Tough Meat Challenges Can Be Licked | News, Sports, Jobs

Times are particularly difficult these days for meat producers and consumers. Both chew challenges profusely.

Consumers are challenged by rising prices at groceries and butchers. Domestic meat prices climbed 16% from a year ago without ending the upward spiral.

Producers – especially packers and smaller, independent meat processors – face increasingly lean workforces in the face of more voracious demand.

It is not surprising that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has played an outsized role in the current crisis. Supply chain disruptions caused by labor shortages at major meat packers and trucking companies have reduced inventories. Consumers are therefore turning to smaller, independent businesses closer to home to satisfy their appetites for beef, pork and chicken.

As a result, Mahoning Valley independent meat processors today have their hands full and schedules booked at least 12 months in advance. Additionally, they are trying to find ways to increase capacity, add labor and create efficiencies to reduce the wait for farmers to get their livestock to market.

In response, governments at the state and federal levels are trying to find ways to ease the burdens on all links in this food chain. Although we are generally hesitant to promote too much public sector involvement in private enterprise, in this area now is a good time for limited help.

In Ohio, the state Department of Development, to its credit, has set aside $10 million to help livestock and poultry processing facilities fund new equipment and technology, employee training and/or building new or expanding facilities for the purpose of increasing capacity and introducing more efficient treatment methods. Grants may also cover food safety certification costs and cooperative interstate shipping program costs.

At the federal level, another new program would complement Ohio’s initiative well because it shares similar goals. Specifically, President Joe Biden earlier this month outlined plans to distribute $1 billion from the federal coronavirus relief package to help independent meat processors grow and better compete. The package also includes funds to train workers in the industry and improve working conditions.

This federal effort is aimed not only at reducing exorbitant meat prices for consumers, but also at leveling the playing field for small, independent meat processors such as Rob’s Horst Packing in Beaver Township.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, four major corporations produce an oversized 80% of the nation’s beef, and their dominance has come at the expense of cattle farmers, independent meat processors, and U.S. consumers, who eat average 55 pounds of beef. every year. The new federal aid is designed to increase the capacity of small businesses and thereby increase competition and lower prices.

While such state and federal monetary assistance is good and good, another arguably bigger and harder problem to solve is the same problem plaguing most businesses and industries in the United States these days: the hand – lean work.

Feeding the 350 million Americans is important work, and doing it at affordable prices is imperative work. Indeed, the processing and cutting of meat is an essential part of the American food chain.

This is where the private sector should step in to make its mark. For example, a program being developed at Ohio State University and its agricultural extensions aim to teach young people the basics of the meat industry.

But let’s face it, butchers don’t usually need a four-year college degree.

Extension agencies work proactively with other organizations such as Future Farmers of America in Ohio, introducing teens and preparing them to enter the meat processing profession immediately after high school.

The need to develop the interest of adolescents for trades such as this is essential. Post-secondary education in the form of a college degree is always a respectable option, but we know college isn’t for everyone.

In this field, most meat cutters or butchers only need a high school diploma or equivalent, plus some training or an apprenticeship. Frankly, on-the-job training is essential to ensure that enough meat cutters are qualified and ready. This is especially important considering that the Niche Meat Processing Assistance Network points out that there are only about five professional meat cutting programs in the United States outside of university programs.

Aggressive approaches are now needed from private groups as well as state and federal governments to continue the fight for lower meat prices and fairer competition in the industry. Now is the time for all key players to harness the potential of the public-private experiment already at work in Ohio to cool meat prices and revive the independent meat industry.

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