Meat processor shortage makes for long waits

Small USDA-inspected meat processors are an important part of the burgeoning local food movement, but there just aren’t enough of them, several operators say.

“The numbers in Oregon tell the story and they represent the whole country, but here we have lost some 300 processing facilities in the state over the last 35 years,” Ben Meyer, the co-owner of Revel Meats in Canby, Ore., said.

In Oregon there are only about 13 USDA-inspected meat slaughter and meat processing facilities in operation, according to the USDA. The lack of facilities is what causes the current operations to stay booked several months out, Meyer said.

There is a shortage of small-scale processors in Washington state as well, said Nancy Hibbing, president of the North Cascade Meats Co-op, which operates a mobile slaughter operation that serves Island, Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties.

Washington only has about 14 USDA-inspected facilities and Idaho has about 15. California has about 35.

“There is a severe lack of USDA meat services in our area,” Hibbing said. Their operation began because another USDA-inspected facility in the area was about to close.

As operators have gotten older, they have sought buyers for their shops, according to Meyer, who said that he and his partner, James Serlin, had taken over from an older couple that wanted to retire. The problem arises when operators are unable to find someone to take over and they have to close their shops.

The facility Meyer runs was originally built in 1964.

“At that point there were like … 311 shops in the state,” Meyer said.

“Just losing that number of facilities has restricted the pipeline,” he said.

Time is another constraint for USDA plants. Meyer and his co-workers basically have from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to get their work done, he said. They are restricted by the hours the inspector can work.

The USDA inspector is required to be at the plant non-stop on days when animals are being killed. The inspector has to witness the kill. On other days the inspector will be on-site a couple of times during the day to make sure everything is done properly.

That means the wait can be lengthy for ranchers and other producers who need to get their livestock processed and the meat ready for sale.

“The reason we are 6-8 months out is because everybody has to come through here if they are going to go to a farmers’ market or if they are going to go to a retail market or if they are going to sell to restaurants,” Meyer said.

Meat intended for retail markets must go through a USDA-inspected and -certified plant. Another type of plant is called a custom-exempt plant, which still requires a periodic inspection, either from the state or the USDA. Custom-exempt shops process meat, but not for re-sale. Usually, it involves an animal brought to a butcher by the owner who pays to have it slaughtered and processed.

Hibbing said to process meat through a custom-exempt shop, the animal must be purchased by the consumer before the kill. It cannot be re-sold after it is processed.