these more abundant, lower-cost meat cuts could also help to solve this imbalance. Farmers can't raise more animals unless they can sell all of the cuts, Lewis said. Another creative solution Lewis advocates is to sell meat in bundles, packaging the in-demand cuts together with those that are less sought after.

Traditionally, farmers would raise a few head of cattle or hogs and offer them for sale as freezer sides. Since the animal was sold preslaughter, the meat would be processed at custom-exempt facilities.
Photo by PublicDomainPictures/pixabay.com.

Chefs who purchase sides of USDA-slaughtered meat, and then do the butchering themselves at the restaurant, or retail butchers who will process the animal and sell the cuts directly, are another potential customer base. These sales venues would allow the farmer to sell the entire carcass and leave it up to the chef or butcher to utilize the individual cuts.


Lewis believes that many issues that tend to cause small or new producers frustration center on the ability of slaughterhouses and farmers to effectively communicate their needs. Farmers need to have a clear understanding of slaughter regulations and be thoroughly educated regarding butchering options. Processing plants are under a time constraint when the USDA inspector is on the floor, as they are paying for the inspector's time. Interruptions make the entire process more costly for the plant, as well as the producer and, ultimately, the end consumer. Understanding the best times to talk and having a basic working knowledge of the process can go a long way toward making the supply chain more efficient.

"New producers don't necessarily understand the best way to work with their processors," Lewis said. "The producers feel frustration with the options that they have." Helping producers learn to work with the processor would be beneficial to building a productive relationship, rather than one filled with personality conflicts. If there is only one processor within 50 miles of the farm, effective communication can make or break a farmer's ability to make direct meat sales a viable option.

On the processing end, slaughterhouses that do not offer processing on-site might be able to work in conjunction with a nearby processor to streamline the system, and perhaps implement transportation from slaughterhouse to processing facility, so that farmers who are far from the infrastructure could avoid the added cost of another round-trip to get the meat from point A to point B, and then back to the farm.

Farmers who work as a group could cut back on the time the processor needs to devote to scheduling, ease communication issues between farmer and processor, and also cut down on transport costs. This type of collaboration can lead to aggregated sales and marketing efforts among small producers, which could help ensure a consistent supply of meat for larger-scale buyers, opening up the institutional market for local meat.

The Northeast Livestock Processing Service Co. (NELPSC) is one example of such efforts. NELPSC assists members with slaughter scheduling, transport, processing details, marketing and sales. They coordinate sales, aggregating meat from several farms if needed, to allow small farmers to access markets they otherwise would not be able to serve. They also help with finding access to appropriate meat storage facilities. Originally a program of the Hudson Mohawk Resource Conservation & Development Council, NELPSC is a member-run, for-profit company that operates to promote the welfare of its members. All profits are reinvested into the company, which is run exclusively by farmers.

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture, in conjunction with the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, was the recent recipient of a USDA Federal-State Marketing Improvement Program grant, for "Scaling Up New England's Value-Added Meat Industry." The New England Meat Conference, as well as the development of a New England-branded meat program to promote and facilitate the sale of locally sourced, source-verified meat to large-scale buyers, were funded through this grant.

As the demand for local and regional food increases, livestock farmers in the Northeast are poised to launch the next big movement in direct farm-to-consumer sales: meat from the farm, direct to the fork. Bringing meat production and sales back onto small, sustainable family farms and away from large feedlot operations and commodity slaughter and packinghouses will enhance the agricultural economy in the Northeast and create a local and regional year-round food production system. Putting all the pieces in place is the next challenge, and many organizations across the region are working to do just that.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.