Meat processors face uphill battle to meet demand


By Rachel Wagoner, Farm and Dairy (OH)

October 15, 2020


When people think of their local food system, they might imagine cows on green pastures or a farmer standing beneath a tent at a farmers market, selling packages of steaks and ground beef.


They’re probably not picturing the worker in a blood-stained white apron, trimming fat and gristle off a chuck roast.


Processing animals is not idyllic. Processing includes all the steps involved in turning a live animal into meat for sale, according to the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network. That means stunning, bleeding, skinning, disemboweling, cutting the parts down to size and packaging it all up. It can also include grinding, casing or smoking meat to turn otherwise unappealing parts into value added products like sausage, ham or bacon.


While it may not be pretty, processing is arguably the most important part of the whole system. You can raise the best tasting meat in the world, but no one will know if you can’t get it slaughtered, cut and packaged in a safe and timely manner.


Processors are the unsung heroes of the local food movement. Like the hero in any story, they’re facing numerous uphill battles with no easy answers.


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For Monica Hepler, the battle was finding a place nearby to get their animals slaughtered.


She and her husband, Matt, have been running their own processing facility and slaughterhouse, Hepler’s Meats, near Emlenton, Pennsylvania, for more than 20 years.


They were a custom-exempt facility, meaning they could only kill and process animals for the owners of that animal to consume. The family also has a herd of beef cattle and they direct market their beef through their store. They needed to get their beef slaughtered at a federally-inspected facility. (Confused yet? Me too. See our Types of Inspection sidebar for more clarity on the levels of inspection required for different facilities.)


For years, they took their cattle to Hirsch Meats, in Kossuth, Pennsylvania. It was just three miles down the road and the only U.S. Department of Agriculture inspected slaughterhouse in the area. Then, the Hirsch Meats slaughterhouse burned down in July 2018, leaving processors and farmers in the region around Clarion County and Venango County, Pennsylvania, without a place to have their animals killed.


“We were having to drive our cattle an hour south to get them slaughtered and drive them back another hour to process them,” Monica said...


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A.J. O’Neil is trying to expand, too. He runs O’Neil’s Quality Foods, just outside of Clarion, with his parents. He also got a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to expand the shop and become USDA inspected for processing...


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