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3 Sonoma County mobile slaughterhouses roll out as ranchers seek to trim costs

At the beginning of the pandemic almost two years ago, the North Bay had scant local options for livestock slaughter. But now the region’s ranchers have three, partly thanks to disruptions in the meat supply and growing demand for more farm-to-fridge options.

Bay Area Ranchers Co-op, or BAR-C, rolled the 39-member organization’s new mobile slaughterhouse into the spotlight last month with a high-profile visit from U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Jenny Lester Moffitt, The Press Democrat reported. But two other USDA-inspected mobile operations — JMF Slaughter and The Farm Abbatoir, both of Petaluma — had already been on the move for months for ranchers not in that co-op.

John M. Fagundes started JMF Slaughter about a year ago, operating a similar 36-foot-long trailer to the one BAR-C has, he told the Business Journal. He got an entry-level mobile harvest unit outfitted by Friesla of Everson, Washington, on a trailer built by TriVan Truck Body, also based in Washington.

The starting cost for just the outfitted trailer, not including the truck tractor to tow it, was $340,000 and now is $360,000, with the price going up over $400,000 with other options such as air-conditioning, Fagundes said. BAR-C raised $1.2 million from its member ranches to get its rig rolling and is seeking $400,000 more to cover recent increases in costs, according to The Press Democrat. Despite that cost, it’s less expensive to get started than a fixed-location slaughterhouse, according to the three companies.

“I was the first to get one in this USDA district, and at first they wouldn’t let me operate,” Fagundes told the Business Journal. “There were sink drains that went to floor discharge, but the USDA said it had to go to a pipe versus the floor. We’re in a high-red-alert area because of what went down with Rancho.”

The North Bay lost its major fixed location slaughterhouse in 2014, when Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma was closed after a plot was uncovered by certain owners and employees to slip meat, including from diseased animals, past inspection. That led to multiple criminal convictions and massive meat recalls.

Marin Sun Farms later acquired the facility, operating the Bay Area’s only USDA-certified slaughterhouse. But in December 2019 it stopped working with livestock for private labels, The Press Democrat reported at the time.

That led some North Bay ranchers to shift out of the meat business because of the cost to truck animals a couple of hundred miles one way to remaining slaughterhouses in the Central Valley and Eureka, the publication noted.

At The Farm Abbatoir, fifth-generation butcher and rancher Rob McKenzie and James Stoll, who came to ranching from the finance world, rolled into business with their 36-foot Friesla trailer last September. The Farm Abbatoir is in the process of changing the name to North Bay Butchers because the French-derived term for a slaughterhouse is challenging for many to pronounce and spell, Stoll said.

“These units take a long time to build,” Stoll told the Journal.

While the units are mobile, they largely don’t move from location to location because of the capital cost for infrastructure required at the host ranch and the increasingly upward spiraling cost of diesel fuel, according to the operators. USDA requires that the mobile slaughter unit be stationed on a concrete pad for washdown, plus water hookups and a holding area for suspected sick animals. The animals are stunned, killed, eviscerated and skinned outside, then the carcasses are moved inside the trailer, which quickly fill the only 8-foot-wide space.

While a slaughterhouse the size of the former Rancho may be able to harvest 35-40 head over a 10-hour shift, the mobile units realistically can handle 1 head per hour, or eight per day, Fagundes said. So the trailers are based at a ranch for multiple days, and other ranchers bring their animals to that location, called an aggregation site.

But the slaughter business can come with a learning curve. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, which has a team present when each animal is killed at a mobile unit, issued notices of suspension for The Farm Abbatoir and BAR-C on Sept. 21 and Feb. 3, respectively, for pig slaughters on those days. Without the ability to have inspectors who sign off on humane treatment of animals and proper handling through the process, the meat can’t get the USDA stamp for approval to go to processors, where other USDA inspections occur.

According to the notices, the veterinarian on the inspection team saw failed stunning of the animals in both cases. The Farm Abbatoir taking three tries to stun the swine, the first two times with a firearm and the last with a captive bolt. The BAR-C incident took two uses of the bolt. The agency issued abeyances on those suspensions within a few days.

The USDA didn’t respond to several Business Journal inquiries on the operational impact of these actions. A spokesperson for the North American Meat Institute said the abeyance period typically lasts about 90 days, during which time the inspectors do intensified verifications that the license holder’s proposed solutions have worked.

“After FSIS is satisfied that the company has adequately addressed the issues, they issue a letter of warning to close the abeyance period and the suspension case file is closed,” wrote Sarah Little, vice president of communications for the institute.

Common factors leading to failures with stunning animals before harvest include improper training, unusually thick skulls, equipment malfunction and tools that need maintenance, Little said. Federal regulation allows for livestock stunning via firearms, captive bolts, electrical stunning and carbon dioxide.

Stoll said that USDA inspectors had been doing follow-up checks on systems and procedures in recent weeks at The Farm Abbatoir.

“We changed our equipment entirely,” Stoll said. “Hogs are notoriously difficult to stun because of the thickness of their skulls. We got an electric stunner.

At BAR-C, the USDA inspection action came with the first animal the operation harvested, according to Adam Parks, vice president of the co-op and co-owner of Victorian Farmstead Meat Co. in Community Market in Sebastopol.

“The vet was not comfortable that the second knock wasn’t quick enough,” Parks said.

Animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere, or DxE, which has protested Sonoma County poultry farms, said mobile slaughterhouses, while different from large-scale harvest operations, still are part of a bigger problem.

“While these businesses reflect an admirable spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation, they unfortunately seek to reform an industry rife with irreconcilable damages,” said Cassie King, organizer of the group’s “No more factory farms” campaign. “Animal agriculture exacerbates droughts, wildfires, worker exploitation, animal abuse and more. The dire reality of our world and our food system today calls for drastic systemic change — not tweaks that reinforce a dated and destructive model.”

While it’s not targeting mobile slaughterhouses, DxE, along with activist group Compassion Bay, have co-sponsored newly introduced legislation in Sacramento that seeks to fine large-scale livestock farms and factory slaughterhouses for expanding their operations. Assembly Bill 2764 by Adrin Nazarian, D-Van Nuys, and Alex Lee, D-San Jose, would build on Proposition 2 (confinement of pregnant pigs, laying hens and veal calves) and Proposition 12 (minimum space requirements for raising livestock).

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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