Ranchers, packing plants can work together to market local beef | TSLN.com

Ranchers, packing plants can work together to market local beef

With $3.30 per pound ground beef and nearly $9 per pound sirloin steaks in the grocery store, ranchers can't help but wonder if there is a way to get more out of their $1.50 per pound feeder calves.

Roger Huck with Sturgis Meats said meat inspection is a crucial step in the beef marketing process.

Besides the fact that either state or federal inspection is required by law for any beef that will be sold at retail, it is just common sense, said Huck. "The goal of this is to ensure the public has safe meat," he said. "That's why you don't want someone killing meat without the benefit of inspection. Nobody is there to say 'what is going on there?'"

Most products at Sturgis Meats are federally inspected – giving the owner authority to sell anywhere in the U.S., and some are state inspected, which provides for legal re-sale only within the state of South Dakota. Ranchers wanting to sell their own home-raised beef around the country can legally do just that after having animals slaughtered at Sturgis Meats.

Dr. Chuck Blackler, a federal meat inspector for Sturgis Meats and several more plants, said state inspection is supposed to be the same and equal to federal inspection. "Disease testing should be exactly the same. We both have vets on staff – every federal and state plant." Some of the diseases they test for are E. coli, listeria, and salmonella. If a plant is suspect or is a "known violator," the testing requirements might increase.

Blackler said plants also do voluntary testing to ensure a safe meat supply. The federal inspection program must approve the private lab that conducts the testing.

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"If we get an animal in that we suspect was treated with antibiotics and they might not have waited for the full withdrawal period, we have an implant test and we'll know in a few hours."

A plant could get shut down by the federal inspectors if it doesn't sanitation requirements before they begin to slaughter or if they violate humane handling rules.

Just 27 miles away in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, Larry and Alana Strickland, owners of Integrity Meats, offer another option for ranchers looking to connect with consumers who desire local beef.

Making good use of his state inspected plant, Larry offers quantity beef for sale – from animals he buys from local ranchers. "I buy cattle from ranchers and sell wholes, halves or quarters. I've got a customer base. If I get an order for beef, I get a rancher to bring it in, they (state inspectors) inspect it." While they market 50 to 75 animals per year this way, the bulk of their business is still custom exempt work – slaughtering and packaging an animal for the owner – not be re-sold.

Strickland said, at one time, he had a federal inspection number but he decided not to carry on with it. The costs were high. "I would have had to put in an extra shower room and a whole room just for the inspector himself." But the way his local business has taken off, he doesn't need another business branch.

"My business is mostly with the rancher. It just keeps getting bigger on the custom side – I've got people coming from Bison, Kadoka, Hot Springs, even from Cody, Wyoming, to slaughter beef."

State inspector Brian Bauer said he's been in the meat business since he was 11 years old and has been a state inspector since 1998. He inspects plants in western South Dakota.

"We provide ante mortem inspection and post mortem inspection as well as processing inspection," he said.

"One huge differenc between us and the federal inspection program is that we service small and very small plants. We don't service large plants."

The cost to have samples tested is higher for small plants than large plants because they aren't working with the huge bulk amounts the large plants are, Bauer said. "If they produce 10 pounds, they still have to send a pound in for sampling." The plant can make some decisions about their sampling – some do it once per month, some do it once per quarter and so on.

"A lot of our plants might do 25 pound batches of sausage. Compare that to a plant that produces 500,000 pounds per day. They might sample 20 times per day.

The state inspectors watch for more than just safety issues. "We want to be sure foods are labeled correctly and accurately with an emphasis on allergens. We don't want the consumer to pay for 1.5 pounds and only get 1.25 pounds.

One big difference between state and federal inspection, Bauer said, is the relationship between office and staff. "I can pic up my phone and call the head of the department and get ahold of him. You just can't do that in a federal system."

Every decision made by a state inspector can be appealed, he said, and the communication lines stay open at all times.

"I wouldn't be concerned about buying meat that was state inspected. I like state inspected and I like federally inspected. It protects our industry when safe products are on the shelf. I take a lot of pride in it."

Some, including South Dakota's state veterinarian Dr. Dustin Oedekoven, say that because state inspection standards must meet or exceed federal inspection standards, state inspected meat should be legal to sell anywhere in the country, too.

Every day that Sturgis Meats processes federally inspected meat, there must be an inspector on duty at some point during the day, but not necessarily throughout the entire day, and every carcass isn't necessarily inspected or tested, Huck said.

He is required to keep his facility up to code, which is "basically the same" for federal and state requirements, he said.

"There is a pre-operational sanitation check," he said, and then paperwork for each animal takes at least five minutes, he figures. Each year, the month of June signals the start of 13 weeks of generic E. coli sampling. Every month he conducts listeria sampling and four times per year he carries out an in-house E. coli test.

Huck chose to utilize federal inspection in order to work with those ranchers looking to market their own beef.

"The mainstay of our business is labeling. A lot of our farmers and ranchers have come to the conclusion that they can feed them and sell them and do a lot better than selling commodity cattle," he said. Sturgis Meats provides the federal inspection option needed to sell the meat across state lines, and can create unique custom labels for the producer.

Deb Black, office administrator for Sturgis Meats, reminds ranchers who might sell federally or state inspected meat to contact the state for a tax identification number and charge appropriate sales tax.

"I have customers looking for grass fed beef, I have customers looking for corn fed beef. There are more people looking for local beef all the time," said Strickland.