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