by Marion Nestle
May 25 2010

The Slaughterhouse Problem: is a resolution in sight?

After years of hearing sad tales about the slaughterhouse problem, it looks like many people are trying to get it resolved.  A fix no longer seems impossible.

The slaughterhouse problem is what small, local meat producers have to contend with when their animals are ready to be killed. The USDA licenses so few slaughterhouses, and the rules for establishing them are so onerous, that humanely raised (if that is the correct term) animals have to be trucked hundreds of miles to considerably less humane commercial facilities to be killed (see added note below).  Furthermore, appointments for slaughter must be made many months or years in advance — whether the animals are ready or not.

Perhaps because the USDA has just announced guidelines for mobile slaughter units, lots of people are writing about this problem. Here, for example, is what I ran across just last week:

  • Joe Cloud, who works with Joel Salatin, writes about the need for small-scale slaughterhouses in The Atlantic.
  • The San Francisco Chronicle reports Joe Cloud’s concerns that USDA regulations will put small slaughterhouses out of business.
  • Carolyn Lockwood has a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the worries of operators of small slaughterhouses about safety requirements for microbial testing.
  • Christine Muhlke writes in the New York Times magazine about her experience observing a mobile slaughterhouse developed by Glynwood’s Mobile Harvest System.
  • Marissa Guggiana, president of Sonoma Direct Meats in Petaluma, CA, says in Edible Marin & Wine Country that “in Northern California, the lack of local slaughtering options is at a crisis point.”

If enough people complain about this problem, the USDA might get moving on it.  The guidelines are a good first step.

The guidelines, by the way, are up for public comment.  For comments (or attached files with lengthier comments), go to the Federal eRulemaking Portal.   Be sure to include the agency’s name, USDA, and docket number FSIS-2010-0004.  Comments must be filed within 60 days.

Added note: the USDA has a new study of “Slaughter availability to small livestock and poultry producers — maps” that tells the story at a glance.  Many large regions of the country have limited or no access to slaughterhouses small enough to handle animals from small producers.

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  • The bigger bottleneck for us is lack of USDA-inspected cut & wrap facilities, otherwise known as butchers. Mobile slaughter will not solve that problem because they don’t break down the carcasses, only kill & eviscerate the animals. Also, the few USDA-inspected butchers that we do have won’t process the animals to our specifications, nor will they create many of the value-added products that we desire, such as dry-cured hams, salamis, wide variety of sausages, nitrate-free bacons, etc. That leaves us the only option of building our own butcher shop, which is cost prohibitive. The USDA should have a grant program specifically to increase the number of independent animal processing facilities around the country- it’s good for rural communities & for ranchers.

  • rick the com vet

    if the resolution involves a profit; maybe other wise well continue to feed our fellow soldiers grade d beef “for institutional use only” in our mess halls and combat zones, wheres the outrage?

  • Rob

    You raise excellent questions, based on one condition. There actually is a resolution in sight, albeit a distant one that may be distasteful to some people. The meat industry is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined. That said, as we tackle environmental issues our consumption of meat must decrease if we as a species are to survive. Additionally, our consumption of meat and animal-byproducts has been proven to be directly causal of both coronary artery disease and many forms of cancer, the number one and two leading causes of death in the United States. Our production of meat is literally killing the planet, and our consumption of meat is literally killing us. The cost of dealing with environmental clean-ups, and the costs associated with American health care related to heart attacks and cancers, are staggering. The costs of putting both of these off boggles the mind even more. Questions then of a lack of slaughterhouses seem to miss the bigger picture.

    The condition I noted above is a moral one: that living, breathing, sentient beings would be treated as mere commodities. A shovel, a wine glass, a dog, a cow. I’m sure they are no more “ready to be killed” than you or I. Moral issues are not likely to change minds or policies, but polluted water, soil, and sky, family and friends with cancers and heart attacks, and more and more money out of our wallets will.

    Forget the slaughterhouses. Leave meat behind. Welcome to a healthier planet, and a healthier you. Now: what will you do with the money you save?

  • Bobby

    After working several years in animal transportation, I can tell you that the cow that goes in the truck before the long journey to the abbatoir is a lot healthier than the cow that comes out of the transporter at the other end. I really wondered why there were no local abbatoirs anymore, but we all know the answer: we want cheap meat!

  • keats’ Handwriting

    I agree wholeheartedly with Rob, although I think I’m a little more realistic. All of us won’t stop eating meat, (on the contrary meat consuption is expected to increase by 50%). So, for one who believes as Rob does, that the livestock production is unsafe, unhealthy, harmful to the environment and extremely immoral–but who also is realistic– what is to be done?

    Should we encourage more slaughterhouses so that more ‘ethical’ ways of raising animals may be encouraged over less ethical methods?

    I’m not really sure about it…

  • Cody

    I’m with Rob. Unfortunately for people who want to eat meat, there will never be any such thing as “humanely slaughtered” animals. Killing a sentient being merely for the sake of pleasure (you don’t need to in order to be healthy) can never be accurately described as “humane.” I don’t care if Joseph the cow lives in a mansion with a hot tub and the nice farmer makes him a birthday cake every year, the point is that he’s being slaughtered in the end. If a murderer is nice to his victims before he kills them, that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. A slave owner being nice to his slaves doesn’t make slave-owning morally acceptable…

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  • To me, this is a particularly sad example of how well-intentioned government regulation stifles competition and innovation. Glad the USDA is at least awake to the problem.

    Casual Kitchen

  • Chris @iTweetMeat

    The overall concept of mobile slaughterhouses (where they are needed) is admirable – it does so many of the “right” things for obtaining meat. Yet, as Rebecca pointed out, they only complete one step on a long process. It’s as if someone saw the first mobile unit a few years ago on Modern Marvels and has been on a mission since.

    The linked USDA maps show the regional nature of this problem. We in PA have many options, as do IA, OH, WI, and even parts of NY. Yet, there are completely barren zones with no slaughter plants. Many blame HACCP, something that is learnable and doable if one has the willingness to accept and work with it rather than reject and fight against it.

  • Very interesting topic. I’d love to see it resolved. Starting with Fast Food Nation and many food books later, I just don’t want to eat factory farmed meat. So our meat consumption has gone down to 1-2x a month (sourced as ethically as possible), and whenever we are guests in someone else’s home.

    I don’t expect that people will give up meat. Depending on your body type, it *may* be necessary for health (that is not the case for me). But find someone who is allergic to soy and nuts and eggs and gluten…they pretty much need flesh to survive.

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  • The mobile slaughter isn’t a solution for us because for half the year they can’t get to us. It also only handles one part of the problem – slaughter. There is still chilling, hanging, cut and wrap, smoking. We need weekly slaughter and butchering capacity.

    Our solution is we’re building a nano-scale on-farm USDA/State inspected slaughterhouse and butcher shop for our farm. It is very doable. We need more tiny butchers scattered around the country side. That will provide more stability, security and cut those food miles.

    You can read about our butcher shop at:

    and how we’re funding it out of pocket and through CSA Pre-Buys at:

  • Annie

    Vegan propaganda is misguided. The greenhouse gass study was proven wrong and the UN admitted this. Besides they were looking at factory farms. Eat meat from pasture raised animals from your local farms. Vegan diets are not sustainable. You require supplments, pills, vitamins, mineral tabelts, soy and foods shipped in from huge distances depending on petroleum which pollutes the world. You are killing the planet with your lies. Eat meat.

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