Can a Mobile Slaughterhouse Change the Face of Local Meat Production?

Chris Burger is 32, and like a lot of farmers his age, he's somewhat of an idealist. He's been farming for about five years now in Loudon County, along with his wife Shona, raising grass-fed beef, and Burger envisions his Century Harvest Farms as an antidote to big agribusiness—sustainable and bio-diverse.

There's just one problem. Any time Burger wants to process his meat, he has to take his cows to Chattanooga to be slaughtered. It's inconvenient, it's expensive, and it's completely at odds with Burger's locavore ethics.

Frustrated, Burger began researching his options. The solution he's come up with is simple, and, he hopes, will revolutionize meat production in Tennessee—instead of taking the animals to the slaughterhouse, why not bring the slaughterhouse to the animal?

If you leave Knoxville and drive out into the country, you'll see lots of cows. But very few of those cows end up on Tennessee tables. In fact, most of those cows are shipped off to the Midwest to be fattened on cheap grain and slaughtered there; the meat is then shipped back east to local grocery stores.

The largest feedlot in 1998 held over 400,000 head of cattle; by 2006, the largest feedlot held double that. Over 80 percent of all beef sold in the U.S. and two-thirds of the pork processed in the nation is produced by just four companies, according to a study by the University of Missouri. With those companies' slaughter capacities of up to 36,000 head of cattle and over 100,000 pigs daily—yes, daily—it's no wonder that the number of locally owned slaughterhouses in the country continues to decrease year after year.

Whether you want to process one cow or 20,000 cows doesn't matter—in order for beef or pork to be sold to a consumer, it must be processed in a USDA-inspected facility. (Chicken is a different story—farmers who raise 20,000 birds or fewer can get a license to slaughter their poultry themselves and bypass USDA inspection.) Burger says that the cost of a new slaughterhouse can run into the millions of dollars, and when most farmers are barely scraping by, getting a loan for that much money is out of the question.

"We want to create an alternative to that paradigm," Burger says. A mobile slaughterhouse—basically, a trailer with a slaughter set-up inside it—costs significantly less. "You don't need to slaughter as many [animals] a day to break even," Burger adds.

There are only 11 mobile red-meat abattoirs in the country, according to statistics from Colorado State University's extension program, and only one is east of the Mississippi. The first one opened in 2002 in Washington state; more have come online in the past few years thanks to a growing focus on local farmers at the USDA under the Obama administration.

The USDA says it holds mobile slaughter operators to the same slaughter, dressing, and food safety standards that are applied to plants of any size. Mobile operations must maintain sanitary operations within the facility as well as outside the facility, just as it is required of a fixed plant. This means a USDA inspector is on site as the meat is slaughtered by butchers in the truck.

Burger says having local access to a slaughterhouse would mean more farmers could finish their cattle in East Tennessee, on grass instead of grain, resulting in a healthier meat—beef from grain-fed cattle is likely to have higher levels of saturated fat. And as only one animal can be slaughtered at a time in the unit, due to the size constrictions, Burger says the killing is generally a more humane process.

Figuring out how to handle waste disposal in the biggest obstacle mobile slaughter units face, but Burger has a solution there, too—composting the animal remnants with anaerobic bacteria and vermiculture, so that eventually the waste can be returned to the farm and spread over the grass that the next batch of cattle will eat.

"That's exactly what you took off—calcium, iron, phosphorus. That's what blood and bone are made of," Burger says.

If all goes as planned—USDA approval, financing, getting the trailer built to specifications—Burger says he hopes to have the South's first mobile slaughterhouse up and running by next spring.

"This will make it much easier for the farmer and retailer to do business directly," Burger says.