One might expect the Bay Area — as the epicenter of the eat-local movement and a region with a long tradition of cattle ranching — to be a mecca for producers of organic and grass-fed beef. But there is a problem: a shortage of slaughterhouses is so acute that it is stunting the growth of this emerging industry.
Only one slaughterhouse remains in the Bay Area, in Petaluma, and there are just a smattering of them in all of Northern California. Ranchers must often truck their grass-fed cattle hundreds of miles to the nearest plant, and they face backlogs in the busy season that can lead to waits lasting many months. This means fewer — and more expensive — local skirt steaks at the butcher shop, and more carbon with that grass-fed burger.
The slaughterhouse shortage, and associated difficulties in creating an efficient supply chain, has already kept aspiring local-beef entrepreneurs out of the business, University of California researchers say. And when the local supply of grass-fed meat gets low, out-of-region producers pick up the slack.
Meanwhile, established local purveyors fret about what could happen if the Petaluma slaughterhouse, Rancho Veal, closed.
“The vulnerability is extreme,” said David Evans, owner of Marin Sun Farms in Point Reyes Station, one of the largest local grass-fed cattle operations. “It’s enough of a problem that if one slaughterhouse goes out of business, the alternatives are too far away to be recognizably viable.”
Evans said his contingency plan was to buy Rancho Veal if it were threatened with closing.
Slaughterhouses were once common in the Bay Area. Rosemary Mucklow, the director emeritus of the National Meat Association, an industry trade group based in Oakland, said that as recently as 45 years ago, there were still dozens of slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants in San Francisco.
“When I came to town, San Francisco had a Butchertown on Third Street,” Mucklow said, adding that she saw her first hog slaughter in what is now the Bayview neighborhood.
These days, little remains of Butchertown except memories and the name given to the nearby Dogpatch neighborhood, which, according to legend, was populated by feral dogs that lived off slaughterhouse scraps.
The disappearance of slaughterhouses is not a local phenomenon, nor is it limited to urban areas where residents do not want an abattoir in their backyards. Nationwide, the number of meat-processing centers has declined steadily for the past three decades, as the industry has consolidated and turned to large facilities where thousands of cattle can be fed, killed and cut up over the course of a day. In 1979, there were 70 federally inspected cattle slaughterhouses in California, according to the United States Department of Agriculture; by 2009, there were 23.
In some regions of the country, notably the Midwest, the growing popularity of “niche meat”— a catchall term that includes grass-fed, organic, sustainable and kosher meat — has led to a revival of the small slaughterhouse, said Arion Thiboumery, a researcher at Iowa State University and head of an organization dedicated to helping niche-meat producers and processors.
But Thiboumery is pessimistic about the chances for new facilities in California. Here, potential operators face stringent state regulations, unforgiving zoning laws and the dreaded Nimby factor.
“Basically, if I were to build a slaughterhouse, the last place I would build it is California,” Thiboumery said.
Sallie Calhoun, the co-owner of Paicines Ranch in San Benito County, south of San Jose, would certainly second that notion.