Mention the word
“slaughterhouse” and most people will conjure images of huge Midwestern
meat factories, exploited immigrant workers, dangerous conditions – you
know, the whole blood-and-guts Upton-Sinclair scene.
But to the
approximately 200 small-scale state livestock farmers and ag-sector
managers who packed a 2007 meeting at the Litchfield Inn,
“slaughterhouse” – specifically a proposed federally inspected mobile
slaughterhouse – evoked something much more positive: an innovative way
to to support state farm viability, protect Connecticut’s endangered
farmland, and supply a largely unmet consumer demand for humanely
harvested, locally raised, organic or natural beef, pork and lamb.
“We’re not trying to
duplicate Chicago in 1904,” said Bruce Dunlop, a Seattle-area beef and
sheep farmer who was the main speaker for the evening. Dunlop was a
founding member of the country’s first USDA-approved slaughterhouse on
wheels, serving Lopez Island, Washington, near Seattle..
HERE for more on why the state needs slaughterhouses.
The meeting was
organized by Eliot Wadsworth, the owner of Litchfield’s White
Flower Farm, a greenhouse and catalog operation. Wadsworth is using 80
acres of his 250-acre farm for raising beef cattle, which he intends to
sell to his catalog customers and at the farm’s retail store. It was his
frustration with the lack of a nearby USDA-approved slaughterhouse that
led him to investigate a mobile slaughterhouse as a possible solution.
overflow crowd, it was easy to see that many farmers in the state are
also looking for a solution to the processing bottleneck. “Those who
think that state agriculture is dead are clearly dead-wrong,” Wadsworth
said in his welcoming remarks.
listened closely as Dunlop narrated a step-by-step slideshow that
detailed the history and success of his Seattle-area cooperative meat
processing line at an agri-business meat operation.
Their success runs
smack-dab counter to long-established trends in livestock processing and
serves as an inspiring example for the state’s livestock farmers and
advocates for a more sustainable local-food system.
As in most other
types of agriculture, the raising and processing of livestock has been
subject to years of consolidation. This decades-long move to ever-bigger
farms supplying mega-slaughterhouses and cutting operations has led to a
precipitous decline in both the number of small- and medium-scale
livestock producers and the local infrastructure on which they depend.
Today the top four
food corporations supply us with 80 percent of the meat we eat in the
country. Each of these conglomerates process as many as 5,000 head a day
on huge killing, cutting and packaging floors.
are increasingly demanding local, naturally raised or organic foods, all
among the fastest growing segments of the food industry. But when it
comes to meat, it is typically impossible to find USDA-inspected meats
that come from Connecticut-grown livestock.
“There’s been a huge
increase of interest among consumers in the last 5 to 10 years in
knowing who raised the animals they’re eating,” Dunlop said. “Now that
the markets are back in a way, due to consolidation the processing
infrastructure isn’t there.” There are just 350 USDA slaughterhouses in
the country, down from about 550 since 2001.
challenge for local producers of cattle, pigs, lamb and goat is
formidable and frustrating -- all this consumer demand with no way to
efficiently meet it without a nearby federally inspected meat plant.
large federally regulated slaughterhouse is in Stafford Springs, doing
business as Brothers Quality, Inc. For
the last few years, it has been operated by a Muslim family who
process only halal meats (religiously approved slaughter) for
sale to their customer base, including retail outlets.
In Bristol, a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse processes
mostly limited numbers of sheep, goats and lamb.
State producers who
want to sell their meat can do so on their farm, but without USDA
inspection and the familiar Cryovac wrap. That is not a great way to
maximize retail distribution channels.
In order to get
federally approved processing, state farmers have to transport their
animals to slaughterhouses in New York State and in Massachusetts. It is
far from an ideal situation: Wait lists are booked months in advance,
travel costs are hefty, and the animals have to endure a crowded,
stressful trip, which many farmers feel releases hormones that adversely
affect the quality and taste of the meat.
The need for an
alternative became clearer in December when a Athol, Mass,
slaughterhouse used by Connecticut producers burned to the ground.
A MOBILE SLAUGHTERHOUSE WILL ...
The goals of the Lopez Island producer cooperative are also a
fine agenda for the Connecticut proposal.
dependent on imported food.
stronger local food system with a quality, safe and healthy
and limited-resource producers to gain revenues and profits.
food production a vital part of the food economy.
direct link between consumers and farmers.
opportunities for organic and naturally raised beef.
According to Dunlop,
the advantages of a mobile slaughterhouse over a permanent structure
include lower processing costs, reduced stress on animals, lower capital
investment; and – this is a big one –- less resistance from
municipalities and neighbors.
“Try to build one on
your property,” he said, “and see what your neighbors think.”
Dunlop pointed out
that the Lopez Island facility cost about $200,000 (versus about
$400,000 for a stationary facility). It can theoretically process up to
30 head of cattle a day, although it typically handles more like six to
12 head on each farm it visits.
The biggest problem
in establishing a rolling abattoir in Connecticut will be state and
federal regulatory hurdles. Dunlop spearheaded the six-year effort in
Washington State to educate federal and state regulators on the benefits
of a mobile operation and meeting the project’s financial challenges.
The Lopez Island mobile
That facility opened
in 2002 after ultimately gaining political and financial support from
local producers, area land trusts, Cooperative Extension, the federal
and state agriculture departments, area retailers, restaurants and
According to Dunlop,
the USDA now looks at the project as an unqualified success. This is a
very good sign for Connecticut and other states looking at this
technology. Since the Seattle-area facility started, additional
USDA-approved mobile slaughterhouses based in part on the Washington
model have been established in Texas, Hawaii, and New Mexico.
Splitting the carcass into
Last year, its third
in operation, Dunlop’s co-op processed about 500 head of beef and 500
lamb and hogs, comprising about 250,000 pounds of meat. With consumer
demand continuing to grow and distribution channels expanding, the co-op
is planning to raise output by another 50 percent within the next couple
The venture has been
a great success for area farmers. The 55 co-op members (up from 25 in
its first year) are taking in $850,000 in annual retail sales, more than
double their first-year revenues of $421,000. Nearly all of these sales
would not have existed without the facility, according to Dunlop.
which services member producers within a 100 mile radius of the cutting
plant, takes in $250,000 in fees from members, which supports $225,000
in annual payroll costs for six yearround employees, another nice boost
to the local economy.
The unit, built in
an unmarked tractor trailer, visits about one farm each workday and is
operated by one or two butchers, with the farmer helping to handle the
live animals and disposing of the waste material -- hides, blood, soft
tissue, and bones – known as offal.
trailer, lined in stainless steel, is completely self-contained with
heat, cooling and potable water. It can hold about 10 beef cattle, 20
hogs or 70 sheep.
benefit of a mobile facility is that the offal can be composted right on
the farm rather than having to be rendered at a traditional stationary
plant. The result is a great natural fertilizer, according to Dunlop,
who extols the USDA-inspected process as “good nutrient management.”
processing into retail packages.
After the farmer
shepherds his unsuspecting animal to the killing zone, the butcher uses
a stun rod that causes unconsciousness, then cuts a main artery, causing
a quick death. He hooks the animal to a winch in the trailer for
bleeding, skinning and gutting, after which he splits the carcass into
halves or quarters prior to hanging it in the trailer cooler.
An on-site USDA
inspector checks each live animal prior to its harvest and then again as
the animal is being processed in the trailer.
Lopez Island butchers cutting retail portions.
After processing in
the trailer, the meat is taken to the co-op’s USDA-regulated cutting
plant, where it is cut into retail portions, packaged and cold-stored
until the farmer picks up his ready-for-retail packaged meat for
delivery to customers.
mobile-slaughterhouse technology takes off in Connecticut, the
cooperative formed to own it might have a leg up on the Seattle
operators, who also had to establish their own USDA packaging facility.
It turns out that Connecticut has a brand-new state-of-the-art meat
processing plant in Winsted that will specialize in natural and
Natural & Organic Company owner Andy Angera told the audience that his
plant would be able to take all the meat that a mobile slaughterhouse
could process. With 75 years of family experience in the meat processing
business in New Jersey, Angera said that his plant, now under
construction, will offer USDA-approved state-of-the-art processing
facilities and custom labeling for local producers of certified organic
or naturally raised pork, veal and beef. He expects to be open for
business in early summer.
After the evening’s presentation, attendees filled out a form to
indicate their interest and supply some data about their existing
farming operations. The next step will be to collate and analyze survey
results, followed by the establishment of a group of volunteers ready to
take the next steps in what will likely prove a complicated process.