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Legislators, educators work to uplift small South Dakota meat processors

Published: Jun. 21, 2021 at 1:04 PM CDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) - In the wake of coronavirus outbreaks and cybersecurity threats to large-scale meat-packers that supply most of the nation’s beef and poultry, legislators and educators are pushing to bring small processors back to the forefront of the industry.

However, most mom and pop shops in the state have their own beef: a long-lived labor shortage.

Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company and JBS-SA are often associated with "The...
Tyson Foods, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company and JBS-SA are often associated with "The Big Four," a group of meat packers who are said to control from 70% to upwards of 80% and more of the meat processing industry.(Dominik Dausch)

Shopping for fresh flanks of beef and chicken at your local butcher has fallen out of practice over the past few decades. Instead, most of us buy meat supplied by one of four major processors, which have long dominated the meat industry.

In response, Sen. Mike Rounds, along with Sens. Chuck Grassley and Jon Tester co-wrote a bill to establish the Meat Packing Special Investigator Act. The bill was introduced on June 11 and would found an investigative office under the United States Department of Agriculture to monitor large processors for anti-competitive practices.

Large-scale meat packers, such as Tyson Foods and JBS, garnered notoriety among several stock growers and cattlemen’s associations due to their growing control over the industry despite attempts to regulate them through the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921.

“Back when the anti-trust laws were put into effect, the top four livestock processors at that time had about 50% of the market. Today, the top four have over 80% of the market,” Rounds claimed in a phone interview. “It’s amazing what happens to a small processor - that, suddenly, it’s tough for them to find livestock in the area because one of the big boys is protecting their turf ... we want them to be able to compete and we want more of them.”

Rounds, along with Grassley and Tester, also believe the ransomware attack that halted production at JBS exposed a vulnerability in our food supply chain and an over-reliance on large-scale meatpackers.

This and other legislation, along with Gov. Kristi Noem’s recent multi-million dollar grant program, is encouraging more and more butcher shops to pop up across the state.

According to Assistant State Veterinarian Dr. Mendel Miller, South Dakota has seen gradual growth in the number of meat processors over the past decade. He estimates that in the early 2010s, roughly 35 small-scale meat cutters made South Dakota their home; as of May 19, 2021, 59 custom meat processors reside here.

However, new operations are tackling an old problem: a labor shortage.

Ken Charfauros, owner of Wall Meats, a local meat plant, says most processors are having trouble finding long-term employees: “folks currently are struggling to find butchers - and skilled butchers, at that ... we cycle through a lot of folks who just earn a paycheck and leave.”

Dr. Christina Bakker, Meat Science Field Specialist with South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension, says most local butcher shops are family-owned and often have trouble finding skilled employees outside of relatives of the owners.

“It’s a skill that not a lot of people have unless you grew up in the industry or you were exposed to it in some way, which not a lot of people have been,” Bakker said.

Western Dakota Tech (WDT) and South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension are both drafting...
Western Dakota Tech (WDT) and South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension are both drafting courses to combat the labor shortage affecting small-scale meat processors. Most meat processors are family-operated and rely on a specific skill set not often found outside of ranching and farming families.(Dominik Dausch)

To that end, Western Dakota Tech (WDT) and SDSU are launching new programs meant to develop skilled workers and fill job gaps in the industry.

Together with Wall Meats, WDT is set to launch a new program intended to teach industry-standard meat cutting and processing courses.

Charfauros will provide hands-on training at his Rapid City-based plant, while Kaden Eisenbraun, director of WDT’s Meat Processing Programs, will conduct the more academic courses Fall 2021.

A one-year degree will be offered to train students in basic meat processing and agriculture studies, while a longer two-year degree will provide a background in business and consumer sciences.

“Local meat processors or even some of the larger ones - they’re in need of employees, so we’re hoping to fill those positions with qualified employees who are gonna go in and earn a higher wage than if they just went in there without a degree at all,” Eisenbraun said.

“We want to keep those folks that we consider are good butchers who want some of this knowledge to move on,” Charfauros added.

Meanwhile, Bakker says SDSU plans to draft shorter courses meant to introduce agriculture majors and others to beef and pork processing. The Brookings-based institution also offers Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) training, which is the certification needed to draft food safety plans.

Despite the push for local meat, educators and legislators alike still believe there’s a place at the dinner table for the major meat packers.

“Quite honestly, when it comes down to it ... if the large ones were to go away, there’s no way the small processors could keep up with the demand,” Bakker said. “I think there’s definitely room for both in the industry because we need as many options as possible to make sure that people get meat on their table.”

“There is definitely a place for the larger ... processor. We need their capabilities as well and they’re very efficient. The challenge for us is when the market is as concentrated as what it is today,” Sen. Rounds finished.

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