Anyone who has tasted locally grown grass-fed, free-range or hormone-free beef or chicken knows it tastes better, is better for you, more humane for the animal and better for the environment. Today, with the local food movement taking hold, especially in the Northeast, there is increasing demand for such meat. And there are plenty of farmers who would like to provide it. The problem is a shortage of USDA-inspected slaughterhouses (the only kind allowed to sell animal meat), as many small ones have closed in the last 20 years and large corporations have taken over most of the nation’s meat market.
That means local farmers who raise cows, goats, pigs, chicken and sheep for sale often have difficulty finding someone to process them. Assuming they can get into a slaughterhouse at all, they usually have to schedule months in advance and transport the animals a long distance (the largest USDA-inspected plant in New York is in Plattsburgh, and some New York farmers routinely travel to Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Vermont).
This adds to their own expense and the animals’ stress (which can release hormones that hurt the taste). And it means consumers and restaurateurs who would prefer to buy locally raised meat, because they like the taste and want to support local agriculture, must pay that much more and are limited in the amount they can get.
Our area is luckier than most. It has a relatively close USDA-inspected slaughterhouse at SUNY Cobleskill, although with limited capacity, and another small one in Guilderland. A mobile USDA-inspected plant is soon to start operating in the Delhi area, southwest of Canajoharie. The Schenectady Greenmarket offers frozen beef, chicken and pork raised by three local farmers. And the city of Schenectady now has not one, but two, butchers selling freshly killed chickens (USDA inspection is not required if fewer than 20,000 chickens are sold annually).
But the basic problem remains here, and all over the Northeast. What to do about it is the question.
One solution may be to have somewhat easier regulations for smaller operations, which the USDA actually seems to treat more rigorously than the big ones. Animals raised on local farms are probably healthier to begin with, the farmers more concerned with food safety and humane slaughter, and the consumers enlightened enough to buy this meat smart enough to cook it safely.
And as numerous documentaries, food poisoning episodes and recalls show, the meat from the giant processing plants is not all that safe anyway.