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USDA Announces Plan to Help Expand Small Meat Processing Facilities

By Samantha Bennett

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack shared that the USDA plans to spend $500 million to help encourage the construction of new small meat processing facilities in the country. Vilsack announced the news Friday, July 9th, 2021, in Council Bluff, Iowa stating, “We can no longer rely on a handful of processing companies to do the job, to make the market competitive, to do right by farmers, to ensure as well that we have a resilient food supply system.” This newly revealed aid is in addition to the $150 million in funding that was previously established to help support the few smaller meat processing facilities that already exist in the United States. Money for both projects will be provided by the USDA’s Build Back Better Initiative utilizing the American Rescue Plan, otherwise known as the COVID-19 Stimulus Package. The Build Back Better Initiative consists of more than $4 billion of the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill that was passed by Congress and then signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 11th, 2021. This funding will supply grants, loans, and technical assistance for the creation of new small processing locations to diversify the industry, currently run by a small number of large corporations.

The announcement comes after the tumultuous year that the United States’ food system faced in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The first known cases of the virus appeared in the U.S. in Seattle, Washington, January 2020, and not long after, cases quickly spread throughout the country. On March 13, 2020, the U.S. Government declared the global pandemic a Federal Emergency. As the country shut down, consumers opted for making meals at home from food purchased at grocery stores as opposed to buying meals from commercial foodservice institutions. Then in early March 2020, meatpacking and processing facilities were forced to scale back production, or even temporarily close, as COVID-19 spread throughout the workforce. The combination of rapid changes in consumer habits and drastic reductions in the meat being processed and sent to retail outlets, resulted in empty shelves in stores and the bottlenecking of livestock on farms and ranches that were once intended to be sent to processing facilities.

With just four large corporations in the U.S. in control of over 80% of beef meatpacking alone, it is easy to see how major vulnerabilities in the system exist and have continuously been exposed. During his statement, Vilsack also made the distinction that the farmers’ share of every dollar spent on food has declined consistently since the 1970s when it was 35 cents of every dollar in recent years dwindling to just 14 cents. The hope is that by encouraging opportunities to diversify the processing market, farmers, and ranchers themselves will be able to earn more, consumers will pay less, and that these existing vulnerabilities in the system will be lessened. In a press release regarding the news, the USDA stated the Build Back Better Initiative will, “strengthen the food system, create new market opportunities, tackle the climate crisis, help communities that have been left behind, and support good-paying jobs throughout the supply chain.”