America’s meat supply is cheap and efficient. Covid-19 has shown why this is a problem.

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In Washington and state capitals, there is also a focus on access for small processors to federal inspectors, which were in high demand and in short supply long before the pandemic struck. The USDA aims to spend $ 100 million to reimburse smaller factories for the cost of overtime inspection fees during the pandemic.

And government grants will go a long way towards covering the high costs small factories face in meeting the requirements of the USDA inspection program. The ministry launched in June a separate round of grants of $ 55 million specifically for processing plants seeking to become certified under the federal program – an initiative that could lead to more factories inspected by the USDA in the near future.

State and federal government support could be crucial not only to help existing factories grow, but also to expand. the number of meat packing plants. The processing industry is “characterized by large capital investments which prevent new businesses from entering, at least in the short term”, USDA economists wrote in a working paper in March.

The cost of regulatory compliance is also extremely high for small plants per animal, said Rebecca Thistlethwaite, director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, an Oregon-based group that provides research and technical support to small processors and producers.

“You don’t have that many animals or that much volume to spread this out,” she said. High labor costs and labor shortage are also major obstacles for processors of all sizes.

In addition to direct financial support, many states are implementing their own meat inspection programs as an alternative to federal inspections. State-run programs demand the same food safety standards as the USDA, but they can offer more practical help to processors looking to comply with complex and expensive regulations, Thistlethwaite said.

“Missouri, for example, during the pandemic hired a bunch of new inspectors and helped get a bunch of little ones [butcher] stores in the state’s inspection program, so they can have more options of inspected meat for farmers there, ”she said. “They can just be a little more nimble.”

There’s even a booming interstate cooperative shipping program, first approved by Congress in 2008, that allows certain state-inspected meats to be sold across state lines. South Dakota in June became the ninth USDA approved state to join the program.

“If we are to strengthen our country’s food system and prevent supply chain bottlenecks before they arise, we must continue to provide small meat processing establishments with the opportunity to build their markets. local and regional, ”USDA Assistant Under Secretary for Food, Sandra Eskin. security, said at the time.

Not everyone agrees that the government’s efforts to increase the packaging capacity of meat are a good thing. At a hearing with the House Agriculture Committee at the end of July, several experts argued that the beef market was already adjusting to the gap between processing capacity and livestock supply, and that adding too much slaughterhouse capacity at this point would eventually backfire.

“My fear, to be honest, is [that] we could wake up in three years and have a bunch of transformers that can’t afford to run affordably, ”said Jayson Lusk, head of the agricultural economics department at Purdue University. “Are we going to see a series of bankruptcies or downsizing of factories? “

But as of now, there are no signs of slowing down for many small processors who have seen an influx of business during the pandemic. One of those factories is Oakland Meat Processing – the duty-free butcher where Nebraska farmer Hladik took his first beef under the herd-sharing system. The mostly family-owned facility has been operating at maximum capacity since the start of the pandemic, said Anna Zeleny, operator of the plant.

“We have not been arrested,” she said. “We were there when the packing station wasn’t there, when you couldn’t buy your meat from [the supermarket], when they limited you to two pieces.

Zeleny said the state’s efforts to unlock new processing options beyond the larger USDA-inspected sites are a big step for farmers and ranchers to earn more money for their livestock and for that consumers have more reliable access to high quality local meats. For his team at the processing plant, this could mean even more demand for their services; the company is already planning to build a new facility.

“We want to be able to reach more people,” Zeleny said. “We are trying to keep everything much more local than it has been.”


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