A state- or federally-inspected mobile slaughter unit (MSU), like any inspected meat slaughter or processing business, must comply with USDA food safety regulations promulgated and enforced by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service and, for state-inspected MSUs, the state’s meat inspection program.
An MSU must also comply with a variety of other regulations promulgated and enforced by public agencies at multiple levels of jurisdiction, including municipal, county, state, regional, and federal.
Here, we walk you through the maze of regulations, based on the experiences of several operational USDA-inspected MSUs. Each state, county, and locality in the U.S. may do things slightly differently. However, these stories will help you get started.
For each example, we briefly describe the MSU operation, list the applicable agencies and regulations, and discuss challenges that have arisen and “lessons from the field.”
Categories of Regulation
An MSU – and the farm/ranch-sites where the MSU operates – will typically be required to comply with regulations and permitting regarding:
- Water supply and waste water disposal
- Offal disposal
- Food handling/distribution
- Food Defense
- Humane livestock handling
- Brand inspection
- Business licensing/weights and measures
Food handling permits and even anti-terrorism requirements may also come up.
Every MSU must partner with a fixed facility (“cut and wrap”) where further processing is done. Often, the entity that operates the MSU also operates the cut and wrap and therefore is responsible for complying with all regulations relevant to that facility, not just the MSU. In some cases, the entity that operates the MSU has a contractual arrangement with the cut and wrap; the latter handles its own regulatory compliance.
Example 1: Taos County Economic Development Corporation (TCEDC): “Mobile Matanza”
TCEDC, founded in 1987, is a non-profit, community economic development organization, “supporting people, land, cultures, and food of Northern New Mexico.” More than 40 local food businesses work out their “Taos Food Center,” a 5000sf commercial kitchen, which now serves as the cut and wrap facility for the TCEDC MSU, called the “Mobile Matanza.” The Matanza, completed in 2006, received its grant of federal inspection in May of 2008, and the Food Center came under inspection soon after.
Water supply and waste water disposal
The New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) has jurisdiction over several elements of the Matanza and Food Center, including water.
- 1. Water supply: the Matanza brings its own potable water, drawn from the TCEDC commercial well, to each ranch site in a large tank. NMED requires TCEDC to test its water monthly for potability. The samples are taken and tests performed by the New Mexico Water Testing Laboratory. The Lab issues a report to TCEDC, and TCEDC provides a copy to FSIS.
- 2. Waste water disposal at the ranch site: NMED allows TCEDC to let the waste water used during carcass cleaning and preparation run off onto the soil at the ranch site. The run-off includes the 2.5% acid solution (a mixture of white vinegar and potable water) used to wash the carcasses to control pathogens. The total amount of water used each slaughter day is small, only a few hundred gallons.
- 3. Waste water disposal at the Food Center: TCEDC originally planned to build an environmental waste water treatment facility: all waste water would run into an anaerobic tank, where it would be treated and then be used to water trees on the property. NMED rejected this plan and required the Food Center to be hooked up to the town sewer (which cost $3000). However, depending on the results of a series of effluent tests currently being done by NMED, TCEDC may be allowed to revisit that original plan.
TCEDC worked with NMED and FSIS to establish that offal is recognized as the responsibility of the rancher, and that the rancher may compost it on his own land. The offal is placed into bins as it is removed from the animals, and the ranchers compost it accordingly. They are permitted to take bones to the landfill. TCEDC offers an organic butcher waste composting workshop for ranchers to teach them proper composting methods and assure they do not violate NMED regulations.
The Food Center is inspected by NMED, which issues its establishment permit. The agency, following US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, has requirements about meat handling, including that meat processed at the Center be transported in an approved cooler. To comply, TCEDC purchased coolers to deliver packaged meat back to the ranchers.
The county office of NMED originally required each rancher who had livestock slaughtered by the Matanza to have an establishment permit. TCEDC argued that this was not necessary, since the ranchers were not handling meat: they provided a live animal and picked up packaged meat. It took intervention from state legislators and the state NMED office, but the problem was solved: only the Food Center must have an establishment permit.
Because the Matanza is a commercial tractor-trailer, it must have a permit from the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) and follow agency guidelines about maintenance and recordkeeping. If the Matanza eventually travels on an interstate highway, it must stop at weigh stations.
The New Mexico Department of Homeland Security (NMDHS), as part of its mission to prevent terrorist attacks on the nation’s food supply, has two sets of requirements:
- Water for the TCEDC Food Kitchen and Matanza comes from a commercial well on the organization’s property. NMDHS requires TCEDC to (a) test the well water monthly, and (b) build a small shed around the well.
- NMDHS also requires that anyone importing food products – for example, a barrel of salt from Ethiopia for prepared meat products – to register with the agency and keep records of the vendors.
For a USDA-inspected slaughter facility – mobile or fixed – the requirements for humane handling in connection with slaughter are spelled out in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (9 CFR 313) and are under FSIS jurisdiction. In addition to HMSA, FSIS recently issued a notice, “Humane Handling and Slaughter Requirements and the Merits of a Systematic Approach to Meet Such Requirements”, which includes a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that employees and livestock owners can sign stating that they understand Humane Handling requirements.
Facilities are encouraged, though not required (as of January 2010) to adopt the suggested systematic approach.
In New Mexico, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which focuses primarily on communicable animal disease, visits TCEDC four times a year for site visits and HACCP plan review. This is because NM is not certified as a tuberculosis-free state. In addition, if an inspected mobile unit does any custom-exempt slaughter, APHIS has jurisdiction over the handling of those animals.
The New Mexico Livestock Board (NMLB) has jurisdiction over brand inspection. Typically, the agency works directly with livestock producers, but TCEDC must have documentation of ownership: i.e., that the livestock slaughtered in the Matanza are actually owned by the ranchers who brought them. Currently, TCEDC is allowed to have the ranchers sign an affidavit; a brand inspector need not be present. However, one of the counties they serve has begun requiring ranchers to provide NMLB with eartag information. This is to assure that the Matanza does not slaughter any stolen livestock.
Weights and Measures
The New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) is in charge of making sure all agricultural weights and measures (e.g. scales) are properly calibrated. This is an annual visit and applies only to the Food Center.
TCEDC – the entire organization, including the Matanza – operates under a business permit issued by the town of Taos. TCEDC is a nonprofit community development organization; another type of entity, such as a cooperative, might need another type of permit.
Employment taxes & worker safety
Like all businesses, non-profit or otherwise, TCEDC pays employment taxes and worker compensation for its employees. In addition, because employees who work with the Matanza are operating a tractor-trailer, which requires a special license (Class A CDL), they must comply with specific state Department of Transportation requirements including drug/alcohol testing and background checks.
Tips for working well with regulators
TCEDC co-directors Terrie Bad Hand and Pati Martinson recommend several useful strategies.
- Regulators don’t like to be the last to know your plans. Visit with them early on in project planning, and keep them informed throughout. You are developing a relationship: be as open and clear as possible. “Ask them, ‘Will you partner with us?’ That seems to work quite well.”
- Invite all the relevant regulators to meet as a group. When they are together in the same room, explain your project’s purpose clearly and ask, “How can all of you help us do this?” If they can see the larger goals of the project – not just the specific details their agency must regulate – they may become more invested in helping you accomplish those goals.
- Documentation may help: TCEDC provided NMED with extensive scientific documentation about offal and waste water composting from the Cornell University Waste Management Institute. This documentation convinced the agency that the waste water and offal disposal methods TCEDC proposed would not cause a public health problem.
Example 2: Central Coast Agricultural Cooperative (trade name “Coast Grown”)
About Coast Grown
This MSU, which CCAC calls a “Mobile Harvest Unit,” was built in 2002 by ranchers in the Central Coast region of California who wanted better access to a USDA-inspected slaughter facility. Regulatory complexities paired with uncertain markets kept it parked for seven years, but in 2009, it finally began operating as a USDA-inspected mobile slaughter unit.
The MSU is operated by Central Coast Agricultural Cooperative, trade name “Coast Grown.” For further processing of carcasses, CCAC has partnered with a separately-owned and operated USDA-inspected processor.
For more details about this MSU, see our Coast Grown case study.
Meat processors operating in the state of California will need to be familiar with the state’s Food and Agriculture Code.
Water supply and waste water disposal
Several state, regional, and local agencies have jurisdiction over water issues.
- 1. Water supply
The MSU brings its own potable water, drawn from a municipal water source, to each ranch site in a 300 gallon tank. The County Environmental Health department in each county where the MSU operates requires that CCAC test this water source annually to certify potability; the health department provides water testing kits.
This MSU uses 300 gallons for 2 to 3 beef. Any additional water needed for processing and clean up is provided by the ranch site. This water source must also be tested to certify potability; private wells must be tested biannually. The MSU must carry a copy of the potability certification for each location.
- 2. Waste water disposal at the ranch site
Wash water may not run off-site and must be contained. Wash water can be applied to land for disposal using NRCS recommendations which were developed as follows:
(a) Before FSIS approves a grant of federal inspection for any processor, that processor must obtain an approved sewage system letter. To fulfill this requirement, CCAC contacted the county Environmental Health Department, and that agency contacted the Regional Water Quality Control Board (part of the state’s Water Resources Control Board).
(b) RWQCB staff reviewed the MSU operation as proposed and required CCAC to adopt wash water management guidelines approved by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). The Central Coast Resource Conservation and Development District assisted CCAC with this process.
(c) CCRCD developed a proposal and submitted it to technical experts in the NRCS CA state office, who reviewed the requirements, made a few changes, and established an official California standard and specification for the practice. This standard/spec can be used by others in the state in the future.
Now that the MSU is using more than 300 gallons of water at each ranch site, it is required to have NRCS review its management plan again.
California does not permit on-ranch composting of offal (or any mammalian tissue; see CA Environmental Protection Agency statute Section 17855.2), and so CCAC must dispose of it off-site. To do this requires an “inedibles” permit from the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Meat and Poultry Inspection division. The permit establishes an approved rendering plant, pet food plant, or collection station where CCAC may take the offal.
Because CCAC does not handle further processing (ranchers arrange cut and wrap and pickup of products directly with the processor), it is not responsible for food handling/distribution concerns once the carcasses are transferred from the MSU to the cut and wrap facility.
Before that point, MSU requirements for food handling and distribution are covered in the unit’s HACCP plan and Sanitary Standard Operating Procedures, as required by FSIS. For example, the further processor receiving dock must be sealed to eliminate insects and dust.
The tractor that pulls the MSU must be registered with the California Highway Patrol’s “biannual inspection terminal” (BIT) program and follow guidelines about maintenance and recordkeeping.
Unlike TCEDC (see above), CCAC is not subject to requirements from the state Department of Homeland Security. USDA-FSIS has suggested that CCAC consider adopting a Food Defense Plan, which is currently recommended but not required for all processors. As of early 2010, CCAC had not yet done this.
As noted in the TCEDC example, humane handling in connection with slaughter is under FSIS jurisdiction and requirements are spelled out in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (9 CFR 313). FSIS encourages (though does not yet require) a “systematic approach” per the FSIS Notice “Humane Handling and Slaughter Requirements and the Merits of a Systematic Approach to Meet Such Requirements”.
In California, the FSIS Alameda District Humane Handling inspector also suggested that CCAC conduct regular self-audits and an annual training program for employees.
The MSU must be registered with the CDFA Animal Health and Food Safety Division. The brand inspector usually does not need to be present if she knows the ranch. If she does not know the ranch, the hide must be taken to the processing plant where the inspector meets the MSU to inspect the hide. All hides must carry hide tags linked to an affidavit that states the animal belongs to the rancher.
Weights and measures
This MSU has no scales on board and does not operate its own cut and wrap facility, so weights and measures regulations do not apply.
Although the MSU is USDA-inspected, the MSU must also have a license from CDFA’s Meat and Poultry Inspection Branch, which also issues the MSU’s offal disposal permit (see above).
Like all businesses, non-profit or otherwise, TCEDC pays employment taxes and worker compensation for its employees. And as in New Mexico, employees who operate the tractor-trailer require a special license (Class A CDL) and must comply with specific state Department of Transportation requirements including drug/alcohol testing and background checks.
Tips for working well with state and local regulators
Deb Garrison, former coordinator of the CCAC MSU, suggests that before you talk to any regulators, you should become familiar with the codes, regulations, and ordinances that pertain to the permit you need. You can find this information through your local farm support agencies (Resource Conservation Districts, Farm Bureau, and others). Occasionally you may find yourself seeking information from a new regulatory agency staff member who will unknowingly give you wrong information, which can be costly to you in both time and money. Knowing the rules to at least some degree ahead of time will help you be prepared.
For more information or clarification about either of these examples, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.