Local food advocates have been touting the idea of mobile slaughter for a few years now. The latest panegyric comes from PBS. The piece addresses all the typical selling points; lower stress on the animals, it’s a traditional ag practice, it’s more humane, it results in a better meat quality. These are laudable characteristics of the process, and it would make me personally happy to see them be the determining factors in people’s purchasing decisions. I am still waiting patiently for someone to write a mobile slaughter piece from an economic angle. I think it has not happened yet because making the business case for mobile slaughter, using like, math and stuff, is a much harder sell.
In reality the concept has some drawbacks no one likes to talk about. It costs in the neighborhood of $200,000.00 to purchase a unit. Keeping it on the road is expensive (gas, regular maintenance, breakdowns). Local zoning laws hamper the on-site disposal of offal and blood. Units can only process and haul 8-10 cattle or 20 hogs per visit. What they slaughter, eviscerate and halve must then be hauled to a cut-and-wrap facility to be turned into primal cuts and put under cellophane. The need for a second facility requires either a partnership with an outside entity or an additional capital investment.
The simple arithmetic of slaughter does not seem to justify these expenses and limitations. Back when I was getting my LLM, out of curiosity I called around to a few brick and mortar processors in Northwest Arkansas for quotes. Most of them charged a kill fee of $25.00 to $30.00 per-head, then an additional $0.45 to $0.55 per pound for further processing. In the facilities I contacted, the service was entirely comprehensive; a steer walked through the front door and came out in neatly wrapped steaks on the other side.
Given the very limited number of animals a mobile unit can process and its start-up and operating costs, it is tough to see how a mobile unit is a truly competitive option when traditional plants can do the job so cheaply and completely.That’s why these projects usually don’t get off the ground without generous grants to subsidize start-up costs.
Ranching is a rural activity. The operating area of a mobile unit may lack the population density to keep the unit busy. The unit operated by this coop runs at only 25% of its capacity. More products can be processed and shipped to urban areas, but that kind of defeats the purpose of using the units as anchors of local food systems.
I have lots of respect for the engineers and designers who put these trucks on the road. Mobile slaughter just seems to underscore the economic futility of small and flexible meat processing under the one-size-fits-all regulatory scheme of the USDA. Complying with slaughter regulations is costly. It is difficult enough to pay the compliance costs when you are small-scale. It looks to me like it may be impossible to do when you are on wheels.