In 1992 and 1993 when the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 Outbreak occurred, and I got my introduction as an attorney to outbreak-related litigation, the meat industry looked very different than it does so today. The company that manufactured the hamburger patties for Jack in the Box—Vons Companies, Inc.—purchased meat to grind into hamburger from numerous companies, including Beef Packers Inc., Cattleman’s Choice, Fresno Meat Co., Monfort Inc., Orleans International Inc., RBR Meat Co., Service Packing Co. and Westland Inc. At the time, most of these companies were regionally-based, and not vertically integrated. Consequently, there were separate companies that ran slaughterhouse, boning operations, and packers, each sourcing from within their more immediate area of operations. There were also local and regional feedlots.

Today, that has all changed. Instead, there are huge mega-plants that combine all aspects of meat-production in a single, tightly integrated operation that produces meat products that are then distributed nationwide. That is why when you have E. coli O157:H7 outbreak involving meat products, the illness and death are widely spread, and the initial source of the contamination is sometimes difficult to trace back to its source. Back in the day, it simply was not possible to have product recalls involving millions of pounds of meat because no one was really producing and distributing it on that scale.So if you are looking for an additional argument in favor of a more local and regional based food supply, the prevention of mega-outbreak, courtesy of “Big Meat” (also known as the mega-meat industry, or  Cargill/Conagra/Tyson triumvirate), is definitely a compelling one–in my humble opinion.

With this thought in mind, click on the Continue Reading link and check out a press release that was forwarded to me yesterday, which announced a recently released report about the demise of local small meat processing operations. And if you’re so inclined, read the entire report. It’s worth your time.

Food & Water Watch Press Release: June 24, 2009

A new report issued today by Food & Water Watch examines how the slow demise of local small slaughter and processing operations in the U.S. is preventing farmers and ranchers from fully satisfying rising consumer demand for meat from sustainably raised livestock. Entitled Where’s the Local Beef?, the report identifies the reasons for the disappearance of small plants, presents examples of the next generation of processors and offers policy solutions to rebuild the small slaughterhouse sector of the meat industry.

“The decline of small slaughter and processing operations in the U.S. is part of a general trend in agriculture toward the industrial model of food production,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “A variety of public policies, including USDA food safety regulations, economic development programs and rules governing livestock markets must change in order to level the playing field for small meat plants.”

Key findings of the report include:

• Small slaughter and processing operations have been closing across the country because of industry consolidation, low profit margins, the complexities of federal regulation and difficulty disposing of slaughter byproduct.
• Small slaughter operators are expected to adhere to a regulatory framework that is biased toward large, corporate facilities that can afford the expensive techniques and equipment now incorporated into government inspection requirements.
• Changes to USDA’s meat inspection program to help rebuild local meat processing infrastructure that include providing resources for small plants such as generic food safety plans, performing microbiological testing based on the volume of production and conducting investigations to find the source of contamination when it is first detected at small plants that do not slaughter animals.

“Despite the odds stacked against them, some small slaughterhouses and processors are finding ways to survive,” said Hauter. “It’s time for USDA and other government agencies to make sure that their policies work for more than just the largest players in the meat industry.”