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Small butchers wary of USDA's food safety plan

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

May 23, 2010

Chris Johansen works the line in the tiny Glenn County slaughterhouse that his grandfather opened in 1914. He is one of a dozen small butchers left in California who can turn a local farmer's live cow, sheep or goat into packaged meat.

Johansen has no pretty farm story to tell. Slaughterhouses are not a pretty business. He doesn't own a cow or a goat. But he provides a vital link between farmers who raise niche livestock - antibiotic free, grass-fed, humanely raised and the like - for a growing number of people seeking alternatives to factory meat.

But farmers like Johansen, from California to Virginia, fear that food safety guidelines proposed by the Obama administration could put them out of business. They accuse the administration of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to food safety. The administration is furiously backpedaling.

Chris Kerston an employee at Chaffin Family Orchards in Oroville raises a grass-fed kid in Oroville. Small farmers from Northern California to Virginia are in a tizzy over new USDA food safety testing rules for their animals, saying the government's one-size-fits-all policy for small and giant farmers will make it much harder for them to compete with agribiz. May 20, 2010 Lance Iversen/The Chronicle

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service served notice in March that all meat plants should validate their existing safety plans to ensure they are preventing E. coli, salmonella and other contaminations. The draft document, part of a raft of new food safety actions stemming from the President's Food Safety Working Group, calls for microbial testing.

High-tech, small farms differ

While small meat cutters do some testing now, they worry that the proposed rules would require them to do much more, at far greater expense. The draft plan is open for public comment until June 19 and has raised a storm in the industry.

"This is typical of food safety regulations over time," said John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. "There's a fundamentally different relationship between processors and farmers who sell in the local community and big, impersonal operations that are bringing in livestock and shipping those products all over the country.

"Very different kinds of operations require very different rules to ensure the safety of the product that comes out of both," he said.

The small plants are survivors of a rapid industry consolidation that in one generation has left four behemoths - Tyson Foods, JBS, Cargill and National Beef - in control of 80 percent of the U.S. meat supply. The giant factories have come under fire for their treatment of animals, workers and the environment. They have been hit with huge recalls, although the industry points to a sharp decline in contaminations.

Small slaughterhouses provide an alternative to farmers who do not want to sell their animals into this system. But without the USDA inspection stamp that Johansen and other butchers provide, farmers cannot sell their meat to anyone.

Ikerd said the government's proposed rules could pose "a serious setback for the local food movement."

Top USDA officials acknowledge that a shortage of small slaughterhouses is a key bottleneck for local foods. They are promoting "mobile slaughterhouses" to fill the gap and are seeking ways to retain existing plants and open new ones. On Friday, the USDA issued maps showing vast areas, especially in the West, where small livestock growers have few small butchers to turn to. Wyoming has no slaughterhouse at all.

Part of first lady's initiative

The project is integral to the administration's Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, part of a push for more healthful foods by first lady Michelle Obama. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the seeming conflict between that effort and the proposed safety guidelines is the result of misperceptions.

"There is a misunderstanding this somehow creates new requirements or new responsibilities," Vilsack said. Merrigan, who oversees Know Your Farmer, said the agency did a poor job communicating and is clarifying things "so that the hysteria will tamp down on this."

But the proposed safety rules explicitly call for microbial testing, and Obama officials have often said there are no exceptions when it comes to food safety. Consumer groups agree.

"Just because it's a small operation doesn't mean it couldn't make somebody sick," said Donna Rosenbaum, executive director of Safe Tables Our Priority, a group representing victims of food contamination. "We don't find out about them as often, because obviously the scale isn't as big. But there's an awful lot of people out there who never find out what they got sick from."

E. coli and other pathogens reside naturally in animal intestines. The tiniest bit of manure or viscera can contaminate meat that it contacts. This possibility exists in any slaughterhouse, no matter its size. For a decade, all slaughterhouses have operated under safety plans, known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, that are aimed at controlling bacteria.

Individual safety plans

Small slaughterhouses typically handle a dozen animals a day, of several species, cutting carcasses largely by hand. They make many different products, from raw steaks to cured hams, bacon and sausages. Each process requires its own safety plan. The agency wants to make sure these plans are working in every plant by certifying them.

Large plants typically slaughter 5,000 cattle a day and send thousands of carcasses through production lines at high speed, relying mainly on unskilled laborers doing highly repetitive, discrete tasks.

The work is dangerous and grueling.

"It's very easy, if somebody gets behind, to pass it on to the next guy beside you," Johansen said. "But here, they are the last guy."

The cost of more tests could add up quickly for plants that make small volumes of many items from many species. Large plants specialize in two or three items and one species, and spread costs over millions of pounds.

Adding to expenses

Michael Smucker of Smucker's Meats in Lancaster County said the rules could cost him more than $400,000 initially and another $100,000 each year. He slaughters beef, pork, bison, sheep and goats, and makes many cured products.

Chris Kerston, who manages Chaffin Family Orchards, a 2,000-acre stone fruit and livestock farm in Oroville (Butte County), integrates livestock with orchards, using cows and sheep to mow, goats to prune, and chickens to fertilize and eat bugs. The farm sells directly to consumers, many of them in the Bay Area, and relies on Johansen to slaughter its 30 cows a year.

"Most slaughter facilities won't talk to you until you have 48,000 pounds put together," Kerston said. "That's 50 steers. That puts a lot of small growers out of business right away."

Keeping meat safe from field to market

Meat producers follow a federally mandated process to prevent or reduce contamination of meat and poultry that includes such things as cooling and rinsing the carcass to kill pathogens. Here's how that process works for a raw steak:

-- A cow is killed and skinned, and the carcass is checked for any sign of manure or viscera. If any is found, it must be trimmed and disposed.

-- The carcass is washed in water raised to 160 degrees for two minutes. Some slaughterhouses use a mild citric acid, and in large plants, carcasses are steam-cleaned. The temperature of the water must be calibrated and the thermometers must be shown to be accurate. Scientific studies must be referenced, and all steps must be documented.

-- The carcass is hung in a locker cooled to below 40 degrees.

-- When the steak is cut, temperatures must also be held below similar thresholds.

To comment on the federal Food Safety and Inspection Service's draft rules for meat safety, send an e-mail by June 19 to:

To read a letter to the agency from the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, go to

Carolyn Lochhead is the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she has covered national politics and policy for 22 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University.


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