Processing meat in Montana
Small in comparison
States with predominant ranching industries may see opportunities for new markets due to COVID-19. However, Montana’s meatpacking capacity remains limited.
A kink in the food supply chain is affecting livestock sale prices and the availability of certain meat-cuts for wholesale and retail customers. Meatpacking employees have been afflicted with the blunt of this impact, with at least 5,000 infected and dozens dead from the virus. But meatpacking employees were put back to work as part of the country’s critical infrastructure. President Trump ordered meatpacking facilities to continue operation April 27.
The large meat packing plants across the United States were not designed for social distancing. Shoulder-to-shoulder assembly lines process tens of thousands of animals a day, increasing the rate of COVID-19 spread in the facilities. Coronavirus outbreaks lead to plant closures, which caused America’s immense meat and poultry production to halt. A backlog of animals ready for slaughter swiftly formed.
Montana U.S. Senator Jon Tester introduced a piece of legislation, New Markets for State-Inspected Meat and Poultry, for the next coronavirus relief package. The act would allow meat and poultry inspected by Food Safety Inspection Services approved State Meat and Poultry Inspection programs to be sold across state lines. According to Tester, the opportunity would allow Montana ranchers to use state facilities to get their product on the market, which would reduce backlogs in the bigger federal inspected meatpacking plants.
“I’d be surprised if they did that,” Ranchland Packing Company owner Justin Fisher said. “But in theory, they should be allowed to because they [state inspected meatpacking companies] follow the same Code of Federal Regulations for meat and poultry.”
Fisher owns a federally inspected meat packing plant in Butte. He employs 26 people at his Ranchland Packing Company, who are trained to process most parts of cattle and hogs. The assembly lines of the U.S.’s major meat packing plants process more animals in a few weeks than Montana processes in a year.
Ranchland Packing Company slaughters about 60 cattle a week, processing about 45 and shipping the remaining carcasses to retail customers like butcher shops.
Wyoming will start an extension of the Federal Food Freedom Act, which allows customers a share of an animal or herd for meat distribution, in July. The act imposes several conditions on creating a share and specific contract provisions, so it meets the exemption standards of the Food Freedom Act.
But processing capacity remains a key component to creating these new meat markets for Montana ranchers and consumers. Montana’s smaller independent processors have struggled for years to compete with the four big meat meatpackers that hold 80% of the beef market. The result has been fewer local processors.
Large processing plants do not operate like the smaller processing companies, such as Ranchland Packing Company. Assembly lines can train individuals to do a single task of animal processing. But small processing companies have fewer employees, who need to be trained on fully processing an animal. According to Fisher, it takes a few years to become a sufficient processor.
“There is not a lot of capacity in the state for growth,” Fisher said.