Ethics / Senate Bill 249 proposes the state takeover of Oahu’s last remaining slaughterhouse in the face of its impending closure and lack of alternative private investors. Like many of the bills considered during this legislative session, SB249 will weigh heavily upon Hawaii’s local food system and determine the extent to which Hawaii will either remain dependent upon the Mainland for its food or increase its local food security through the development of a sustainable local food system infrastructure.
The Hawaii Livestock Cooperative was originally built in 2003 to replace the dilapidated facilities at a slaughterhouse in Ewa. The Cooperative represents a total of 21 members consisting of hog farmers, dairy ranchers and allied industries from Kauai, Oahu and Maui. Over the past five years, the plant has had serious problems remaining fiscally solvent despite receiving over $4.6 million in subsidies. Thus, there are legitimate concerns as to whether purchasing the plant is a wise use of state funds, particularly in light of our large budget deficit. The plant’s closure, however, raises an entirely different set of concerns that has even conservative local food activists and industry reps stepping forward in defense of the bill.
As our Island’s last remaining licensed facility, the Hawaii Livestock Cooperative is the only legal way for people to bring their product to market. “From a consumer-safety standpoint, I have serious concerns as to what will happen in the event of the plant closure. It does not mean that people will stop processing and consuming their own meat,” says Brent Buckley, a professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food and Animal Sciences at UH–Manoa. “It just means that they will do so in un-inspected settings that are not food safety certified. It only takes one outbreak of a food-borne illness to see why that it not wise.”
Although the plant primarily processes pork (it currently provides 100 percent of the “hot” meat for the local ethnic markets as well as pork and steaks for restaurants, stores and other markets), shutting down the slaughterhouse will foreclose any future possibility for building a local beef market on Oahu. “People want local beef, and if the plant closes, it will dramatically increase the costs for Oahu ranchers who want to bring their product to a local market,” says Buckley.
Both People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Down To Earth have come out in vocal opposition to the state take-over of the Co-operative Slaughter House, raising ethical concerns about tax dollars supporting meat consumption. Down to Earth president Mark Fergusson, in his presentation on the bill at UH–Manoa said, “Meat is bad for people’s health, the environment and animals. Why would the state operate such a business?”
The closure of Oahu’s last remaining slaughterhouse does not mean less meat consumption. Rather, it further industrializes and globalizes Hawaii’s food system, forcing local protein farmers and ranchers to ship their cattle to the Mainland for finishing and processing. This makes any possibility of sustainable local meat production impossible. The transpacific shipping of farm animals should also concern advocates for the ethical treatment of animals. When meat is pastured in Hawaii and shipped to the Mainland for processing, animals are often “grain-finished” in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), significantly raising the carbon footprint of meat consumption.
The ethical consumption of locally raised meat is immeasurably more sustainable than the consumption of soy-based products grown in environmentally destructive mega-farms across the US and the Third World. Animals are a part of healthy ecosystems, and if raised and consumed consciously, they can add to, rather than take from, our land and natural resources. Animals are natural recyclers (the hogs processed at the slaughterhouse recycle several tons of food waste from local hotels and restaurants) and rotational grazing can restore ravaged soils stripped of their nutrients from years of industrial farming.
As food consumers, we cannot demand sustainable practices from our farmers and ranchers and then refuse to pay for it. Maintaining and investing in our local food system infrastructure is important. Although the slaughterhouse, as it currently stands, can’t maintain enough thru-put to achieve fiscal solvency, it represents an irreplaceable part in the farm-to-fork food chain. The state, through the use of our tax dollars, is acting in the interest of our local food system by appropriating the funds to update and maintain the last remaining slaughterhouse on Oahu.