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
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....