Slaughtering Locally: Can It Work?

Nice article here  about the realities of trying to make "local" and "high-quality" meat. It's also a near-perfect illustration of the way in which short-term perspective skews the story. (Or, put another way, it illustrates the way in which long-term perspective can enrich the story.)

Here's the money quote:

 Despite the fees they charge the farmer (which can account for as much as half of the cost of the final product), small-scale meat processing is no wildly profitable business. And, because they can’t afford to pay a lot, it’s hard to attract staff for the difficult, unpleasant work.

The fees need to be put into context.

Yes, a small slaughterhouse charges high prices, and that in turn creates high prices at the wholesale/retail end, far higher than is charged by a "regular" slaughterhouse that operates on a large scale.

Why can't a smaller house compete with a larger facility? Because small slaughterhouses  don't have access to the one thing that pays the bills at large slaughterhouses: (literally) tons of leavings (bone, hides, blood, etc.)

Byproducts subsidize the cost of dressing the carcass and shipping the meat to large markets. If packing houses relied only on the profits from selling the meat (especially beef), they'd fail. And fast.

Put another way, if someone wants to run a small-scale "local" slaughterhouse, the owner is catering to a tiny audience of livestock producers who can and will pay the high fees for slaughtering. But they're also relying on a tiny audience of people who can afford to pay $25.00 a pound for steak that comes out of the small slaughtering house. (*1)

The other money quote:

The state’s landscape is ideally suited for smallscale, pasture-based livestock. 

Um, not so much. Sure the soil and terrain may be "ideal," but it doesn't follow that it's financially ideal. Indeed, New York livestock producers stopped using that "ideal" land for raising stock for food well over a century ago.

Why? Because they couldn't compete with midwestern and western producers who had access to cheaper land.

As important, however, they couldn't compete with other demands for that land --- especially from dairy producers who raised cattle for milk (for the great urban complex in the southern part of the state.) (Milk is more perishable than meat; economics dictate that it be produced fairly close to the retail market.)

I made the  mistake of mentioning a short version of all of this on Twitter, and was immediately told that the problem is "consolidation" that's destroyed the "diversity" of the marketplace.

Again, not so much. The American meat industry "consolidated" more than a century ago. The impetus was two-fold.

First, Americans demanded, and I mean demanded, inexpensive meat. But second, and as important, American urbanites, who made up the bulk of the population, demanded that  meat processing be stashed away in large facilities far away from the markets where that meat would be sold. They wanted their meat out of sight, out of mind.

So livestock production and meat processing moved to the center of the country. The only way to move the meat back to the urban centers was to ship it. And the only way to keep expenses low was by, you guessed it, using every single part of the animal: the byproducts paid the tab for keeping American tables piled with meat.

So --- more power to these people who want high-quality meats. But I wish they'd look past the allure of the "new"economy and the grooviness of the "local" for a larger perspective on the issues at hand.


*1: By the way, I can't think any better way to reduce the amount of meat consumed in the U.S. than to switch to "local" slaughterhouses. Few people would be able to afford to eat meat. Voila! Meat consumption drops and, in theory, the climate improves. Two fer one.