Slaughterhouse shortage stunts industry growth

One might expect the Bay Area — as the epicenter of the eat-local movement and a region with a long tradition of cattle ranching — to be a mecca for producers of organic and grass-fed beef. But there is a problem: A shortage of slaughterhouses is so acute that it is stunting the growth of this emerging industry.

Only one slaughterhouse remains in the Bay Area, in Petaluma, and there are just a smattering of them in all of Northern California. Ranchers must often truck their grass-fed cattle hundreds of miles to the nearest plant, and they face backlogs in the busy season that can lead to waits lasting many months. This means fewer — and more expensive — local skirt steaks at the butcher shop, and more carbon with that grass-fed burger.

The slaughterhouse shortage, and associated difficulties in creating an efficient supply chain, has already kept aspiring local-beef entrepreneurs out of the business, University of California researchers say. And when the local supply of grass-fed meat gets low, out-of-region producers pick up the slack.

Meanwhile, established local purveyors fret about what could happen if the Petaluma slaughterhouse, Rancho Veal, closed.

"The vulnerability is extreme," said David Evans, owner of Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes Station, one of the largest local grass-fed cattle operations. "It's enough of a problem that if one slaughterhouse goes out of business, the alternatives are too far away to be recognizably viable."


Evans said his contingency plan was to buy Rancho Veal if it were threatened with closing.

Slaughterhouses were once common in the Bay Area. Rosemary Mucklow, director emeritus of the National Meat Association, an industry trade group based in Oakland, said that as recently as 45 years ago, there were still dozens of slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants in San Francisco.

"When I came to town, San Francisco had a Butchertown on Third Street," Mucklow said, adding that she saw her first hog slaughter in what is now the Bayview neighborhood.

These days, little remains of Butchertown except memories and the name given to the nearby Dogpatch neighborhood, which, according to legend, was populated by feral dogs that lived off slaughterhouse scraps.

The disappearance of slaughterhouses is not a local phenomenon, nor is it limited to urban areas where residents do not want an abattoir in their backyards. Nationwide, the number of meat-processing centers has declined steadily for the past three decades, as the industry has consolidated and turned to large facilities where thousands of cattle can be fed, killed and cut up over the course of a day. In 1979, there were 70 federally inspected cattle slaughterhouses in California, according to the United States Department of Agriculture; by 2009, there were 23.

In some regions of the country, notably the Midwest, the growing popularity of "niche meat"— a catchall term that includes grass-fed, organic, sustainable and kosher meat — has led to a revival of the small slaughterhouse, said Arion Thiboumery, a researcher at Iowa State University and head of an organization dedicated to helping niche-meat producers and processors.

Part of the problem is the seasonality of the meat business, which can leave a slaughterhouse all but idle January through April.

"The facilities are in high demand, but not year-round," Lauren Gwin, a researcher at Oregon State University, said in an e-mail. "Most people want their animals slaughtered at around the same time. Small processors that serve a fairly specific geographic region are subject to that region's geography in terms of when livestock are born and thus when they are ready for harvest."


There is also the complicating fact that customers of niche meat can be very particular, and sometimes seek assurances that their cow was humanely treated before it died.

Larry Bain, co-founder of Let's be Frank, which uses grass-fed beef in its hot dogs, favorites in San Francisco, went through three California ranches in his search for consistent, quality grass-fed beef. When he finally came across Five Dot Ranch in Susanville, just over 100 miles east of Redding, he was delighted — the ranchers cared about their cattle and ensured they were humanely slaughtered. But the situation in Susanville is uncertain. Bain has had supply troubles before — large slaughterhouses refused to take the time to collect and separate the trimming he needs to make the perfect hot dog — and he worries that he may be in for more.

"There is just one slaughter facility, and if they go out of business, we're in serious trouble," Bain said. "There's a deep need for slaughter facilities that are humane."

Despite the hurdles, at least three groups of local investors and consultants are working on plans to open new plants outside the Bay Area. One, slated to be in Siskiyou County, near Mount Shasta, may break ground in the next month or two, said Talia Dillman, a food-business consultant with Live Culture Company in Oakland.

"Our client believes that having a supply chain where we control every element of the process is really, really important," Dillman said. "That's why he'll invest this money — because he wants to be able to control the entire supply chain."

But Chris Johansen, the owner of a slaughterhouse in Orland, west of Chico, laughs off the idea that the niche-meat business is creating enough demand to support local meatpackers. He reels off a list of four plants that have shut down recently.

"If there was that much money to be made — where I could get an office, with an easy chair and a secretary — I wouldn't be standing on the line working on the meat," Johansen said. "But there's not that much money to be made."

Evans of Marin Sun Farms said he did not care who operated slaughterhouses — as long as they stayed open.


"Maybe they should be nonprofit? Maybe government owned?" Evans said. "I don't care, OK? Just please someone solve this problem so I can bring my cattle to market!"

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