Focus shifts to North Bay meat companies as customers go local with virus-caused shutdowns at big US plants

With COVID-19 creating viral hot spots of some of the nation's meat processors, the essential North Bay companies that place the staple on the dining room tables across Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties have simply adjusted to who they sell to and beefed up sanitation efforts.

“I hope this creates a dialogue about where our food comes from and highlights local agriculture,” Stemple Creek Ranch owner Lisa Poncia said.

Poncia, with her husband, Loren, manages more than 3,000 acres for grass-fed cattle in Tomales on the Marin County coast, a business going on four generations.

She hopes the focus on the nation's meat supply triggers discussion of how to put businesses like theirs at the table in the federal food system.

“We want an avenue (for a more straight-forward system) for small producers. It doesn't have to mean being a part of this huge industrial system,” Poncia said.

The company has grown for 11 years, but Poncia says it is currently forced to truck its livestock for slaughter to only U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified harvesting facilities in Eureka and Modesto because the only local facility will not service other producers.

I think if you ask people if they want to eat animals driven somewhere to a facility than the ones harvested on site, they'd say the ones on site. Stemple Creek Ranch owner Lisa Poncia

Stemple Creek could use a service which brings a mobile slaughter unit to their ranch, if there weren't downfalls with that.

“It's a very expensive enterprise, and there are limitations on how many animals can be harvested,” Poncia said.

The preferred option is harvesting their own cattle, sheep and pigs on their own land because it's less costly, more efficient - and some may say safer.

“I think if you ask people if they want to eat animals driven somewhere to a facility than the ones harvested on site, they'd say the ones on site,” Poncia argued. “I see (that) people care more about their food.”

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service floated the idea of sending out mobile slaughter units to small red meat and poultry producers. Only nine of these units exist across the nation, far fewer than the demand requires.

“Mobile slaughter units are held to all of the same regulatory standards as fixed slaughter locations,” USDA-FSIS spokesman Buck McKay told the Business Journal. “It is a business decision on the part of the small farmers where they take their animals for slaughter, but a mobile slaughter unit can be a useful resource to some small farmers.”

Where's the beef going?

The retail market has grown over the last year for Stemple Creek, led by online sales, partly as a result of exposure gained by a Netflix show on the ranch that came out at the end of February.

With shutdowns and deaths, the coronavirus crisis seems to have caused more turmoil in the meat production industry over the last few weeks than months of prior recalls.

With President Trump ordering packers to reopen plants that have seen spikes in worker COVID-19 cases, the crisis has prompted a stern warning from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents thousands of workers in gigantic plants that furnish meat to dealers across the nation.

“America's meatpacking workers must be protected. The reality is that these workers are putting lives on the line every day to keep our country fed during this deadly outbreak,” UFCW International President Marc Perrone said in a statement. Perrone was referring to the 20 workers who died and 5,000 hospitalized.

Those numbers have led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration to issue a list of strict guidelines for meat processing facilities. The guidance covers subjects ranging from configuring workspaces to protective equipment.

How it's done in ag land

As mid-sized meat processing facilities go, Golden Gate Meat Co.'s Sonoma County, San Francisco and Richmond facilities have joined Stemple Creek Ranch in making a dramatic shift to focus on the retail market.

With “restaurants coming to a halt,” Richmond plant owner Jonni Graves has adapted to a 60% drop in business for the 40-year-old, family-owned company by focusing on local grocers, ranches and online retail. Her social media platforms and website have received much attention.

Graves cited about 50 restaurant owners that she knows of who have “thrown in the towel.”

The coronavirus crisis has shown weaknesses in the (federal) system for processing facilities. Sonoma County Meat Co. owner Jenine Rinn

Other small operations have jumped on the bandwagon.

“We've just had to pivot,” Sonoma County Meat Co. owner Jenine Rinn said of her processing operation. “We're in a really unique position and lucky. The coronavirus crisis has shown weaknesses in the (federal) system for processing facilities.”

Rinn's focus has shifted to selling retail direct to consumers by updating the Santa Rosa company website “to meet changing needs” and offering curbside pickup to a market she referred to as “a loyal following.”

Many of these loyalists have “subscribed” to the butcher boxes option that allows consumers to save money by buying consistently in bulk. The orders Sonoma County Meat fulfills in a 24-hour period range from a pound of bacon to half a cow.

Setting the standard

Sanitation is an area of the business that requires “constant reassessment,” according to Sonoma County Meat Co.'s Rinn. While following North American Meat Institute guidelines, the meat processor abides by a stringent set of food safety protocols.

Rinn said no worker has been sick in April. She attributes her small company milestone to “good health and hygiene.” The staffers receive an oral screening before coming to work, and while there at work, wear smocks, hair nets, gloves and face masks.

Bud's Custom Meats in Penngrove, also in Sonoma County, has also implemented a diligent set of cleaning protocols for Matt Gamba's 13-person operation that started in 1975 by his father Bud.

“Everything is sanitized three- to four times a day,” Gamba said. “And we practice 6-foot social distancing as much as we can.”

One of the criticisms of the large meat processing plants is that the workers stand shoulder to shoulder to keep up with the production line.

A federal rule adopted in September allows pork processing plants to move at any speed, with fewer inspectors overseeing production, the New York Times reported Thursday.

In a completely different processing scene, Gamba takes his mobile truck to slaughter, skin and dress the animals on the grounds of local ranches.

Since his mobile unit is not USDA-certified and follows California Department of Food and Agriculture guidelines, there are limitations on where he may service the harvesting of animals.

That's fine with Gamba, who is busy enough handling what he has to offer.

His customers often opt for making a stroll through the parking lot and using the walk-up window to purchase from the butcher's 130-item product line. Many order tri-tip, bacon and sausage as their staples.

Along with undergoing a nearly $1 million remodel recently, Gamba installed an outdoor sink with hand sanitizer to give his approaching customers added comfort whether they're behind the wheel or on foot.

Gamba's retail focus is paying off, with sales up about 300% since the wholesale market driven by restaurant operations dried up with shutdowns.

I'm glad we're heavily into retail, and we've been pushing the local thing for a long time,” he said.

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