Sustainable Farming Association

From the Executive Director: MDA Taking Much-Needed Steps for Minnesota Meat Producers; Plant Safety Measures a Must

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A big “thank you” to Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen and his team for taking decisive steps to lessen the disruption in our meat supply caused by closures of the JBS plant in Worthington and other processing facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A summary from MDA:

MDA is working to limit this disruption for producers of smaller herds or flocks by matching them with slaughter facilities and identifying other marketing opportunities.

Farmers with smaller herds or flocks seeking new processors, alternate markets or increased storage should contact Jim Ostlie at 320-842-6910, Jim.Ostlie@state.mn.us or Courtney VanderMey, 651-201-6135 or Courtney.Vandermey@state.mn.us.

MDA is working with existing “Equal To” processors (plants under continuous inspection that are able to produce and process meat and poultry products for wholesale) to expand capacity. MDA is also developing an expedited approval process to enable plants that currently do not sell wholesale within the state to do so. If these establishments meet the minimum requirements, they will be granted a 90-day provisional grant of inspection.

Processing plants interested in expanding their slaughter capacity, that have additional processing capacity, or that want expedited licensing should contact Jennifer Stephes at 651-248-2566.

MDA is awarding over $345,000 in AGRI Value-Added Grants to nine Minnesota meat processors. The companies will be using the funds for facility improvements, such as increasing freezer space and new equipment for slaughter and processing capacity.

A new grant program, the AGRI Rapid Response Mini-Grant for Livestock Processing, assists processors and certain producers to respond to market issues caused by COVID-19. This grant will be launched by April 30 and will be available to eligible Minnesota processors of meat, poultry, eggs, and milk, and to livestock producers who need storage capacity for processed products until existing markets return or new markets are developed.

In other news, President Trump on April 28 ordered meat processing plants to stay in operation, but the order did not contain requirements for health and safety measures to protect plant workers who have been disproportionately exposed to the COVID-19 virus. Those measures include slowing down production lines to allow workers to be spaced farther apart, creating physical distances, staggering breaks, adding handwashing stations and providing personal protective equipment. While some processors are doing this and it’s relieving that fewer hogs, cattle and birds will need to be euthanized due to plant closures, it’s critical that we keep a few things in mind:

It costs more to provide the needed health and safety measures that protect workers from COVID-19 virus exposure. If less meat is processed there will be less meat on store shelves, and low supply coupled with increased health measures will likely result in higher prices.

This higher cost is actually a better reflection of meat’s true cost than meat processed without safety measures in effect, which externalizing those costs onto workers. Consumers also pay less for meat because farmers are forced to sell in a non-competitive, captive market, often at prices below the cost of production, while workers suffer from now-unsafe conditions.

Is cheap meat to consumers, processed on the backs of workers and farmers, the end goal of our food system? No. The end goal of our food system should be to provide nutritious, safe, affordable food that respects farmers, workers and local businesses.

Continued concentration in the meatpacking industry has resulted in fewer market options. Enforcement of antitrust laws such as the Packers and Stockyards Act, passed in the ’30s, can help turn this situation around. How many times have we heard that today’s economic situation is like the Great Depression and requires bold action for recovery? Full enforcement of existing antitrust laws would be a great first step.

A robust local food production system offers greater resiliency, equity and fairness. It produces safer, more nutrient-dense food that tastes superior.

Support your local food grower! Whether you buy directly from your farmer, subscribe to a CSA, shop at farmers markets, buy MN Grown at your local grocery, support a food cooperative or buying club, or grow your own food, there are options and models that ensure delicious, safe, affordable food and fiber that pays farmers and workers all along the chain a decent living. But this has to be driven by the consumer – you and me.

Hopefully, that’s a vision we can share in our COVID-19 recovery.

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