Sage Faulkner with cattle

Rancher Sage Faulkner checks on some of her cattle on her Los Ojos ranch in this 2019 photo.

  Legislation introduced to restore state provided meat inspections by state representatives Rebecca Dow, R-Grant, Hidalgo; Gail Armstrong, D-Bernalillo; G. Andrés Romero; D-Bernalillo, Jack Chatfield; R-Colfax, Curry and Antonio Maestas, D-Bernalillo would reinstate New Mexico’s ability to its own inspection of meat processing plants in order to increase the amount of small to medium sized plants in New Mexico according to legislators.

    The Rio Arriba County Commission voted Jan. 26 to support House Bill 33 at its regular monthly meeting.

    In 2007 the state ceased doing its own inspections. All inspections have been handled by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture.

    During the meeting, County Attorney Adan Trujillo said only four major companies process and pack cattle in the United States, and that by restoring the state’s ability to do its own inspections, it will be easier for small meat processors to expand and new ones to open.

    Maestas is one of the legislators who authored the bill and said in a Jan. 26 phone interview that the goal of the legislation was to help strengthen and diversify New Mexico’s economy.

    “We have a lack of meat inspectors, so we are not tapping into that market,” Maestas said. “The steak you ate last night was probably processed in Texas, to build our economy we have to eke out our comparative advantages.”

    Dow, one of the lead authors of the bill, said the underlying problems with the beef industry in New Mexico have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “Ninety percent of the beef that’s grown in New Mexico is harvested outside the state,” Dow said.

    Dow said none of the packing plants operate in New Mexico. By making it easier to get a certification for meat processing she expects it to increase jobs and help stabilize the prices of meat in New Mexico.

    By increasing the amount of people able to process meat, cows won’t need to leave New Mexico to be slaughtered, reducing the cost of shipping and reducing prices.

    The previous inspection board was officially eliminated in 2013. It hadn’t operated normally or continually since 2007 Dow said. There were some problems with its structure that this proposal addresses and it wasn’t needed as much as it is now.

    “People can afford to buy organic, they can afford to buy local’,” Dow said. “The climate has changed in both the consumer side and the need to diversify the economy.”

Price regulation?

    Marcy Ward, the Extension Livestock Specialist at New Mexico State University said she agreed that the bill offered more job opportunities in rural New Mexico but was suspicious of its goal of price regulation.

    Ward said New Mexico was dotted with small mom and pop butcher shops for processing individual cows from small ranchers.

    “With the pandemic there was a huge increase of people wanting to buy from individual farms. That caught our industry off guard,” Ward said. “The cost of cattle went way down in New Mexico so we ran into a backlog, we’re about six months out before you can get an animal harvested.

    “Large ranches like the Bell Ranch, will typically not change how they market their cattle. This will help those small ranchers that don’t have that large amount to sell and diversify.”

    With the current hurdle being logistics for small processors, Ward said she doesn’t expect HB 33 to change how processors process meat, so it will require additional processing to come online.

    “Honestly with the prices I see for a niche market anything, grass feed or whatever, I foresee producers doing that,” Ward said. “They’re going to have added value of those animals, I really don’t know if it would be much cheaper.

    “With state inspection I think there’s going to be more new products coming online that would probably be higher end,” she said. “It’s a good idea to help medium to small ranchers expand what they do, it’s good PR for lack of a better word, people can know they’re buying locally raised, and people will be willing to pay for that but as far as you’re seeing in big chain grocery stores it’s not going to affect that”

    The prices at the grocery store are because of a weakness in the supply chain that got highlighted by the pandemic, Ward said.

    “What happened in the pandemic is we had a major failure in a very fragile infrastructure system,” she said. “They had to make a shift because they were predominantly packaging for the restaurant chain. They had to switch that, and they had to shut down plants due to COVID positivity. Rates and retailers took advantage of that.”

    The price hike didn’t affect how people bought the product, and because of that retailers and packers were seeing large profits while the cost of the cattle themselves dropped. This has been a source of contention Ward said even leading to lawsuits alleging price fixing on the meat packers and retailers part.

    “This will help those guys that had to reduce their herd numbers (due to droughts),” Ward said. “At the same time it’s been a positive thing for our consumers, they’re learning where their beef comes from. They became a little more educated which is always a good thing.”

Business as usual

    John Padilla, manager for Padillas Meat Cutting and Processing in Arroyo Hondo said he didn’t expect the bill to change his business practices, he receives an annual federal inspection and said he hasn’t had any problems with it.

    “Meat processing it’s in very high demand now,” Padilla said. “For one, lack of a lot of these big places, they had to let some of their employees go due to the COVID and social distance requirements. You lose employees you gotta go down on the amount of work you do. I’ve picked up a lot, but we’re licensed, and a lot of these customers can’t go to their normal processors.”

    Jeff Witte, the New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture said in a Jan. 28 phone interview that their department supports the bill.

    “The COVID has taught us one thing is that there’s a lot more needs at the local level,” Witte said. “We got a lot of small processors and some people looking to go into the business. Our target is more in the small and medium sized plants. Today if you’re a consumer, if you want to buy from a local farmer you need to buy a half or a quarter (of the cow). Once the state inspects, you can buy individual cuts of beef and that will help ranchers sell more. I think that’s what this bill is all about, is increasing consumer choice and opportunities for the producer.”

    Restaurants and small independent grocers were the retailers most interested in being able buy local beef Witte said.

    “Beef is subject to supply and demand first and foremost,” he said. “We’ve got four packing plants that control the vast supply of marketable supply in the United States. What we hope for in the future is a more diversified market. That’s the model for the future, a fair and even opportunity to both the consumer and the producer.”

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