ATTRAnews - Newsletter of the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

September 2010
Volume 18, Number 4

Newsletter of ATTRA - National Sustainable Agricultural Information Service: A project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). This issue of ATTRAnews is available online.

Local Meat Processing

Consumers are eager for locally produced and processed meat. To fill this niche, farmers and ranchers are raising pastured poultry and grassfed steers and sheep. But only a few processing facilities provide services for independent producers. This issue of ATTRAnews explores some of the possibilities for bringing locally raised meat to market.

In this issue:

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Finding a Local Poultry Processor

Terrell Spencer, NCAT Agriculture Specialist

Terrell Spencer raises
                        meat birds in Arkansas.
Terrell Spencer raises meat birds in Arkansas.
Photo courtesy of the author

My wife and I are building a small pastured-poultry farm in the Boston Mountains of northwestern Arkansas. Recently we had a small batch of 50 meat hens that needed processing. A critical key to the success of any small or independent poultry operation is the processing. It's no secret that small processors have disappeared from the countryside along with the farms they served. As the country has stepped into the 21st century, vertical integration has become the norm in the poultry industry.

We heard about a poultry processing center that seemed to buck the trend and so of course we wanted to check out the operation. I called the center and set a processing date for early August. The drive was beautiful, and I showed up just after 8:00 AM. I spent a good deal of time visiting with the plant manager as we filled out paperwork, and I learned the history of the operation.

The processing center is an extension of a nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation program run by the owner. The plant was built to provide a place for the program's clients to work as they transition from addiction to functional life. In the past, the clients worked at a local corporate-owned plant. But with the onset of the recession, that plant could no longer provide work for them.

Pastured chickens are confined by an electric fence on the
                        Michigan farm of Jack Knorek.
Pastured chickens are confined by an electric fence on the Michigan farm of Jack Knorek.
Photo by Rex Dufour, NCAT.

The owner and his wife sank their life savings and retirement into getting started in the chicken business. They leased chicken houses and built a USDA-inspected processing center. The plant's design is taken almost directly off the pages of ATTRA's Small-Scale Poultry Processing publication. The plant manager spoke well of our organization, saying our publications and specialists were crucial in helping them get where they are today.

Nearly all the processing at the plant is done by hand, and I was able to watch as my batch of birds went through the line. Below are impressions from my visit to the poultry processor.

  • Cleanliness - The plant showed fastidious attention to cleaning. Things were constantly being cleaned and wiped down. The birds were kept separate, hands were washed, and the employees didn't have to be told what to do. They used a 50/50 mixture of water & 5% vinegar solution to sterilize/clean equipment and birds during the processing. Because I could watch the whole process, I was able to be present in my birds' lives from brooder to vacuum pack. That's a great selling point of the plant.
  • Employee Morale - The employees seemed to enjoy their work. They wise-cracked with the plant manager, some talked as they worked, some hummed, no one seemed to be overwhelmed at their station. The employees ran themselves, and no one had to tell them what they needed to do.
  • USDA Inspector - This was the first time I had met an inspector. She was meticulous in her work, very friendly, knowledgeable, and polite. She answered all my questions, and it was good for me to get to observe an inspector at work. We so often hear the horror stories, but never about the people who take their job seriously and do good things.
  • Social Sustainability - Often it seems that sustainability is defined in terms of organic, locally produced units of carbon emissions, etc. But what I saw at this processing plant was a socially sustainable component being melded into agricultural sustainability.

We were lucky to find a good processing plant that is more than just a solution to the needs of a farm and the surrounding farmers. This company is sustainable because it also plays a part in repairing the social fabric of our local community and society.

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NCAT Directory of Small Poultry-Processing Plants and Services

ATTRA's online poultry processing directory

Despite the growing interest in specialty poultry production, it can be hard for small-scale producers to find a processor. To meet the demand, some small meat-processing plants have added poultry processing to their services. Other entrepreneurs have built dedicated poultry-processing plants. In some regions, groups of producers are combining resources to construct mobile processing units.

Some of the processing plants are USDA-inspected, with inspectors present during processing. Birds processed at these plants can be sold in stores and restaurants and across state lines. Other processing facilities are licensed by the state. Inspectors are not always present during processing, and these plants offer fewer options for selling the carcasses. Some processors offer special services such as cut-up or further processing (sausage, smoking, jerky), air chilling, kosher, halal, or certified organic.

NCAT maintains a self-listing online directory of poultry processors that serve independent growers. The directory is the combined effort of several nonprofit organizations including Heifer International and American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Please help us expand this directory. If you are aware of a plant that should be listed, please contact Terrell Spencer, 800-346-9140, spence@ncat.org.

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Special Help for Small and Very Small Processing Plants

As defined in the 1996 Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations, "small" slaughter establishments have between 10 and 499 employees. "Very small" slaughter establishments have fewer than 10 employees or less than $2.5 million in annual sales. More than 90% of the 6,000 plants inspected by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are small or very small. FSIS provides a special website to help operators of small and very small meat, poultry and processed egg product facilities.

As part of USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative, FSIS also operates a small-plant help desk for plant owners and operators with questions. The help desk is open from 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday. Telephone toll-free 877-FSIS HELP (877-374-7435) or e-mail InfoSource@fsis.usda.gov.

Purdue University's Organic and Alternative Livestock Production Systems website also provides several guidelines for small meat and poultry processors.

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Map showing small cattle farms and slaughter establishments.
The USDA recently released a series of maps (PDF/1.3M) for cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry that reveal gaps in the availability of slaughter facilities for small meat and poultry producers. Notice how few processors operate in the south-central and western regions of the country.
The lack of small processors creates a crisis for producers and consumers who may not be able to afford the costs of transporting animals to distant processors. When small meat producers are able to process and market their livestock locally, they promote rural development and provide greater purchasing options for regional consumers and industrial buyers.

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Mobile Processing Units

Mobile processing units (MPUs) seem like a good way to expand the number of local processing facilities for small-scale producers. In practice they are subject to overlapping regulations that create obstacles. There are fewer than a dozen federally inspected MPUs in the nation. See the following resources to learn more.

Michigan State University's Beginning Farmers

Mobile Slaughter Unit Construction

Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network information on MPUs includes detailed reports and case studies from California, Kentucky, Montana, and Washington.

USDA's MPU Compliance Guide (PDF)

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Red-Meat Inspection Basics

Adapted from ATTRA's Sheep: Sustainable and Organic Production

USDA sign.

There are three levels of meat inspection: federal, state, and uninspected or custom-slaughter plants. State-inspected meat cannot be sold outside of the state where it is inspected. Uninspected meat must be for the owner's use only and labeled "not for sale."

Federally inspected processing plants that are willing to take a small number of animals, or to keep your meat separate, are very hard to find. You might have to base your marketing on using state-inspected facilities or make arrangements with custom processors.

A good option if your customer wants an entire animal is to sell the animal live, transport it to the butcher for your client, and have the client pick it up and pay processing fees.

Check with your state department of agriculture and your county department of environmental/public health for local regulations that affect your processing, selling, and on-farm slaughter.

Call the USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service hotline at 1-800- 535-4555 with questions about federal regulations. The Niche Meat Processing Assistance Network offers information about meat processing regulations and contacts for locating a processor.

Red-Meat Processing and Inspection Levels
Your access to processing will affect how you can market your animals.
Federal or USDA-Inspected Plants. Federal plants can process meat for nationwide sale.
State-Inspected Plants About half the states have inspection programs. Meat processed in state-inspected plants can only be sold in that state.
Custom-Exempt Plants A custom plant processes for individual use. The meat must be stamped “not for sale.”
On-Farm Slaughter (exempt from inspection) Animals are processed by the owner for individual use. Regulations vary by state & county.

For on-farm poultry processing, special exemptions apply to producers of less than 1,000 and less than 20,000 birds a year. See the resources list for more information.

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Niche Meat Processing Assistance Network (NMPAN)

For farmers, ranchers, consumers, and small and middle-sized processors who are trying to build their meat industry businesses, NMPAN is probably the best way to navigate the maze of federal, state and local regulations. The network is made up of state cooperative extension advisors and other specialists who know what's going on in their regions as well as at the national level.

NMPAN provides lists of USDA and state-inspected processors. The network also offers videos, webinars, case studies, and guides to federal regulations, as well as help with business development, plant design, and management. Webinars include four about mobile processing units and one about composting butcher waste.

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ATTRA publications.

ATTRA Publications about Meat Production

The following publications can be downloaded from the ATTRA website. Or call
800-346-9140 to order a free print copy.

In addition, many other ATTRA publications address sustainable farming methods that are compatible with organic farming. All these publications are available free of charge.

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Resources about Small-Scale Meat Processing

American Association of Meat Processors works exclusively with small and very small meat processing plants. Membership includes more than 1,300 medium-sized and smaller meat, poultry and food businesses: slaughterers, packers, processors, wholesalers, in-home food service business, retailers, deli and catering operators, and industry suppliers. One Meating Place, Elizabethtown, PA 17022;

Animal Welfare Approved provides humane standards and guidelines for raising and slaughtering animals.

Direct Marketing Lamb Management Guide and Marketing Grassfed Beef are informative publications from the Kansas Rural Center, 785-873-3431

image of sectioned cow

Eatwild.com is a national website for direct sales of local grassfed meat, eggs and dairy.

Meat, Poultry and Egg Product Inspection Directory is an online list of establishments (including slaughterhouses) regulated by the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. The list is updated monthly, but it is quite hard to use. Find it on the Internet by going to www.fsis.usda.gov and searching FSIS for Meat, Poultry and Egg Product Establishments.

SheepGoatMarketing.info is a national online resource for sheep and goat marketing. The website includes a directory of livestock processors that do custom and commercial slaughter.

Guide to Designing a Small Red-Meat Plant (PM 2077) and Beef and Pork Whole Animal Buying Guide (PM 2076) are written by Arion Thiboumery, one of the organizers of the Niche Meat Processing Assistance Network. Both can be downloaded free from Iowa State University Extension Distribution Center. Or you can order copies by calling 515-294-5247 or writing 119 Printing and Publications Bldg, Ames, IA 50011.

New and Updated ATTRA Publications

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ATTRAnews is the bi-monthly newsletter of ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. The newsletter is distributed free throughout the United States to farmers, ranchers, Cooperative Extension agents, educators, and others interested in sustainable agriculture. ATTRA is funded through the USDA Rural Business-Cooperative Service and is a project of the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), a private, non-profit organization that since 1976 has helped people by championing small-scale, local and sustainable solutions to reduce poverty, promote healthy communities, and protect natural resources.

Teresa Maurer, Project Manager
Karen Van Epen, Editor
Mary Ann Thom, e-newsletter production

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Comments? Questions? E-mail the ATTRAnews editor Karen Van Epen at karenv@ncat.org.

ATTRA - National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
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