The meat processing industry has consolidated dramatically over the past several decades, moving from local and regional systems to a highly-centralized model.

At Friesla, we support an alternative to corporate meat processing: a more resilient system driven by better options for producers and consumers. We help by enabling independent meat processors to develop and grow businesses to serve their customers—whether in their local communities or across the nation.

PROCESSORS BY THE NUMBERS

Meat processing businesses are defined by what they do (e.g., slaughter vs. processing, livestock vs. poultry, game, multi-species, etc.) and their size. Understanding these definitions and numbers is helpful for making sense of today’s meat processing industry.

Generally, the USDA classifies meat processing plants by employee count and/or revenue. These three categories include:

  • Very Small: Establishments with less than 10 employees or annual sales of less than $2.5 million
  • Small: Establishments with 10-499 employees
  • Large: Establishments with 500+ employees

As of June 2024, Very Small and Small meat processors accounted for more than 92% of the nation’s approximately 6,200 USDA-inspected meat and poultry plants. According to USDA, small, independent plants are often the closest and most convenient way for farmers and ranchers to bring their livestock to market—and a critical part of the infrastructure that makes up the nation’s local and regional food systems.

Despite Very Small and Small processors accounting for the majority of U.S. meat processing businesses, they’re increasingly overshadowed by a handful of Large corporations. By some accounts, the Big 4 meatpackers purchase and process 85% of the beef in the U.S.—a far cry from days when people knew who and where their meat came from.

THE CHANGING PROCESSING LANDSCAPE AND ITS CHALLENGES

The consolidation of the meat processing industry has led to fewer plants processing a larger share of the country’s livestock and poultry. While this shift may have contributed to meat processing efficiency, it has had many negative effects: reducing options for producers and consumers, creating challenges with product quality, and increasing the disconnect between farmers, ranchers, and consumers.

Most critically, consolidation has eroded local and regional food systems, making America’s food system more fragile. This vulnerability was highlighted by nationwide supply chain disruptions during COVID-19 after large meatpacking plants shut down or reduced output.

While there isn’t a quick antidote for a more resilient meat supply chain, one step forward is simple: restoring a balance of Very Small, Small, and Large plants operating at local, regional, and national levels.

Vehicles parked next to Friesla Modular Meat processing system.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR VERY SMALL AND SMALL PROCESSORS

As the COVID-19 meat shortages underscored the fragility of a consolidated system, they also sparked increased support for local and regional food systems.

Farmers, ranchers, consumers, legislators, and industry stakeholders alike began recognizing the need for more Very Small and Small meat processing plants. This increased awareness and support offered—and continues to offer—a unique opportunity for independent-minded producers, processors, and entrepreneurs: to take back control of local meat processing.

At Friesla, we’re working hard to assist these folks in designing and building efficient, flexible, scalable meat processing plants—whether Mobile or Modular, and Very Small or Small—and providing resources to help them thrive. By doing so, we aim to restore balance to the meat processing industry, expanding local and regional food options and enhancing food system resilience.

Get started with us here.