Arkansas needs an alternative to U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected processing for direct-market livestock products. Regulations on meat processing have not caught up to the new, thriving market for locally sourced, humanely produced meat from smaller-scale farms. The USDA has relatively effective meat processing regulations designed to be minimally invasive for large-scale producers. But, in the same way that we don't have the physical and service infrastructure to meet the demands of the local food economy, we also lack the regulatory infrastructure.
It is almost impossible for would-be meat processors to enter the abattoir business because of the high costs of opening and operating a large industrial operation. For example, USDA regulations require an on-site inspector paid for by the facility. Despite real interest from chefs, butchers and restaurateurs in Central Arkansas, the cost of running a fully licensed USDA abattoir is so prohibitive as to even daydream about the potential of such a venture.
For farmers, this means abattoirs are a bottleneck. We have to work with the limitations of the two or three USDA-approved processors in the state or else drive our animals and products hundreds of miles to reach facilities in neighboring states. The logistics and expense of travel keep us on the highway instead of the farm and cause us to spend huge portions of our operating budgets on services outside the state, further adding to the long hours, stress and heavy operating costs that sink so many small farms before their third year of operation. And still, we can't meet the demands of the growing local foodie culture in the Little Rock area.
Meanwhile, almost every county in Arkansas has a "custom processor" — a mom-and-pop shop where local hunters have their deer cut up and where everything is tagged with a "not for sale" label. Custom plants are only for end users, unfortunately. If our farm could use a local custom processing plant to produce cuts that would be sold to consumers, we would be able to lower our prices, offer a wider variety of products and spend more time perfecting our farming as opposed to our driving.
Congress has proposed federal legislation to allow a means of regulating smaller-scale processors, but it has stalled. However, some states have created their own rules that meet federal standards for safety and cleanliness. Texas, for example, has set up a parallel system to USDA inspection that creates a license somewhere between a USDA facility and a custom-type plant. The state assigns an agent to supervise the handling of meat and ensure facilities meet basic requirements regarding contamination avoidance, basic humane care standards and so on.
Regulation is a good thing, in general. We need parameters to help us define the niche that we work within. But in this case, the regulation needs an update. Our meat production system has swung so far toward large-scale farming in the last 70 years that now we are left only with the tiny remnants of a bygone production system, and not a lot of resources to meet the demand generated by contemporary food culture.
For consumers, such reform would mean more choice. Not only would more farmers be able to more easily bring their products directly to market, there would be a huge opportunity for aspiring craft meat processors. Imagine if, like the blossoming of the gourmet food truck scene, we had a thriving community of creative artisan butchers suddenly able to manage the start-up costs of building or taking over a local custom processing plant. Today's foodies are embracing high-minded, highly crafted animal products, and Arkansas's livestock producers are eager to "meat" the need, but we have a dearth of specialists to convey our raw products into artisan food.