Meat processing has become highly concentrated in recent decades: just four companies control 83% of the beef market and 66% of pork. The early days of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the fragility of this system. The closure of just three pork packing plants in March 2020 impacted 10% of the total US pork supply, causing shortages for supermarket shoppers even as hog farmers were forced to euthanize their animals.
The consolidation of processing has forced most livestock farmers and processors out of business, except the very smallest and the very largest. The loss of medium-scale regional meat processing has contributed to job loss in rural communities, environmental degradation, and less transparency for consumers — along with far less resilience in the face of crisis.
Fortunately, there are numerous ways that state legislators can support development of regional meat processing, expanding opportunities for farmers and processors, including BIPOC producers and processors.
SiX Takeaways from the Supporting Local Meat Processing Webinar:
#1 Extreme consolidation has created a meat industry that is fundamentally different than it used to be. Livestock today is mostly raised in large confinement operations (“factory farms”) and slaughtered and processed by one of just a handful of companies. In comparison to a small farm-based model, consumers pay more and farmers make less; animal welfare is worse; workers are pushed harder; and profits leave the community. This impact is especially felt by Black, Indigenous and communities of color. It is difficult to raise and process meat in a different way because this system has become so well-established, but there are ways to make a difference at the state level.
#2 All meat processing plants must be inspected, but there are three different types of inspection: USDA (meat can be sold anywhere), state (meat can only be sold in-state), and custom (meat only for the owner of the animal). Learn more here. States with state inspection programs should invest in and strengthen them.
#3 Federal funding in the American Rescue Plan and other pandemic relief measures has given the regional meat processing sector a long-overdue boost. Including $500 million for meat processing plants was recently announced as part of the Build Back Better infrastructure bill (BBB). State legislators should keep an eye out for details on BBB grant opportunities and more from USDA in coming months — and should be aware that there is still much more to do to create a resilient regional meat system.
#4 A shortage of trained labor is a major challenge for the sector. States can invest in vocational training programs through community colleges and even high schools to create a labor pipeline for the future. Check out examples here.
#5 There are other state-level initiatives that can be helpful for small and mid-sized meat processors such as small business development programs, agriculture- and food-specific grants and loans, alternative financing and investment options, and marketing support such as through a state agriculture promotion or a farm to school program.
#6 There are many opportunities for collaboration in this space: reach out to partners across the aisle and those in the community. Involve farmers and processors themselves in the policy-making process and visit their farms and facilities to better understand their needs. Expanding cultural use exemptions for processing can help immigrant communities and Tribal Nations increase food access and support food sovereignty with culturally appropriate food beyond the farm to table market.
If you are a CROP member, you can watch the recording of the Supporting Local Meat Processing Webinar here. Not yet a CROP member? As a state legislator you can sign up here.
If you are a state legislator interested in working on local meat processing and supply chain issues reach out to us at [email protected] —we can help!