Meat (copy)

The Oregon Department of Agriculture is making progress toward establishing a meat inspection program, an official says.

PENDLETON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture could soon approve a regulatory plan that would allow Oregon to revive its state meat inspection program.

Lauren Henderson, deputy director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, gave an update on the effort Monday at the annual Oregon Cattlemen’s Association convention in Pendleton.

“I actually think I might get an answer (from the USDA) within the month,” Henderson said. “They know it needs to be done.”

Henderson said he has been talking about reestablishing the state inspection program for decades to increase the slaughter and processing capacity. The state previously had an inspection program in the 1970s, though it was eliminated by budget cuts.

USDA meat inspection is done at one of 13 processing facilities, which Henderson said are at full capacity. Ranchers who are able to schedule processing can also face lengthy drives to reach one of the facilities. Many live in what Henderson described as “processing deserts.”

“This is all about increasing capacity and processing in our state,” he said. “We can do that as a state much better, I think, than the federal system.”

The 2020 Legislature passed a bill approving the new state meat inspection program. Lawmakers approved $2 million in grants earlier this year to help get processors started.

Henderson admitted the funding is nowhere near enough, but said it is at least a step in the right direction. Along with leveraging federal dollars, he hopes to spur construction of 2 to 4 state-inspected slaughterhouses.

“All I’m trying to do is add another tool to increase capacity so we don’t have these processing deserts and we don’t have these scheduling backlogs,” he said.

A few people at the convention expressed concerns about the viability of a state meat inspection program.

Keith Nantz, who operates a USDA-inspected beef processing plant in Odessa, Washington, said he has “mixed emotions” about the Oregon program.

Nantz, an Oregon native, and his business partner, Miles Curtis, started LimitBid Packing in May 2020. The business now processes 40-45 head of cattle per week, and is already booked through the end of 2022.

Opening a packing plant is no small feat, Nantz said. He pegged the cost at $500 to $600 per square foot, not including the cost of land. He said that adds up to millions of dollars of investment for an operation that can handle enough volume to turn a profit.

“To get these small custom plants to that level is a big lift,” Nantz said.

The $2 million announced by the Oregon Department of Agriculture is just a drop in the bucket of what is needed, Nantz said. He questioned whether it was worth spending taxpayer dollars to establish a fledgling state inspection program when such a program is already available under the USDA.

“We all want the same thing,” he said. “We’re all trying to get dollars back down to the rancher.”

Once the regulations are approved by the USDA, Henderson said the department has already added three staff to start guiding the program. The number of inspectors will gradually increase with demand.

Henderson said he fully anticipates being back before the Legislature in the future to secure more funding for infrastructure needed to make the program work.

“This is the beginning, not the end,” he said. “We have a long ways to go.”

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