Meat of the Matter
A Local State-of-the-Art Processing Facility Scheduled to Open Next Fall
Let’s play a game. It’s called “The Biggest Locavore.” If you can tell me the names of the farmers or gardeners who produced the ingredients in your most recent meal, you win whatever the prize is to this made-up game. (Most likely it’s just “local foodie” bragging rights; it seems like we all want those these days.) Think you’re ready to win? Any self-respecting Edible reader should be able to give at least one source for an item this time of year, if not for your own homesteader attempts at canning your farmers’ market goodies this fall, then at least for fear of losing face at the holiday dinner table by admitting you bought everything at Stop & Shop.*
So, your potatoes and carrots are local, your cranberries are certainly local, and your pies are probably homemade with locally-grown fruit and squash or purchased from your favorite bakery that sources local.
But what about the meat? Hopefully you’re serving up some delicious pasture-raised free-range heritage breed organic something-or-other, and maybe, just maybe, you got that beautiful leg of lamb or turkey from an animal raised in this very region. While the Cape may not be the state’s biggest livestock area, there are still plenty of Cape farmers and backyarders raising animals for meat. And there are dozens of farms just over the bridge—between Boston, the South Shore, and the South Coast—offering quality meat products right from the farm.
Of course, many of us non-vegetarian holiday meal hosts (and guests) are just as excited for those beloved traditional starchy side dishes like garlicky roasted turnips and mashed potatoes that truly make the meal, and many of us look to the holidays as a time to push the envelope with more creative vegetable recipes. But let’s face it: meat is the star of the dinner table now. For many, the winter is a time to celebrate meat. Few homes are without the smell of roasting turkey, beef tenderloin, or a sweet ham emanating from the oven in the busiest room of the house during the holidays. The seasons shift us away from oodles of fresh veg, and we start to pull more and more from our freezers. We slow down, put on a pot of beef stew, and watch the snow fall.
So for the locavores out there who want to eat truly as locally as possible, you’re probably buying meat from animals raised in Massachusetts, if you’re not raising them yourself in your backyard. And if you are raising them yourself in your backyard, you’re probably killing those animals yourself or taking them to a custom slaughterhouse and butcher that you trust will do a quality job of safely and humanely killing and cutting your animals for you. But for those of us who do not produce livestock and thus purchase our meat from farmers or grocers, how often are we asking where the animals were slaughtered and where that delicious-smelling breakfast sausage in our frying pans was actually turned into sausage? If the holidays and wintertime are a time to celebrate meat, then it’s also time to celebrate the lives of the animals that provide it. Part of celebrating the lives of those animals should include caring about how and where they’re slaughtered and processed.
The problem with demand for local food is the great disconnect that still—despite how far we have come in the battle to localize our economies—pervades our shopping and eating habits. As locavores, we’ve gotten connected with our farmers, and we’ve gotten connected with our marketers, but when it comes to meat, the processes that occur between seeing those happy, healthy, friendly pigs rooting and nuzzling and snorting their lives away on pristine pig-friendly pastures, and that breakfast sausage in your frying pan are oftentimes a mystery to the average consumer. Or even to the slightly-more-informed consumer. Why?
For farmers wishing to sell their meat, they must have their animals slaughtered and processed by federally-inspected facilities. The USDA is charged with staffing these facilities to oversee the killing, cutting and wrapping of animal products. Currently there are only two USDA-inspected facilities in Massachusetts (in Athol and Groton), leaving our local livestock producers very few options for convenient slaughter. When smaller-scale farmers are faced with traveling long distances to quality facilities that may or may not even process the cuts into the meat products their customers want, it introduces a barrier to production. The lack of USDA-inspected slaughtering and high-quality processing options in Southern New England, and specifically Southeastern Massachusetts, has been identified by the Southeastern Massachusetts Livestock Association (SEMALA) as a major bottleneck for producers in our region. (Note: The author is on SEMALA’s Board of Directors.) This challenge impacts not just the producer, but those of us demanding quality local meat as well. We care about supporting local farms so we buy meat from local farmers when we can, or from local specialty retailers who prioritize buying in from smaller farms nearby. But if farmers are trucking their animals three, four or five hours away to have them slaughtered (which many of our local farmers do, adding cost and stress to farmer and animal), then trucking the cuts an additional few hours to have them processed and turned into the product consumers want, and THEN going back to the processor to bring the product home to the farm for sale or delivery, how local is it?
The group of livestock producers in Southeastern Massachusetts who came together to form SEMALA had surveyed producers in the region in 2012-2013 and found that the demand for a local facility is mounting and that livestock production would increase if such a facility were built. The association decided conditions were right for construction of a new, state-of-the-art, USDA-inspected facility that would serve primarily small-scale livestock producers from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut who are focused on humane handling of their animals and want quality finished product. Since registering as an official Massachusetts nonprofit in 2014, SEMALA has been hard at work to fundraise for, design, and oversee construction of the facility, while also focusing on using education to further strengthen and revitalize the livestock industry in Southern New England. Taking it a step further, SEMALA plans to also include a retail operation housed at the facility to enable local producers to more easily and profitably market their meat to consumers. SEMALA currently has under agreement a parcel of appropriately zoned land in Westport, Massachusetts, conveniently located at the intersection of Route 6 and Route 88 near the I-195 exchange, and plans to close on the land in December 2015.
The membership-based organization is working full-steam to secure the necessary permits and funding (it’s a $4.5 million project) to complete the construction and start operation. While the budget is nothing to sneeze at, local support is mounting, from eaters and producers alike. The organization gains members every week, and Cape producers are showing interest. Tim Friary, farmer at Cape Cod Organic Farm in Barnstable on 6A, raises heritage breed pigs and sells a variety of pork products in addition to his organic produce. He recently joined the organization and says that having this new facility will be a huge time and energy saver for him, especially because he plans to about double his production next year. “It’s taken awhile, but I’m appreciative of SEMALA’s effort. This is a highly needed facility that will be better for me, and better for my animals,” Friary said.
Animal welfare is a top priority for the team designing the slaughterhouse and the association’s members. SEMALA’s Facility Committee from day one had planned to use a Temple Grandin-designed system for the best in animal handling. Grandin is renowned for revolutionizing not only the study of autism, but the field of animal behavior and the livestock industry. Grandin Livestock Handling Systems, Inc. is currently drafting the ramp, chutes and holding pens for the Westport facility, all designed for lower stress caused to the animals before slaughter.
The operations of the facility (which do not include plans or infrastructure to process poultry, at least initially) will also follow Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) guidelines for red meat slaughter. The AWA red meat slaughter process (which covers hogs in addition to cattle, goats and sheep) involves following 78 guidelines that fall under six main areas of operation, including handling, unloading of animals, holding pen conditions, stunning, bleeding and facility staff training. In short, animals are to be treated with respect from start to finish. Another primary goal for operations is to meet the highest food safety standards so customers (farmers and consumers both) can be confident that they’re receiving the highest quality and safest product.
While welfare of the animals should be a no-brainer for any slaughter facility starting up in this day and age, so should worker welfare. Although it’s quite unsettling, perhaps readers are picturing images of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s famous 1906 novel in which workers endured disgusting and life-threatening conditions in Chicago’s meat packing plants at the turn of the last century. But those work conditions unfortunately persist in our country today. As author Barry Estabrook exposes in his book, Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat, published just in 2015, even in some U.S. meat packing plants today conditions for workers are pretty unbelievable. Estabrook interviews workers who wear diapers to work because they are denied bathroom breaks by managers, or are suspended without pay for being unable to work due to injuries they get while on the job. Many such workers go to work in extremely fast-paced plants employing hundreds of people who process thousands of animals a day. SEMALA’s proposed facility will employ five or six skilled workers to handle the initial annual throughput of around 1750 animals (with capacity to expand to 15 employees processing 7000-10,000 animals a year). If small facilities similar to SEMALA’s proposed Westport plant were more common, and if consumers and farmers continue to demand quality, safe, local slaughter and processing, we may start to see a decline in stories like those exposed in Estabrook’s book.
So, this winter, with your family around the dinner table, the holiday ham or lamb leg center stage, you’ll likely feel comfortable knowing you purchased the meat from a farmer you know, or from a local grocer or butcher you trust, and that your dollars went to ultimately change the local food system and local economy for the better. With the Westport facility planned for opening in Fall 2016, perhaps this time next year you’ll find even greater peace of mind as you serve up some truly local meat: meat that was born, raised, humanely killed, butchered, processed and marketed closer to the farmer, and closer to you.
To learn more about SEMALA’s efforts to revitalize the livestock and meat industry in Southeastern Massachusetts and Southern New England, visit semala.org.