Meatpacker schedules packed with consumer demand
HUNTINGDON, Pa. — Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the “big slaughter days” at Brenneman’s Meat Market, and sales according to Manager Crysta Swanger are “certainly up” while the slaughter schedule books into December 2021
Along with the five beef the USDA-inspected slaughter and processing facility slaughters daily, those mid-week days also process two to six hogs, said Janice Brenneman, Swanger’s mother and the facility owner.
“We’re really pushing it for next year,” Swanger said. “We got to the point where we were almost two to three months behind. We’re starting to see it pick up again with the resurgence” of COVID-19 cases.
Commercial red meat and pork production throughout the country reached record levels independently or together from January through March, when President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, and stay-at-home orders began going into effect throughout the country. Production increased again from June through October.
In all, 15,159,300 cattle, calves, hogs and sheep were by Nov. 1 sent to slaughter, an increase of slightly more than 1.4 percent over that same time during 2019.
The federally inspected share of slaughter also declined during that time and then plunged to a year-long low in October.
Brenneman’s and facilities like it are required to alert the USDA’s Office of Food Safety and Inspection Service to slaughter and processing schedules, Virginia Department of Agriculture Media Communications Representative Mike Wallace said.
USDA inspectors must ensure that processing is humane, that processing takes place in a clean environment void of foreign matter that can be introduced to the meat and that animals are not diseased, he said.
The Office of Food Safety and Inspection Service in Virginia maintains fewer than 50 inspectors who are responsible for 122 processing facilities, some of which maintain slaughterhouses on site, Wallace said.
Processor backlogs have not affected the ability for inspectors to be present at all slaughters and for at least a portion of processing as required, he said.
Additional inspectors are also available to assist, according to Wallace.
Slaughter not federally inspected reflect instances where processing facilities are exempt, according to Buckley McKay, a public affairs specialist with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
The federally inspected share of red meat for the entire 10-month period, at 85.5 percent, was 86.9 percent for the same time during 2019, USDA slaughter records show.
Brenneman’s offers custom butchering services and USDA-inspected processing for its own meats. The facility also custom processes animals from area farmers that the facility in many instances also sells.
As existing producers boost the amount of animals processed and Brenneman’s accommodates producers with which the facility’s staff members hasn’t yet worked, processing is according to Swanger booked at least six months in advance where bookings at this time last year were typically two months in advance, she said.
The year “2020 was one of the biggest years ever” for meat processing and sales, Swanger said.
The facility ran out of chickens earlier in 2020 during the pandemic and had to put a per person sales cap on chop meat and sausage, Swanger said.
Brenneman’s doesn’t have the space to expand its processing facilities, Swanger noted.
Strain on small slaughter and meat processing plants did not start with COVID-19
A USDA Economic Research Service Survey in 2013 revealed that many farmers drive several hours to their nearest inspected processing facility, leading to added transportation and opportunity costs.
They also usually bring only a few head at a time as their on-farm freezer capacity is limited and sell a relatively small volume.
Farmers during a processor’s busy season could according to the ERS survey either have difficulty securing slaughter dates or have to schedule farther in advance of the typical two months.
Some small processing facilities might not even offer specific services that farmers and their customers desire, the report noted.
Processing facilities that experienced problems during COVID-19 are now operating back at capacity, Sarah Little, vice president of communications for the North American Meat Institute, said.
New facilities are also opening up “here and there,” she said.
Bob Lodder, the founder and president of an Everson, Wash., meat harvest company, said that he has received calls of interest from producers and processors throughout the Mid-Atlantic for his USDA-compliant mobile and modular products that allow for slaughtering.
“We’ve had lots of activity since COVID,” Lodder said.
Lodder’s trailer-based mobile and modular Friesla facilities allow farmers and ranchers the ability to handle their own slaughter and processing on their own premises.
The slaughter and processing business on the other hand one also tends to be one of “boom or bust,” the 2013 USDA report contends.
Farmers experience the most difficulty securing slaughter dates during peak finishing seasons, and waits can become exacerbated in instances where processors handle hunting season game processing.
Processing facilities during other months can be so quiet that profitability drains, the USDA report noted.
“While most processors schedule incoming livestock with the goal of a steady flow, they often have no backup if plans fall through,” the USDA report continued. “Local meat farmers and consumers are [also] often startled that local meats can cost more than twice as much as commodity meats.”
Local and commodity processing plants are furthermore two different business models, the USDA report clarified: Large-scale commodity processors are meat companies that earn most and sometimes all of their net revenue from byproduct sales, or refined parts that are sold in large enough volumes to valuable international markets such as the pet food market. Small, fee-for-service processors by contrast sell processing and cannot afford the drop revenues that larger plants can, the report noted.
Business people, farmers, ranchers and processors who are interested in purchasing the $350,000 to $1.5 million mobile and modular Friesla facilities and others like it that save the time of building a brick and mortar facility can apply for a USDA inspection of the units and provide the agency with what’s known as a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) food safety plan that it must approve.
HACCP is according to the USDA a management system in which food safety is addressed by analyzing and controlling “biological, chemical and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement and handling to manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture for its part offers a Very Small Meat Processor Federal Inspection Reimbursement grant program for developing the HACCP with technical assistance or the specialized advice of a food safety specialist and for a portion of the cost of equipment that may be needed to implement the plan and open the business.
1-800-634-5021 410-822-3965 Fax- 410-822-5068
P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925