This should be the slowest time of the year for butchering, but T&E Meats is booked months in advance, like the other small meat processing plants in my area. We're all working at almost full capacity to bring locally grown, pasture-raised, and humanely slaughtered quality meats to market. The local food movement and the bad economy have motivated people to return to their roots, but the infrastructure to support such a movement is threatened with extinction, and if we don't act now there's a chance the USDA will seal the deal.
Picture an hourglass and you'll understand the sustainable meat crisis: there are plenty of willing consumers out there, and there are more and more farmers looking to "meat" that consumer demand (sorry—couldn't help myself!), but the real bottleneck is processing capacity. Small, community-based meat processing plants have become an endangered species, done in by an ocean of super-cheap industrial meat and the challenge of meeting the Byzantine demands of USDA regulations without a Ph.D. in microbiology.
Although species go extinct on Earth on a regular basis, every so often there is a major event that comes along and wipes out 40 or 50 percent of them. The same thing happens in the small business world. A few businesses fold every year due to retirement, poor management, and changes in the market, and that is quite normal. But then every so often a catastrophe comes along and causes a wholesale wipeout.
For small meat businesses in America, catastrophic events result from changes high up in the regulatory food chain that make it very difficult for small plants to adapt. The most recent extinction event occurred at the turn of the millennium, when small and very small USDA-inspected slaughter and processing plants were required to adopt the costly Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety plan. It has been estimated that 20 percent of existing small plants, and perhaps more, went out of business at that time. Now, proposed changes to HACCP for small and very small USDA-inspected plants threaten to take down many of the ones that remain, making healthy, local meats a rare commodity.
The intent of HACCP is to prevent contamination of meat by harmful pathogens. Plant HACCP plans are approved and overseen by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the inspection arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On March 19, 2010, the FSIS published a draft guidance document on HACCP system validation, outlining new rules which would institute regular, year-round testing of all meats, whether or not problems have been identified. The proposal recommends testing for testing's sake, and it will cost small plants tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, every year. The financial burden appears great enough that this will destroy much of the remaining community-based meat processing industry, which is enjoying a renaissance and creating jobs.