The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on something that the industry has known about for years: There are not enough independent slaughterhouses in the country. The consolidation in the industry among the largest processors has put the bulk of meat processing into the hands of five or six of the largest companies, who work with the largest producers.
While the system has left many small producers out of the equation, they have been able to get by with small packers, custom exempt processors and the meat markets that still offer slaughter services. The system has worked, but the system is far from perfect. Small producers have opportunities to direct-market their fresh meat either through online sales or farmers’ markets, but they may have to transport their livestock hundreds of miles to find a company that still has room for harvesting in their schedule. Those small slaughterhouses may be booked up for months in advance, due to heavy demand.
What happens, then, when the big packing houses shut down or reduce capacity? Sure, a fire or natural disaster may cause one plant to close temporarily, but all the plants? It was an unthinkable problem up until it happened, when plants closed left and right because of COVID-19 outbreaks.
What followed was a ripple effect that should concern the entire industry. The large producers either had to cull their herds or find new packers. The packers that stayed open couldn’t possibly keep up with that demand, but they scrambled to take care of the immediate needs. Soon, schedules were booked solid for a year ahead or more.
Where did this leave the smallest and most vulnerable companies in the industry? It was a boom time for many of them, as consumers chose to or were forced to look outside their big supermarkets for alternate meat sources. However, there were casualties. Some small meat markets, like Iowa’s One Stop Meat Shop, experienced fatal disruptions to their supply chain. Farm bankruptcies, which reached record numbers in 2019, are sure to remain high if farmers were unable to sell their livestock in a timely manner.
This crazy time in America should be a tremendous opportunity for small processors and small producers, because they are able to adapt to situations quicker than the big corporations are. The “Year of the Independent Processor” feature showed how many companies were able to navigate the pandemic. However, the infrastructure that supports them should be more robust than it is.
How can it be fixed? Grants should be made available to help small companies expand their slaughter capacity. There are big swaths of the country where there are no slaughterhouses at all. Entrepreneurs who want to build a slaughterhouse or start a mobile slaughter operation should be given federal assistance. Likewise, educational opportunities should be available to small producers to help them learn how to market their own products and take advantage of the country’s small packers and further processors.
The world of small, independent meat companies is vibrant, innovative and successful. Helping that sector continue to flourish benefits everyone.
Despite threats that consumers were abandoning meat in favor of plant-based proteins, consumer trends show that American consumers still want meat in their diet. Let’s work to bring balance to the industry and create an environment where small processors and small farmers can thrive.