Meat industry considers mobile units to address processing bottleneck

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pork chops stacked up
These are finished pork chops ready for bagging during a meat processing class at Tyler Consolidated High School in Sistersville, West Virginia. [Lucy Schaly photos]

Limited processing infrastructure is one of the big challenges for the meat industry in Ohio. While the state gained a few new processors during the pandemic, it also lost some. Many processors are still booked out until 2022 or even 2023.

That’s what some in the food industry are hoping to help address with a U.S. Department of Agriculture Local Foods Promotion Project on mobile meat slaughter in Ohio and central Appalachia.

“Producers, consumers and processors together point to a strong need for more convenient, affordable, available processing,” said Rachel Tayse, a consultant with the project, at a regional meat marketing and processing summit, Sept. 16, organized by Ohio State University’s Center for Cooperatives and Fairfield County Farm Bureau.

And according to a recent survey, many of them view mobile meat slaughter and processing as a way to meet that need.

Mobile processing

For the project, the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks and the project consultants, Angela Blatt, Paul Dorrance and Tayse, surveyed local processors, farmers and consumers on red meat mobile slaughter and processing this summer.

They found that consumers would be most interested in supporting a mobile processing project if it gave them more access to local meat. Consumers said the barriers to buying local included higher prices and inconvenience, and lack of availability, in some cases. About 90% of the consumers said they would be likely to buy more local meat if it was available to them.

Most of the farmers who responded were at a smaller scale. The survey asked questions about challenges the farmers faced, listing possible answers including processing and slaughter related challenges, but also things like land access and other challenges.

Despite the wide range of topics, answers focused mainly on issues related to processing, like wait times for slaughter dates, distance to processors and managing logistics of taking livestock to multiple different processors. Farmers indicated they would bring more livestock to market if they didn’t have those barriers.

Processors who responded said they were mostly either operating at full capacity or, if they were just starting up, not yet ready to operate at full capacity. Lack of labor and seasonal variability were two other challenges they mentioned. They listed mobile slaughter units and collaborative cold storage facilities as the top two solutions that could help.

Next steps

There were some limitations to the survey. There were about 231 responses, but only eight of those were processors. Dorrance is hoping to get more input from regulators in the industry — only one responded to the survey.

Overall, about 67% of respondents said a mobile meat slaughter option could help alleviate the processing bottleneck. About half expressed concerns about things like sanitization and regulation, zoning, handling waste and freezer space or the size of the unit.

In the second half of the 18-month project, consultants will put together a report on the survey and continue analyzing whether or not mobile meat processing could work in Ohio, and exactly how it could work. They will also visit several other mobile meat processing models on the West Coast to learn more.

Labor challenges

Meat packing consolidation and labor challenges also continue to be a concern for the industry. At the summit, Lyda Garcia, an Ohio State University Extension meat specialist, said the pandemic exacerbated labor challenges, but those challenges existed even before COVID-19.

The pandemic then made the situation even more difficult, since it added more safety and health concerns. COVID-19 cases at processing plants haven’t been as high since the beginning of the pandemic, since there are more safety measures — like partitions between workers and mask mandates — at many plants. But there have still been some smaller spikes, especially around holidays.

Vaccines have been a game changer, Garcia said. Tyson is the first large processor to require vaccines. Several others are expected to follow in their footsteps. The Food Safety Inspection Service also mandated masks for workers in processing plants.

Some workers, however, don’t want to wear masks. In some cases, workers have quit over mask mandates, Garcia said. Masks aren’t pleasant to wear at processing plants — at Ohio State’s facility, Garcia often finds herself switching out masks multiple times in just a few hours, due to how dirty they get. But they’re an important part of keeping workers safe right now, she said.

Workforce

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has come up with multiple grants to help processors.

“That means nothing if we don’t have a workforce,” Garcia said.

Ohio State has been offering meat cutting programs and workshops, Garcia said — both to educate those interested in meat processing, and to make sure that farmers taking things into their own hands on their farms know proper techniques and safety practices. Workshops have filled up quickly.

It’s difficult for people who don’t come from an ag background to get into meat processing, Garcia said. While there are people interested, there’s also a lot to learn. But in order to address the labor challenges, the industry might need to start thinking outside the box about how to bring in people and help those with less experience overcome barriers.

Demand

Consumer demand for meat has been strong, especially at grocery stores, specialty meat markets and other retail outlets, said Andrew Griffith, extension livestock economist with University of Tennessee, at the summit.

“The struggle is going to be in the restaurant arena,” he said. That’s because many are continuing to eat food at home, whether because they have grown used to it, or because of ongoing concerns about the pandemic.

Disposable income is a big part of demand, Griffith said. While some saw financial challenges due to the pandemic, those whose income and jobs stayed steady may be spending less on things like travel during the pandemic, leaving more to spend on food.

“The consumer is what’s going to drive this market and where prices go,” he said.

And with strong demand driving increases in prices for beef, pork, lamb and poultry, the meat outlook seems pretty favorable so far, Griffith said.

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