Muscle to Meat

Demand at small-scale meat processing plants has become the “bottleneck” in getting local beef from ranch to market.

November 1, 2013

FeaturesIssue 3: November/December 2013

When he’s going to the slaughterhouse, Jim McManus likes to be on the road by 6. It’s usually dark when he loads the animals into a 20-foot stock trailer—pigs first, then, behind a divider, two or three cattle. Before hitting the road, McManus, with the help of his wife, Tina, checks on inventory, on restaurant orders and CSA shares; they fill out paperwork, inspection records and cut sheets for the processor. “Cut sheets list everything from the size of the packages to the amount of fat in ground beef; if we want steaks or ribeyes, strip steaks or tenderloins,” says McManus. “How many of each cut per package and if they’re individually wrapped, which costs more.”

There are 111 miles between McManus’s front door at Walking J Ranch and Guzman’s Meat Processing in Cochise; he hopes his doesn’t get a flat tire or have trouble with the trailer along the way. When he arrives, McManus unloads his cattle into small, shaded pens, where, complying with USDA regulations, the cattle will wait for 24 hours, emptying their stomachs of food and bladders of liquid. The next morning, there’s a stun gun to the neck, a 45-minute loop around the cutting room floor, and a carcass hangs in a 38-degree freezer for two weeks—drying aging helps cure the meat, making it more tender and flavorful. Finally, the cut sheet comes in handy. “I come around to the other side of the processing plant and receive cut meat that we left as live animals two weeks previously,” said McManus. After loading the 50-pound boxes into the cab of his pickup truck, “I put on my hat and winter jacket, crank the A.C. and then haul butt to Tucson.” Every other week, McManus stops at Tucson Frozen Storage, checks his inventory, and restocks a trailer he’ll haul to the farmers’ market on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday.

Carcasses are aged in cold storage, usually for two weeks, before cutting; during this time, enzymes begin to break down some of the muscle, thus tenderizing the meat.

Carcasses are aged in cold storage, usually for two weeks, before cutting; during this time, enzymes begin to break down some of the muscle, thus tenderizing the meat.

McManus takes his animals to Guzman’s Meat Processing, one of four small-scale meat processing plants in southern Arizona—a relative boom, given how large corporations have taken over packing plants across the country. In the United States, four firms—Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef—control over 80 percent of all beef slaughtered. That consolidation extends past the ranch, as there are now only 13 major slaughterhouses in the United States, compared to the thousands that operated in the 1970s.

In southern Arizona, ranchers can choose between Guzman’s Meat Processing, Willcox Meat Packing House, the University of Arizona Meat Lab, and a small processing plant at Double Check Ranch. Even so, many ranchers find themselves contending with month-long wait times, insufficient freezer space, and 200-mile drives.

“Distance, access and scheduling are my biggest challenges,” says McManus. “That much time on the road with your vehicles is risky. When you break down and you have live animals and thousands of dollars of frozen meat in your vehicle, you stand to lose a lot.” And, he says, “I struggle and struggle to keep scheduled. We can sell more than we’re producing and we’re working to produce more, but there’s a real bottleneck at packing.”

One of the biggest bottlenecks arrives in the fall, when 4-H and FFA programs convene at fairs in nearly every county in southern Arizona. Dozens of animals might get sold at a single fair—and all of those animals go straight to the processing plant, pushing small producers like McManus and Dennis Moroney of 47 Ranch out of the slaughter schedule.
“We’re trying to time our animal harvest to get in advance of fair season and stock up on inventory for the next few months,” says Moroney. That requires a fair amount of foresight and skill, especially for the many ranchers who depend on the bounty of wild forage to fatten their cattle rather than readily available grain.

But the same scheduling skill holds true on the processing end. “We’ve had six fairs in here in the past month,” says John Marchello, who manages the UA Food Products and Safety Laboratory, a USDA-certified meat processing plant. “We’re absolutely overrun. We’re short on slaughter facilities in the state.”

In addition to his responsibilities at the Meat Lab, Marchello is also a professor of Meat Science and Muscle Biology and teaches five courses every semester. The UA Meat Lab is supported by the UA College of Agriculture, and trains students in food safety, large-animal veterinary skills, and meat cutting.

At the UA Meat Lab, a team of experienced cutters processes cattle by hand into individual cuts of meat, which go back to the producer for direct marketing. On a Friday morning, butchers are busy preparing for the UA Meat Sale, every Friday from 3-6 p.m.

At the UA Meat Lab, a team of experienced cutters processes cattle by hand into individual cuts of meat, which go back to the producer for direct marketing. On a Friday morning, butchers are busy preparing for the UA Meat Sale, every Friday from 3-6 p.m.

The UA Meat Lab processes roughly 500 head of cattle every year, as well as 400 hogs, 150 lambs, 20 head of buffalo, 50 ostriches and emu, and about 300 poultry birds. Those animals come from state fairs and 4-H programs; from small-scale ranchers like Dennis Moroney and Jim McManus; from the H-H Ranch maintained and owned by the UA; from urban homesteaders or backyard gardeners. “We get a lot of people doing that, raising pigs in their backyard and bringing them in,” says Marchello.

As complicated as it is for McManus or Moroney to get their beef to the slaughterhouse, as many logistical steps and early mornings as it requires, it is equally as complicated for Marchello to process that meat. One particular logistical hurdle is the USDA’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point system, or HAACP. “We develop a flow diagram for every food item we produce,” Marchello says. “Every box on that diagram” [which range from “Tempering frozen meat” to “portioning and cutting”] is a potential hazard. There has to be a scientific justification for every decision in there.”
While Marchello says that HAACP systems, which were implemented in 1997, have reduced food born illnesses and made the food safer, “It’s a ton of paperwork. The food safety work has really increased since the late 1990s.” But, he says, “We in the food industry have done a poor job educating the consumer. Sixty percent of food-borne illness is caused by improper handling at home.” In May of 2013, the Meat Lab developed a recall program; now, there’s a number on every package coming out of the UA Meat Lab that refers to the source and date of packaging. “If someone gets sick, now we can say, ‘It was processed on that day,’ and issue a recall,” he says.

Although a USDA certification means that ranchers can sell their beef anywhere in the country—meat processed at an Arizona-state certified facility must remain in-state—the burden on processors can be cost prohibitive. “Economically, you can’t make a new [processing plant] work unless you’re slaughtering 50 cattle a day,” says Marchello. The biggest challenge facing the manager of the Meat Lab? “Finances.”

Processing costs are calculated on a per poundage rate from an animal’s hanging weight plus a flat harvest fee. The UA Meat Lab charges a processing rate of $0.70 per pound plus a $70 per head fee. Moroney estimates he pays about $500 per animal processed—“a significant portion of our operating costs.”

Even though the economics are tricky, McManus of Walking J believes there’s a place for a mid-sized processing plant in southern Arizona, one with the capacity to supply more retail stores with Arizona-raised grass fed beef. He’s planning to grow his business to keep pace with the demand for local, grass-fed beef but worries that processors won’t be able to keep pace with more production. “We need a packing house that can work on a larger scale than what we’re seeing,” he says. “We need someone that understands direct marketing, that can modify and work with us.”

Moroney agrees that ranchers in southern Arizona could support a new processing plant, but says that the barriers to entry are substantial. “A big roadblock for a processor is in the regulations, which have been designed for huge packing houses,” he says. “We need a set of regulations appropriate to scale, for a plant processing 50 cattle a month, not 5,000 a day.

“When [my wife] Deb and I were growing up, there were processing plants in every town,” he says. “Now, we’re lucky in southern Arizona to have four.” ✜

Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona.

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