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Organic Meat Processing: A Growing Opportunity
by Jody Padgham
This article was first printed in the November - December 2006 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Ask any group of organic meat producers in the Midwest what their primary challenges are, and a majority will have processing high on their list. Finding a certified organic processor has, to date, been a challenge. That, however, seems to be changing. With demand for organic meats steadily growing, those in the processing industry are responding to the need. A quick survey shows significant activity with new or in-process plants that will offer meat processing of organic animals in the upper Midwest.
Tim Blokhuis, owner of Pete’s Meat Service in the small central Wisconsin town of Rudolph says that although organic currently represents less than 10% of their custom slaughter and processing business, “Organic will only continue to grow- the demand for organic meat by far exceeds what is available. People are taking notice of how things are being raised, we are only seeing the leading edge of a huge demand wave for organic meats.” Assuming the typical path of supply and demand, one can predict that more farmers will be raising organic animals for meat, and more processors will consider becoming certified for organic slaughter.
“I never imagined that in my lifetime I’d see what is now going on with organics. We have learned how to raise organic food with wonderful taste and quality, and people are seeking it out,” claims Lawrence Mayhew, co-owner of Gorman’s Locker in the southern Wisconsin town of Lone Rock. Mayhew’s business partner Gary Zimmer (of Midwestern Bio-Ag) recognized three years ago that there was a need for a locally oriented, certified organic meat processor in Southern WI and, along with third co-owner, Tim Forsythe, recently opened their custom plant to process organic beef, pork and sheep.
Blokuis and Mayhew agree that setting up and running a certified organic meat processing operation takes diligence and attention to detail, but is not overwhelmingly difficult if one is familiar with the organic standards. At Pete’s Meat Service (named after Tim’s father, who first bought the business in 1988,) a kill-floor was added onto a meat market and processing plant after Tim took over in 2004. Pete’s has been certified for organic slaughter for three years. They are, as far as Tim knows, the only federally inspected plant currently certified for organic slaughter of beef, pork and lamb in Wisconsin. There are a few similar federally inspected organic plants in MN, (Ledebuhr Meat Processing, in Winona MN, and Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls,) and a few federally inspected plants in Iowa that will process organic meats.
Finding a Meat Processor
A list of federally inspected meat processing plants can be found through the voluminous records of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, arranged alphabetically by plant name. To find plants that are certified for organic processing, you must rely on word of mouth or search the records of various certification agencies. Although certified organic processing plants are becoming more common, finding the closest processing plant that provides the services you require may not be an easy task. Another option for those raising organic meat may be to work with a local processor to get an existing plant certified for organic processing. More about that in a minute.
Let us confuse you with a few overlapping terms. Meat processing is a highly regulated industry. A processing plant will generally offer either state or federal inspection for any meat you wish to sell. Plants processing organic meat must also complete organic certification (including organic inspection) for the processing facility. Anyone wishing to sell certified organic meat in any venue must have that meat processed in a certified organic plant. Anyone wishing to sell meats across state lines must have their animals processed at a federally inspected plant. Those selling from the farm, at a local farmer’s market or to most groceries or restaurants within the same state need only go to state inspected plants. Those raising meat for home consumption may go to a non-inspected plant. (Note that the rules for poultry are slightly different.) There are numerous state inspected or non-inspected plants in each state, although few that are also certified organic. Pete’s Meat Service is certified for organic slaughter and processing and also federally inspected. Gorman’s Locker will soon be certified for organic meat processing and state inspected. Got that?
Both Gorman’s Locker and Pete’s Meat Service also process non-organic meats, although Gorman’s focuses on grass-fed, “natural,” antibiotic- and hormone-free meats. Gorman’s will also process meats that carry the newly created “MBA Seal” (“Mineralized and Balanced Agriculture”). This seal reflects a set of standards involving soil nutrient balance following the philosophies of Zimmer’s other business, Midwestern Bio-Ag. Meats with the MBA seal are now featured at Zimmer’s OTHER new venture, a retail store named “Local Choice” in nearby Spring Green, WI. (Those who know Gary Zimmer may not be surprised to hear of all of these new initiatives he, family and co-workers have taken on!)
Pete’s Meat Service has an on-site kill floor. As of fall 2006, Blokhuis says that turn- around time from a customer’s first call to the kill date will be 4-5 weeks in the fall through Christmas, or around two weeks in the spring and summer. They are happy to take on new organic or non-organic customers. Gorman’s has just opened their doors, and expect their organic certification papers “in the next two weeks.” They are ready to take on animals at any time, with kills currently planned on Mondays. Gorman’s does not kill on site, but has farmers deliver live animals to a business partner who slaughters near Viroqua, WI. Gorman’s picks up the processing post-kill, and will cut, package and soon smoke and process into products such as brats and sausages. Farmers then pick up the finished product and make payment at the Locker in Lone Rock.
Both markets are in the process of developing recipes and labels for organic sausage products, and each expects to offer these services this coming winter. The USDA closely regulates processed meat products, and all recipes and labels must be pre-approved by the government. Tim Blokhuis notes that the Feds are “pretty good” at being timely about recipe approval, and generally can get back to him in 2-3 weeks with a go ahead.
With a history as an organic scientist and researcher, artisan and small business owner, Lawrence Mayhew points out that “Although setting up a certified organic meat processing plant was the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life, most people with good business skills can make the decisions needed and work with inspectors for both state and organic certification to get a plant set up.” He adds that the state meat inspectors were very helpful, offered a lot of good advice and helped with any questions. Gorman’s moved into an abandoned meat processing plant that was built in 1912. “To refurbish an old plant you need to evaluate whether it is worth it rather than start with a new facility.” Mayhew uses the rule of thumb that it should take less than 50% of the cost of a new building to re-do an old one to be worthwhile. Since Gorman’s does not have a kill floor and is state rather than federally inspected, design and regulation compliance was slightly simplified, but still took a lot of work. “We have to comply with extreme hygiene standards, it still took a good year to work out details,” Mayhew states. A HACCP plan is required for a meat processing plant, which is a fully detailed food safety outline that focuses on cleanliness procedures and safe food handling.
At Pete’s a kill floor was added to an existing meat processing facility. This allowed them to design the plant to easily comply with federal regulations. “State and Federal inspection are very similar in WI,” Mayhew states. The main difference, Blokhuis adds, is when you are smoking, cooking or further processing the meat. If you are producing ready-to-eat meat products, through smoking or adding spices like for sausage, the work area must be segregated with walls for federally inspected products. “Most state plants just have one big processing room,” Blokhuis notes. “This is not allowed in a federal plant that produces ready-to-eat meat products.”
In a federal plant, an inspector must be present for the entire time slaughter is taking place, and for several hours on packaging and processing days to observe, do paperwork and follow up. The inspector must be provided with a private office. Although it is commonly thought that federal inspectors are in short supply, Blokhuis says that the Feds are hiring new inspectors and that this should generally not be a limiting factor.
As for complying with organic regulations, Blokhuis and Mayhew concur that it is not a significant challenge. Certified organic animals and meat products must be segregated from non-organic. Blokhuis achieves this by running organic animals first thing in a day, or he designates a specific day for all organic animals. Hung meat must be segregated, achieved at Pete’s though a separate hanging rail in the cooler. Refrigerated or frozen meat must also be segregated, again through rather minor adjustments in the cooler and freezer. All equipment must be thoroughly washed with clean 180° water before it comes into contact with organic product, but the same cleaning products are generally allowed. If any organic animals are kept at the plant, they must be fed organic feed. Blokhuis notes that the organic certification for their plant cost about $500 per year, plus .5% of their organic business done each quarter, which he says to date is a very minor fee. (Note: certification agencies will differ slightly on fees, and fees also vary with the operation. Expect $500-800.) Pete’s is certified by MOSA, and Gorman’s is certified by the Iowa Department of Agriculture. “We are within their geographic range, and I really like the on-line paperwork,” Mayhew says. Of course, there is always the paperwork, which must be kept up for organic certification, but neither mentions this as a hurdle or challenge in their businesses.
When asked about another commonly heard challenge of finding and retaining good labor, both processors said that they had “been really lucky” in finding excellent help. The nationally known school for meat processors was recently closed at UW Platteville, limiting the number of new meat cutters entering the field. Tim Blokhuis notes that Pete’s has very low turnover, with most of the nine employees at the company for more than seven years. He points out that the average grocery now gets meat in pre-cut, and the typical meat expert is only there to stock the cooler. “Our type of cutting is an endangered business, but one that a good meat cutter desires,” Blokhuis adds. He has a list of folks to call for work if he ever has an opening. “I may need to do in-house training in the future, but I don’t see that as a problem as long as I get the right attitudes.”
A Plant in Your Area
It is inspiring to hear about these two businesses, both dedicated to providing meat processing services to organic producers. They show how, through two different approaches, one adapting an existing business, the other developing a new business in a historical facility, an organic meat processing plant can be born. We encourage those of you outside the range of either of these facilities or other organic processors in other states and regions to approach, encourage and work with local meat processing plants to explore the option of offering organic service. They will not only help you, but also move into an exciting and fast growing market. Those wanting resources to help with educating a local meat processor about the requirements and benefits of serving the growing organic market can turn to a recent publication offered by the MN Department of Ag titled “Organic Meat and Poultry Processing Basics.” It can be found online at www.mda.state.mn.us/esap/organic/organicmeatprod.pdf or requested from MDA at 651-297-8916.
Both Tim Blokhuis and Lawrence Mayhew show strong commitment and real excitement about the future of organics. “Gorman’s was created so that people could sell their organic meat locally, for a reasonable price.” Mayhew concludes. “We want people to have access to the highest quality possible.” As the second generation serving the population with quality products in their area, Blokhuis notes that Pete’s is only in their third year of serving the organic industry, but they are anxious to work with producers to ensure the farmers are getting the best service and the end customers are getting the highest quality meat. “We draw customers with our quality, which is a result of experienced employees complying with Pete’s high standards,” Blokhuis concludes.
Pete’s Meat Service, 1665 Main St., Rudolph, WI 54475, 715-435-3250.
Gorman’s Locker, 304 S. Oak St., Lone Rock, WI 53556, 608-583-2781
Jody Padgham has been with MOSES since 2002. She is the organization's Financial Manager, the editor of the Organic Broadcaster newspaper and co-coordinator of the Organic University. Jody raises poultry and sheep organically on a 60-acre farm in west-central Wisconsin.
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