When we think about why more sustainably raised meat costs more, we tend to focus on its higher costs of production, and sometimes also the broken meat processing system that makes it hard for small-scale farmers to get product to market (as I wrote about a few days ago). This piece from NPR/KQED’s Food Bites adds another topping to the crust. Avian flu has driven turkey costs up: “The USDA’s mid-November report on frozen tom turkeys, in the 16-24 pound range, showed that the average wholesale price was $1.35 per pound, up from last year’s $1.17.” Not enough to close the price differential with birds from all those small producers raising their organic, pastured, heritage breeds, but a step in the right direction, right? Sadly, no: “the retail price of frozen tom turkeys has fallen to an average of 87 cents a pound, compared with last year’s 93 cents.” Why? Because this time of year turkeys are loss leaders, products sold below cost in order to get consumers into the stores, where they’ll buy other stuff with a good profit margin. And turkeys are just the thin end of the wedge: “The USDA says cheaper turkeys also will put downward pressure on prices for roaster chickens and hams in coming days.” More than a little discouraging, this. We can try to level the production playing field all we want, but if national retailers aren’t even trying to break even on the animals they sell, there’s no way to get the price of good meat anywhere close to in line with that of industrial protein. Hard to know where to press for change here.
FarWriting at Civileats.com, Lauren Dixon informs us that since the Wholesome Meat Act (WMA) of 1967, the number of meat processors in the U.S. has dropped precipitously, with “with some states [now] only offering one USDA-inspected plant, and roughly half of the states in the nation completely lacking such a facility.” The sticking point here is “USDA-inspected.” Any facility that slaughters and processes animals for eventual sale to consumers, grocery stores, restaurants, etc., must, according to the WMA, meet safety and sanitation criteria set at the federal level by the USDA and be subject to regular inspection. As these criteria are generally designed for large-scale processing, and as they regularly get updated, smaller processors can’t afford to comply and so get forced out of business. The result, as Dixon says, is that now, even “[i]n a time of growing awareness about the ills of factory farming and increasing demand for local, pasture-raised meat, many small producers who might sell direct to consumers just don’t have time to drive for hours to get it processed.” The flip-side of this is, of course, a system whose benefits accrue to those operating at a large scale, as is shown by the massive consolidation in the meat-packing industry, where, according to Dixon, “just four companies produce 80 percent of the beef sold in the U.S[;] [a]nother four companies produce 60 percent of the pork, and five produce 60 percent of the poultry.” (See Christopher Leonard’s recent book The Meat Racket for how we got to this point.)
In July, two members of Congress, Republican Thomas Massie from Kentucky and Democrat Chellie Pingree from Maine, introduced a bill aimed to change all this: the Processing Revival and Intrastate Meat Exemption (PRIME) Act. Continue reading “Meating the Needs of the Future”