March 11, 2020
Blog co-authored with Simone Benz, Sustainable Food Center
Last month, the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network, along with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the Sustainable Food Center (SFC), hosted the first small and very small meat and poultry processing roundtable of 2020 in Austin, TX. We were excited to welcome the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Deputy Under Secretary of Food Safety, Dr. Mindy Brashears, back to Texas to continue these important conversations with the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).
Plants Impact on the Local Meat and Poultry Sector
Small and very small meat processing plants are seeing rising demands for their service as a growing number of consumers appreciate the benefits that the niche meat sector offers.
At the beginning of the day, participants heard first-hand from a local small processor with a visit to Dewberry Hills Farms (D.H. Farms) in Lexington, TX – about an hour outside of Austin.
D.H. Farms is a dual-purpose operation that raises chickens for the local market and processes birds for other producers. D.H. Farms is a very small processing plant that operates under the same USDA regulations as the large scale plants.
“We enjoy making it possible for other farmers to sell their poultry to restaurants and farmers markets and will continue to grow to meet the needs of the community,” said Jane Levan of D.H. Farms.
Top Topics from the Roundtable
Some past roundtable themes and new topics were discussed in Texas.
“We were glad to host this conversation, and were happy to see a strong representation of producers and processors at the table, including some from our markets. Increased conversation around these important topics will ensure the local and niche meat sector is viable and thriving,” said Simone Benz of SFC.
The roundtable started with a discussion around state equivalent inspections by the Texas Department of Health, which runs the State Meat and Poultry Inspection Program in Texas. Under this program, plants are inspected by state officials under a program that is reviewed and financially supported in part by FSIS. Products inspected under the program can only be sold within the state of Texas.
Recently, Texas decided to remove poultry inspection from their program. The cost and resources that go into a state program were discussed as a barrier for some state programs and the plants that need to utilize state programs.
Then, participants met with top USDA FSIS officials to discuss FSIS’s support and assistance for small plants, as well as some of the issues small plants must address. The roundtables build on the relationship component by creating the opportunity for processors to create relationships with FSIS officials.
The main theme for this roundtable was around how standards are often created with large, not small, processing facilities in mind.
For example, Salmonella testing and scale-appropriate data considerations were discussed. Participants voiced their concerns that small processors would be out of business if Salmonella is declared an adulterant. One participant commented that this could lead to small plants no longer processing poultry for the 50 or more farms that they currently serve.
In Texas, there are very few small/very small poultry processing facilities.
Judith McGreary of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA) commented, “If we lose these facilities, it would cripple local poultry in this state.”
Small processors emphasized the importance of ensuring a safe food supply for their customers, many whom they sell to directly. Scale appropriate regulations can ensure customers still receive safe, humanely processed products, that were locally raised and processed.
A number of other topics were also discussed that have been mentioned at past roundtables, including misleading animal raising label claims, consistency for label approvals, humane handling requirements, inspector training and employment, and the costs of expanding small plants’ infrastructure.
The Austin, TX roundtable was the eighth roundtable FSIS leadership has supported. We are thankful for the opportunity to partner with FSIS and to continue these conversations and help share relevant information with small and very small plants.
We hope additional support, beyond FSIS, can continue to help this industry thrive and grow. There are several legislative actions that can further support this sector, including the Agriculture Resilience Act, that includes an infrastructure support program for very small meat and poultry processing facilities.