Whole Foods Invests in Mobile Slaughterhouses

rubber_chickenThis Thanksgiving, much attention has been paid to how your bird was raised, but how about the manner in which it was killed? The head meat buyer at Whole Foods, Theo Weening, made public the company’s effort to collaborate with both USDA and state regulatory agencies to develop certifiable mobile slaughterhouses for poultry. Before claiming a victory for the locavore movement, one has to ask, is this good news for family farmers?

First, understand that Whole Foods mobile units are a long way off. To begin with, the company must wade through USDA bureaucracy and has yet to identify an authority to approve a mobile poultry slaughter and processing facility. Whole Foods aims to overcome a barrier – the dearth of slaughterhouses – to a meet customer demand for local food products.

The number of USDA approved slaughterhouses has fallen dramatically over the last several years. The numbers vary; recent estimates cite a decline from 1,405 USDA approved slaughterhouses in 1992 to just 808 in 2008, with others as low as 550 in 2001 dropping to only 350 today. There is broad consensus in the sustainable food movement about improving the quality and quantity of slaughterhouses. Today, 99% of all animals raised for food are processed through the factory farm system. This consolidation of animal husbandry and continual agribusiness mergers has resulted in the channeling of the vast majority of meat through a few central slaughterhouses.

Without USDA certification, meat cannot be sold across state lines. State certification varies across the country. Family farmers without USDA certification generally choose one of two sub-optimal choices. They either sell their animals to auction where they are subsumed into the factory farm system or sell directly to consumers as unprocessed portions of a carcass.

Last Thanksgiving, 3P introduced you to Frank Reese, owner of Good Sheppard Turkey Ranch, and the only USDA certified producer of heritage poultry. One of the greatest obstacles his business faces is finding and maintaining a place to slaughter his birds. Will Whole Foods broaden the options?

The planning stage of the Whole Foods initiative includes a rough outline of how their mobile slaughterhouse would fit into the farming community; it’s not a panacea. According to Grist, “Whole Foods will have a minimum “buy” of around 500 chickens, farmers who sell chickens to Whole Foods will be able to process as many birds as they want with the unit. Since the processing cost will be included in the price Whole Food pays the farmer, processing of additional chickens will essentially be free. Crucially, Weening also intends to allow farmers who don’t sell to Whole Foods use of the mobile units.”

Yet, the use of the Whole Foods units will be contingent upon a strict series of guidelines. Again, Grist: “the company will require participating small farmers to raise a specific breed of chicken supplied by a specific (local) breeder, feed them a specific brand of feed (no antibiotics or animal byproducts allowed) and raise them according to Whole Foods standard poultry production style, which requires “access to pasture” but does not require actually keeping the birds on pasture.” Nor will the birds be certified organic as it is deemed too expensive to reach the widest swath of the Whole Food clientele.

The effort to employ mobile slaughterhouses is gaining traction across the country. Farmers, cooperatives, and even conservation organizations are joining with state governments to put up the initial funding. Vermont’s legislature realized the lack of infrastructure constrained the local market and bought a unit from Brothers Body & Equipment in 2008 , which will offer state certification. In Washington state, the new mobile slaughterhouse will be both USDA certified and organic. These projects offer farmers considerably more leverage than they’ll garner when working with Whole Foods, the largest natural food retailer in the world.

Yes, Whole Foods deserves recognition for acting to repair one of the weakest links in the American agricultural system, but their proposal is not without limitations. The verdict is still out on the impact Whole Foods mobile slaughterhouses will have, but 3P will ensure it serves as a catalyst for conversation on conscientious food choices.

Let us know what choice you’ve made this Thanksgiving. Where did you buy your bird and what do you know about it?

Tori conducts research and writes on environmental issues, with a special focus on food justice. Her professional experience in the civic sector and academic background in social and economic development ground her work and belief in a sustainable food system as an achievable human right. Tori is based in Bogota, Colombia where she is pursuing a bilingual, international career in environmental policy.http://toriokner.wordpress.com/

4 responses

  1. Mobile slaugter facilities look attractive but have major drawbacks as well.

    Attractive: circumvents traditional capital costs to comply with wastewater regulations and so reduces capital costs for a slaughter facility; facility that moves to the birds rather tnan the other way around.

    Unattractive: cost to the operator of moving the unit and the employees to each new location. This adds much cost to the business model.

    The unit in VT took well over a year to find an operator and now mostly sits idle for lack of use.

    Like any processing operation, they still require a high and consistent throughput to make them work as a business. Depending entirely on various small producers for that, year-round, is extremely hard to make work.

  2. Whole Foods is moving toward becoming a vertically integrated animal protein purveyor. They are controlling the animal production decisions from conception to harvest and taking the product to retail. That puts them in pretty much the same boat as Tyson, Perdue Farms, Smithfield and several others. The difference here is that Whole Foods is not picking up much of the financial risk, like the other vertical integrators. Whole Foods is leaving the risk with the farmer.

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