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Meat processors may ‘beef’ up operations

Posted: Thursday, Feb 28th, 2013

Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture and San Luis Valley rancher John Salazar, left, addresses a meeting about processing locally produced meats. Center is Mel Jaramillo, Jr., and at right is his father Mel Jaramillo, Sr., of Mel’s Custom Meat Processing, the only USDA certified slaughter facility in the San Luis Valley. Courier photo by Ruth Heide

Courier editor

MONTE VISTA — Meat processors, inspectors, U.S.D.A. and other government staff met with Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture John Salazar Tuesday night to discuss ways local producers might be able to slaughter, process and market their beef through San Luis Valley processing plants.

Salazar said he wanted to see what his department could do to address the concern that there are not enough slaughter facilities in the state. He said he wants to create an incentive program for local processing, and his office has a small fund that might be available for that purpose.

“We heard from many beef producers they have a very difficult time finding processors to slaughter their animals under inspection,” added Steve Bornmann, director of the Colorado Department of Agriculture’s inspection services.

Currently the San Luis Valley has five meat processing plants, with one of those (Mel’s Custom Meat Processing, Mel Jaramillo, Romeo) certified with U.S.D.A. for slaughtering and processing. One inspector services those plants.

The closest cold storage warehouse is in Pueblo.

Bornmann said emerging markets include farmers markets.

Bornmann said the state legislature has asked the Department of Agriculture in its strategic plan to assist people with local marketing of products such as beef and chicken.

“It’s something on a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “We want to facilitate a conversation, find out what kind of need there is, what kind of barriers there are.”

Julie Moore, who serves on the state Farm to School Task Force, said so much of the Farm to School focus has been fruits and vegetables because it is easier to deal with lettuce than beef, but she wanted to learn more about incorporating locally produced meats into school menus.

Dr. Ron Nelson, district manager for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service, Denver District, which covers 10 states, said USDA deals with the plant owners who hold grants with USDA, so it would be up to those plant owners to work with local producers to generate local labels such as natural, organic, no antibiotics, etc. The plant owners would have to develop a control program so they could keep the product separate all the way through the process from slaughter, storage, processing, further storage and shipment.

“From the plant owners’ standpoint, it’s got to be worth their while. What is the plant owner going to get out of this?” Nelson said. “That’s where it usually falls apart.”

Nelson said a cattle producer might make a bit extra marketing to farmers markets or other local markets, but the difficulty lies with the control program, labeling and making it worth processors’ extra efforts.

He said smaller plants have to compete with bigger operations, and “it’s really hard to compete against the big boys.”

For example, where a big plant could make money clearing a nickel an animal, a small plant would go broke. In addition, a large plant can afford to have someone to handle federal inspection paperwork while in a smaller operation the owner has to manage the paperwork, staff and hands-on processing as well.

Under federal inspections a processor has to develop a Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan to prevent problems like E. coli and salmonella.

“It’s all about trace back,” said Anna Gallegos, deputy district manager for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, Denver District. “A lot of it is knowing where that product is, when it came in and where it went to, keeping good records … It’s all about control.”

She said it can be a nuisance to begin with, but once the HACCP is in place, it does not have to be difficult to maintain.

Nelson said although USDA cannot write HACCP plans for plant owners, they can offer some guidance and outreach, and the HACCP Alliance offers free assistance in writing plans.

Nelson said it takes almost a full time person to keep up with HACCP and other government requirements, and it would be hard to cut meat all day and keep up the records as well. He said for a small plant to compete with the larger operations, it would need to find a niche.

Butch Crowther, Valley Meat owner who has been in business for more than 30 years, said he currently spends an average of eight hours a week on regulatory paperwork.

He said he has to weigh it out whether it is economically feasible for him to put the time, effort and money into an expansion at this point.

“When it comes to meat equipment, nothing is cheap,” he said.

Even the task of finding employees willing to work in meat processing is difficult, he added.

Crowther buys almost all of his meat from Fort Morgan, and all he buys is USDA choice.

He said one of the problems with local producers going through his processing plant was he would still be liable for whatever happened with meat processed at his facility. If anything went wrong, it would be traced back to him.

“What can we do to make it so that producers could market something to a private individual?” asked CUS Extension Agent Marvin Reynolds. “It just looks like no way possible at this point.”

“The only way to do it is under inspection,” Nelson said.

Reynolds said commercial coolers might be part of the solution for meat storage, but those run $10,000 or more. He also suggested the state legislature might need to amend the cottage food act to deal with meat products.

Bornmann said the state is looking into its own inspection program. Nelson said there are only about two other states that have tried that. The state would have its own inspector but the federal government would oversee the program.

“The state program would mimic the federal,” Nelson said. “Everything has to be the same.”

Storage space is another concern. Crowther said he has no problem storing meat if he has the space, but during busy times of year, he does not have extra space. This time of year is slower but it will pick up in the summer and fall.

Having enough inspectors for expanded slaughter/processing is another issue.

Jaramillo, who operates the only USDA certified slaughter facility in the San Luis Valley now, performs slaughter twice a week and depending on the size kills 20-30 a week. Inspector Ed Keeney has to be on hand at Jaramillo’s facility on those days. Right now he is able to juggle those inspection days with inspections at the other four processing facilities in the Valley.

Keeney said he visits all five facilities at random on Tuesdays through Thursdays and spends a good share of the day at Mel’s on Mondays and Fridays during the slaughtering process.

Mel Jaramillo Jr. said if they increased their slaughter days to five, Keeney would have to spend all of his time at their facility alone.

If inspection duties increased, USDA would hire another inspector, Gallegos said.

Nelson added, “There’s no limit on the number of inspectors. If we have the need, we can get the inspector.”

However, USDA would not hire an inspector at $30,000-50,000 a year if someone were just slaughtering five animals once a week.

“If there’s enough work so that person is busy, then we will hire a person,” Nelson said.

Nelson also advised against building a new facility, which would run at least $1 million, and recommended using existing plants that are already established.

The group discussed mobile slaughter units, but Nelson said those are not what people might envision, going to multiple sites. Most mobile units only go to one or two sites.

“They don’t go ranch to ranch,” he said.

He said there are none in Colorado.

Nelson asked what it would take to make it economically feasible for local processors to expand their businesses to accommodate more locally produced meat, and the processors at the table Tuesday said consistency would be a key factor. They would need to be able to depend on the business being there.

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