Food & Agriculture

Food & Agriculture
While the Island’s only large scale slaughterhouse struggles, animals are shipped elsewhere.

It’s what’s for dinner

Food & Agriculture / According to a study done by the Rocky Mountain Institute, beef consumers in the islands eat upwards of 250,000 whole beef cows annually. Hawaii Department of Agriculture reports that all but 11,000 cows come from somewhere else.

It’s not that Hawaii can’t raise cattle; it’s been a viable industry for 175 years, and ranchers currently tend an estimated 150,000 head. The bigger problem is getting the animals from field to table in a state with a dearth of slaughterhouses.

That’s why folks in the “ag protein community” were concerned to learn that Times and Foodland, responding to pressure from WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals) would no longer buy pork from pigs shipped live to Hawaii. The Sept. 20 announcement cast a pall over the future of The Hawaii Livestock Cooperative slaughterhouse– Oahu’s sole large scale, multi-purpose slaughterhouse, a privately owned cooperative that continues to struggle financially, despite a recent $750,000 subsidy from the state.

“That slaughterhouse sort of rises and falls with pork, because Honolulu is the biggest market for hot [freshly slaughtered] pork,” says Bill Spitz, agricultural specialist for Kauai County. According to Spitz, about 80 percent of the slaughterhouse’s business is in hogs.

Because Kauai is the only island raising pigs in any number, the meat pretty much stays there. And according to Spitz, Hawaii’s pig farmers aren’t even close to meeting local demand. The problem stems from imported grain prices which make it increasingly difficult to compete with the price of mainland raised pigs. Also, because of land incompatibility issues, especially on Oahu, it’s financially a challenge for piggeries to operate here.

So to satisfy Honolulu demand, pigs are shipped live from the mainland, a practice that upset activists who felt the animals suffered on the ocean journey. On the other hand, some 50,000 calves are shipped out of state each year, says Herbert “Tim” Richards III, president of the Hawaii Cattleman’s Council. “Ranchers would love to keep a lot more cattle here to finish them and sell to the local market,” he says.

That’s what they used to do, up through World War II. But as consumers began demanding the tender, fat-marbled flesh of grain-finished beef, Island ranchers started shipping their calves to mainland feed lots. “At the time, it made more sense to ship off a 400-pound animal than bring in the grain to finish them here,” Richards says.

Hawaii ranchers also couldn’t compete with the economies of scale achieved by mainland slaughterhouses, some of which kill 8,000 animals per day, Richards says.

While the confined animal industry was initially developed to provide beef year-round on a continent where pastures are often covered with snow, “it’s evolved into something very different,” Richards says.

Adding to the challenge, shipping costs are rising and consumer tastes are changing, driven by concerns about high-fat diets–grass-fed beef is considerably leaner than grain-finished–and a growing movement to consume locally-produced food.

“There’s been a real awakening for the desire for beef that’s grass-finished, forage-finished, and Hawaii has the ability to capitalize on that,” Richards says. “That is the desire, and we’ve been working on this diligently for the last four to five years.”

The efforts by Hawaii Cattleman’s Council are multi-pronged, focusing on consumer education, marketing and such pioneering concepts as using pasture lands more cooperatively so animals have access to the forage best-suited for the various stages of their lives. “All grass is not created equal,” Richard says. “Some is better for cows with calves, some is better for finishing.”

The Maui Cattle Co. has also been looking into breeding smaller animals, which do better on forage. In the end, though, the big bottleneck is slaughterhouse capacity. Most of the facilities in Hawaii are small and old, supplying mostly small, local markets with beef that is, as one label proclaims, “born, raised and slaughtered” on the Islands.

Processing includes not just killing, but aging, which results in tender beef, and butchering, which turns the meat into the cuts familiar to consumers. The industry has been looking into various options, including centralized facilities and mobile slaughterhouses that go out to the ranches.

A combination of approaches likely will be needed, ranchers agree, with each island doing its own thing. And that’s where the Oahu slaughterhouse, with its current emphasis on imported pigs, comes in.

“Processing plants are expensive and regulations are strict.” Richardson says. “If we don’t have this critical mass going through these houses we can’t achieve the economies of scale to make them viable.”

Both Richards and Spitz agreed that slaughterhouses probably will need to be subsidized for a time while ranchers make the shift from exporting their cattle to processing the meat locally. “If we as a society don’t choose to make ag a priority, we’re gonna lose it,” Richard says. “If people are actually gonna be serious about sustainability, the first thing they would do is buy good local meat where they can find it, and that would encourage the ranchers to keep their animals here,” Spitz added. “We could eat every animal we ship off now, and we would still need to bring in about an equal number.”