Meat processors face uphill battle to meet demand

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carcasses hanging in cooler
Deer and beef carcasses hang in a cooler at Hepler's Meats, Oct. 8, near Emlenton, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

When people think of their local food system, they might imagine cows on green pastures or a farmer standing beneath a tent at a farmers market, selling packages of steaks and ground beef.

They’re probably not picturing the worker in a blood-stained white apron, trimming fat and gristle off a chuck roast.

Processing animals is not idyllic. Processing includes all the steps involved in turning a live animal into meat for sale, according to the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network. That means stunning, bleeding, skinning, disemboweling, cutting the parts down to size and packaging it all up. It can also include grinding, casing or smoking meat to turn otherwise unappealing parts into value added products like sausage, ham or bacon.

While it may not be pretty, processing is arguably the most important part of the whole system. You can raise the best tasting meat in the world, but no one will know if you can’t get it slaughtered, cut and packaged in a safe and timely manner.

Processors are the unsung heroes of the local food movement. Like the hero in any story, they’re facing numerous uphill battles with no easy answers.

• • •

For Monica Hepler, the battle was finding a place nearby to get their animals slaughtered.

She and her husband, Matt, have been running their own processing facility and slaughterhouse, Hepler’s Meats, near Emlenton, Pennsylvania, for more than 20 years.

They were a custom-exempt facility, meaning they could only kill and process animals for the owners of that animal to consume. The family also has a herd of beef cattle and they direct market their beef through their store. They needed to get their beef slaughtered at a federally-inspected facility. (Confused yet? Me too. See our Types of Inspection sidebar for more clarity on the levels of inspection required for different facilities.)

For years, they took their cattle to Hirsch Meats, in Kossuth, Pennsylvania. It was just three miles down the road and the only U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected slaughterhouse in the area. Then, the Hirsch Meats slaughterhouse burned down in July 2018, leaving processors and farmers in the region around Clarion County and Venango County, Pennsylvania, without a place to have their animals killed.

“We were having to drive our cattle an hour south to get them slaughtered and drive them back another hour to process them,” Monica said. “There were about five other processors in the area that used Hirschs that had nowhere to take their animals.”

The Heplers saw an opportunity to help themselves and others. When they built their slaughterhouse 20 years ago, it was built to USDA specs, she said. They had the room at their facility already. Did they want to take the time-consuming and costly step up to becoming a federally inspected facility?

“We did it in the hopes that we’ll give our kids opportunity,” Monica said. “We were given opportunity, so we hope to do that for them.”

They have five children, ranging in age from 14-21. All of them work in the family business in one way or another, and some of the older ones are showing an interest in taking over for their parents, eventually.

If not for a next generation wanting to get in on the business, the Heplers would not have taken out the $100,000 loan to pay for the upgrade. The Heplers also got a $35,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Very Small Meat Processor Grant Program to offset some of the costs, but they haven’t received the funds yet.

couple standing in front of shop
Matt and Monica Hepler stand outside their shop, Hepler’s Meats, Oct. 8, near Emlenton, Pennsylvania. The Heplers recently upgraded their facility to become a federally-inspected slaughter and processing plant after the only other USDA-inspected facility in their area burnt down. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

• • •

A.J. O’Neil is trying to expand, too. He runs O’Neil’s Quality Foods, just outside of Clarion, with his parents. He also got a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to expand the shop and become USDA inspected for processing.

He takes his cattle to Hepler’s now to get slaughtered and then brings them back to his shop to process into a variety of processed meats like snack sticks, ring bologna, hot dogs and pepperoni.

When he wrote the grant proposal, O’Neil had an idea to help other local farmers make more money from their cull cows.

“Rather than them taking it to the auction and getting 50 cents a pound, I could turn their beef into snack sticks or ring bologna,” he said.

Then, the farmers could sell their beef as value added products.

To do this, the O’Neils need to put up a new building. They’ve outgrown their current space. But that’s turned out to be a lot more challenging than A.J. O’Neil expected. He did all the design work himself. He had someone lined up to build it for an affordable price, but then ran into issues with the local zoning board. He had to hire an engineer to lay out the plans to get past the board.

“I’m tied up on engineering and, then, the cost of building materials went through the roof,” he said.

That $50,000 grant from the state seemed like a lot, but that was before he had to account for all the extra costs.

“I still a see a need,” O’Neil said. “It’s a thing I’m passionate about. I want to help them out.”

• • •

To reach federal inspection, the Heplers needed to put in a separate office and restroom for the USDA inspector, as well as upgrade stunning equipment for cattle and hogs, put in new coolers and resurface the inside of existing coolers, Hepler said.

In May, they became a fully federally inspected facility. Since then, business has been booming.

When they were a custom exempt shop, they killed maybe 15 beef and 10-12 hogs a week.

Now, they’re doing about 50 beef and 25-30 hogs a week, Hepler said. They slaughter two to three days a week. They kill for themselves and their customers and for about six other processors that take carcasses back to their shops to further break them down.

Expanding their workload wasn’t an automatic path to success, though. Hepler said they hired five new people, but it wasn’t easy. They ended up hiring some neighbors, who needed the work, and teaching them on the job.

“Finding skilled labor in the slaughtering world is almost impossible,” she said. “You’ve got like six months of training, almost a year before they’re ready to go on their own.”

There are no schools specifically for butchers, said Jonathan Campbell, associate professor of animal science with Penn State University and extension meat specialist, although Penn State is trying to change that (See: Penn State Extension Butcher School story for more info on that program).

So, unless you find someone who already has experience, you have to train them yourself.

At a big processor like Tyson or Cargill, this is pretty easy. Workers do one thing repeatedly during their work shift. They make their cut and the carcass moves on down the line where another worker makes another cut. It’s standardized. It’s efficient.

A person in a small shop like Hepler’s is doing a bit of everything. It’s not just cutting apart the carcass. It might also be running the kill floor, helping people unload animals into holding pens, making sausages and running the retail store.

Campbell likens it to the work needed to restore a car at home, versus a car rolling off the factory line at Ford or General Motors.

Another problem small processors face is space. That’s where the bottleneck happens in the process.

“The process of going from a live animal to a carcass is the easy part,” Campbell said. “The bottleneck is how long it’ll be hanging in the cooler and how long it takes you to cut and package that carcass into something the consumer recognizes as something they want to cook for dinner.”

A large processor can push hundreds or even thousands of animals through a facility in a day. Once everything is cut and packaged, there are refrigerated trucks waiting at the loading docks to move the product on to the next destination. That might be a grocery store or another facility where the meat is further processed.

The big processors are not spending time calling each customer, asking how they want their side of beef cut. Then, waiting two weeks for their beef to age in the cooler. Then, cutting it up, freezing it and calling them back when it’s ready for pickup. Then, waiting for them to pick their order up, freeing up cooler and freezer space.

• • •

Some of these problems can be fixed with technology, Campbell said. A robot could learn how to cut up a carcass. That might help the labor issue. But technology is expensive. Automated systems are coming into play at larger processors where the procedure is more standardized. It hasn’t been scaled down to the size for a small local processor though.

“Either you need the right equipment or you need more manpower,” O’Neil said. “In most cases I need both. It’s really difficult right now to come up with any hired help.”

There is equipment that can make certain tasks easier and quicker. O’Neil said there’s a bacon slicer he’s looked at that would do the job four times quicker than what it would take a person to do. It costs $60,000.

“But as a small business, you hate to replace people with equipment,” he said.

Some of the issues with smaller processors are, unfortunately, the nature of the industry at this level. Serving many customers with different wants and needs is not efficient.

“99.9999 percent of meat processors want to do a fantastic job. They have a passion for it,” Campbell said. “People who do a good job have a waiting list.”

Campbell said farmers can help things run more smoothly. Bring in the number of animals you scheduled. Build a relationship with your processor so they get to know you and trust you. That open line of communication will pay dividends.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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