California Needs Policy Reform, Innovation to Enhance Meat Production Capacity
Challenges from COVID, climate change and industry consolidation highlight the need for building resilience in the state’s meat industry
Oakland, CA-Following last week’s Biden administration call for an end to “pandemic profiteering” by large meatpackers, a new report finds that California needs rapid experimentation, innovation, and investment to support small and mid-scale meat producers and enhance resilience and reduce vulnerabilities and inequities in meat production and processing. The report from the Food Systems Lab at UC Davis, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, co-authored by Michael Dimock of the Public Health Institute’s Roots of Change program, “A New Era for Meat Processing in California? Challenges and Opportunities to Enhance Resilience” points to recent disruptions to the meat supply and recommends policy changes to improve opportunities for small and mid-scale producers and processors, protect workers and the environment, and increase food system resilience.
Meat remains a critical part of the American diet, and meat processing plants are the nation’s top source of food manufacturing jobs. Yet just four companies control well over 80% of the nation’s meat supply. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerability of this concentration, when thousands of meat plant workers fell ill, causing plant closures and supply delays, including in California’s poultry industry. Climate change and increasing threats from drought, heat, and fire have also demonstrated the need for more resilient livestock practices.
Current federal and state labor regulations and meat inspection services favor the largest meat processors, leading to low wages for workers, lower prices for farmers and ranchers, and overall supply chain vulnerability. To improve resilience in and the long-term viability of California’s meat industry, the report recommends policy changes to support small- and mid-scale meat supply businesses, which are currently crippled by the expense and complexity of state and federal regulations and lack of accessible inspection services.
Michael R. Dimock, Director of Roots of Change and lead author of the report said, “The pandemic and climate crises have set the stage. We must have critical policy changes and robust public and private investments to ignite innovative collaborations among many stakeholders. Together we can create more health and resilience in the meat supply chain, more activity that addresses global warming and simultaneously unleashes economic opportunity in rural communities. But we must act.”
The report notes several challenges for California’s ’s small- and mid-scale producers and makes recommendations for better supports, including:
- Consolidation and Inspection Services: For small- and mid-scale producers, USDA inspection is expensive and out of reach, and California’s state inspection system places severe limits on marketing meat. Consolidation places downward pressure on pricing to farmers and ranchers, while creating upward pressure on pricing to consumers. To address this, the report recommends improvements to the federal Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Act to increase pricing competition, creating a California Meat Inspection Program, expanding mobile or on-farm slaughter operations, and providing technology-based transparency and traceability related to meat origin and production systems, including antibiotic use, to build consumer trust and loyalty.
- Processing Capacity: Access to Slaughter and Processing Plants: Small- and mid-scale producers in California currently face crippling challenges in arranging for slaughter, processing, and sale of their livestock and poultry. Further, water use and wastewater disposal regulations are challenging for these producers to meet without approval of new treatment technologies. The report found just 46 USDA-inspected slaughter plants operating in California and recommends support for new investments, including the Resilient Food and Farming Bond (California’s AB 125) and other emerging food system and meat industry expansion funds from the Biden Administration. It also recommends support for new technologies for waste treatment to increase confidence in new systems and the awareness of the importance of land use permitting for plants serving small- and mid-scale producers.
- “High-Value” Meat Marketing Challenges: Consumers are increasingly seeking “regenerative,” “organic,” “grass-finished,” “humanely-raised,” and local meats, but “high-value” producers have too few options for slaughter processing, distribution, and sales. The report calls on the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to support producers by forming an advisory “Small Meat Processing Innovation Panel” to facilitate market-oriented collaborative processes that promote California’s high-value meat products. It also suggests that California’s strong track record in public purchasing to increase the flow of healthy produce into school meals could be extended to prioritize public procurement of local and regional meat.
- Global Warming and Wildfire Challenge: The report notes that small- and mid-scale livestock operations have a role to play in mitigating wildfire risks through fuel reduction, and recommends improving grazing access on California’s public lands through reform of state and federal grazing lease requirements.
According to the report, the timing is ripe for change in California’s meat industry, given recent announcements by the Biden Administration of new policies to increase fairness in the meat industry and new funding for local meat processing, coupled with proposals in the Congress and the California Legislature for long-term solutions for meat supply chain resilience.
The founder of the UC Davis Food Systems Lab, Professor Tom Tomich said, “our report reveals just how unfair the system is for the small- and mid-scale ranchers, farmers and processors. And it also highlights the many paths to addressing these inequities. The stars may be aligned to make changes that will serve us all.”