Slaughterhouse Shortage Hits Natural Beef Industry

Large-scale agriculture has nearly eliminated small slaughterhouses from many states. That's a problem for the farmers trying to fill the growing demand for naturally raised, local meat products, especially in New England. Small farmers must often drive for hours to get their animals to slaughter.

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The demand for meat raised without added hormones or antibiotics is growing. Producers say they just can't keep up because there aren't enough slaughterhouses.

Amy Mayer reports.

Ms. CAROLYN WHEELER (Co-owner, Wheel-View Farm): Come on. Come on. Come on here.

AMY MAYER: Carolyn Wheeler lures some of her 76 Scottish Highland and Belted Galloway cows. Her great-grandparents bought these hills in southern Massachusetts in 1896. Wheeler says these grass-fed cows have been filling a void in the market since 2002. Consumers want meat from animals that have not been treated with antibiotics or hormones.

Ms. WHEELER: They also want to know that it has a happy life. Our cows have really happy life, and that they are humanely killed and processed.

MAYER: For farmers, that means finding a slaughterhouse they trust. Wheeler used to truck her cows to the Adams Farm Slaughterhouse until it burned down last December. Now, there's just one USDA-certified house in Massachusetts. Without a government inspector stamp, meat can't be sold.

The lack of slaughter plants has gone from a nagging problem to a near crisis here. But family farmers in Georgia, Missouri, California and other states also have the same problem. Over 80 percent of the country's beef is processed by four companies, and they don't work with small producers. Adams Slaughterhouse owner Richard Adams had planned to expand even before the fire.

Mr. RICHARD ADAMS (Owner, Adams Slaughterhouse): We turned away a lot of customers because of the size plant we had.

MAYER: Now, the rebuilding plans incorporate the expansion. Adams recites a list of New England slaughterhouses that have closed recently - some after fires; others because development offers became irresistible.

Mr. ADAMS: There's one in Bloomfield but they went - they're just strictly Muslim, so that liquidated some. And there's another one in Connecticut. They sold to a ski resort, so that's gone. You know, nobody's really interested in doing it.

MAYER: In Washington State, the country's only federally inspected mobile slaughter unit is serving small farms. Dan Beaudette of the USDA's Southern New England Rural Development Office says over 150 people turned out recently to learn more about mobile systems.

Mr. DAN BEAUDETTE (Southern New England Rural Development Office, USDA): You can build one of these mobile facilities for a lot less money and then move it to the site of the farm. You don't have to worry about trucking the animals. It's a lot easier on the animals.

MAYER: It's also cheaper for the farmer. Since the Adams fire, Wheelers had to truck her cows nearly triple the distance to a plant in New Hampshire. The per-animal cost is up almost 50 percent, an expense she has to pass on to customers.

At McCosker's(ph) Market in nearby Shelburne Falls, the cost of hamburger is up a dollar to $5.99 a pound. But owner Mike McCosker says customers remain loyal.

Mr. MIKE MCCOSKER (Owner, McCosker's Market): And I'm here to tell you they are buying product, and people are coming in specifically looking for this product.

MAYER: McCosker says local natural meat is sold in more places now than a few years ago, and he welcomes the competition. But unless the infrastructure adapts to the increasing demand, the supply may not grow to reach it.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer.

SIMON: This NPR News.

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