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
  • ANCESTRAL LANDS ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGER
    Starting Salary: Grade C, $19.00 to 24.00 per/hour Location: Albuquerque or Gallup, NM Status: Full-Time, Non-Exempt Benefit Eligible: Full Benefits Eligible per Personnel Policies Program...
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers