Will COVID-19 help save small slaughterhouses?

As laborers for the Big Four meatpackers fall ill, small slaughterhouses see unprecedented demand.

 

As a service to readers, High Country News has removed the paywall from all COVID-19 stories. Please consider supporting our work by donatingsubscribing or sending us tips.

A recently closed small slaughterhouse in Odessa, Washington, is in the process of reopening, thanks to soaring demand for locally raised and processed meat. As large meatpacking facilities across the country have become hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks — at least 277 cases have been confirmed among the nearly 1,500 workers at the Tyson Foods plant 100 miles south in Wallula, Washington, and three people have died — business is booming for small meatpackers. 

With grocery stores limiting customer purchases, some Wendy’s restaurants running out of beef and the price of ground beef increasing nearly 5% from March to April, customers are flocking to ranchers like Ed Gross, who has a herd of 1,500 cattle in eastern Washington. “Even big chain stores are looking to buy from us now,” said Gross, one of the founders of the Odessa plant.

Big meatpacking facilities have made meat cheap in the United States. But those low prices have come at a cost to workers and pushed smaller slaughterhouses out of business. Now, as people turn to small butchers for meat, the pandemic is exposing the vulnerability of this centralized system — and highlighting the importance of a diverse and resilient food economy.

The meatpacking industry has undergone major consolidation. From 1990 to 2016, the U.S. lost more than 1800 livestock slaughterhouses, 40% of the industry. As small slaughterhouses closed, the so-called “Big Four” meatpacking companies — Tyson, Cargill, JBS and National Beef — came to dominate the industry. Today, these four companies process more than 80% of beef in the U.S. 

In 2013, the Livestock Processor's Cooperative Association, a group of ranchers in eastern Washington, tried to break the grip of industry consolidation by opening a slaughterhouse in Odessa, Washington. The plant, which was backed by community development agencies, would allow ranchers to tap into consumer demand for local beef without transporting cattle long distances for slaughtering or using large meatpackers.

But the cooperative struggled with inconsistent sales and hiring and retaining employees in a small town, Gross said. Now, however, with the pandemic driving demand and closing the price gap between local and industrial beef, the Odessa facility is preparing to reopen in June.

Ken Wilke and his son, Jeff Wilke, skin a cow at a client's farm in 2011. The family's company, Quadra-K Meats, serves people who raise their own animals. With large meatpacking plants closing down, demand for small butchers has skyrocketed.

Jeff Wilke, a butcher on the outskirts of Spokane, Washington, who works directly with animal owners, is also seeing unprecedented consumer interest — so much so, that he’s booked up for the rest of the year. “My phone’s been ringing off the hook,” Wilke said.

“Animals don’t get poked and prodded and loaded onto semis.”

Wilke’s business, Quadra K-Meats, serves people who are raising their own animals and ranchers who sell directly to consumers. Wilke slaughters animals where they were raised, something he’s done since he was a kid, helping out his dad in the 1970s. “Animals don’t get poked and prodded and loaded onto semis,” he said. 

But that process isn’t nearly as efficient as industrial operations: The assembly lines at large meatpacking facilities can process hundreds of cattle an hour, while Wilke slaughters and processes about eight animals a week. That means meat processed by small slaughterhouses typically costs more: A locally raised and slaughtered cut of top sirloin steak at the Main Market Co-Op in Spokane costs more than $14 a pound, while a top sirloin at Walmart in Spokane costs less than half that.

Slaughterhouses like Wilke’s also confront a two-tiered system of slaughterhouse certification. Most large facilities — and some smaller ones, including the Odessa plant — are inspected by U.S. Department of Agriculture or state inspectors and permitted to sell individual cuts to stores and restaurants. Businesses like Wilke’s, however, don’t have inspectors on site and can only process animals that were purchased directly from individual ranchers.

Jeff Wilke prepares to shoot a cow at a client's property in Spokane County, Washington. Wilke slaughters animals where they were raised, instead of putting them through a stressful journey to an industrial slaughterhouse.

That lack of access to venues like farmers markets makes it harder for small slaughterhouses to stay in business. In response, federal lawmakers have introduced a bipartisan bill several times in recent years. The PRIME Act would make it easier for butchers who aren’t USDA-inspected to reach customers by allowing them to sell meat to restaurants and other retail outlets. 

Without such reforms, the current bump in business for small processors may not last. Right now, it’s time to “make hay while the sun shines,” said Rebecca Thistlethwaite, an agricultural extension agent for Oregon State University and the director of the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network. But with the potential for a prolonged economic slump following the pandemic, she expects that most people will soon return to cheaper meat processed at large facilities, as happened during the 2008 recession.

That would further the long-term decline of small slaughterhouses and ranching operations, leaving the meat industry even more consolidated and vulnerable to future disasters. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the risk of relying on just a handful of companies and factories to keep grocery stores full. A diverse system composed of businesses from large to small is key to making the food supply resilient, Thistlethwaite said. “People are realizing that now,” she said. “Hopefully, we can continue to support small producers going forward.”

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...