SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — Beef steaks, lamb, even hamburger — Jim Fogle can pretty much tell you anything you’d want to know about every cut of meat for sale at his Central Coast Butcher shop, J & R Natural Meats.
“Which ranch it came off of, when it was harvested, what kind of grass it ate, pretty much anything you would want to know,” said Fogle.
Most grocers — and by extension consumers — probably don’t know that kind of detail.
The meat production trail can get murky once it gets to the processing plant but a small yet growing number of suppliers and processors is turning to mobile slaughterhouses. In the process, they’re making the road from farm to table very direct.
In Jim Fogle’s case, nearly every cut of meat he sells was processed inside California’s only Mobile Meat Processing Unit or MPU. It’s a specially-designed, USDA-inspected truck that travels directly to ranches to harvest meat on site.
“The ranchers themselves, they feel more comfortable,” said Fogle. “They feel you are dealing specifically with them and their herd.”
Nearly a decade ago, area ranchers, responding to increased consumer demand for locally-raised meat, appealed to California congressman Sam Farr for funds to build the unit. Farr, in turn, redirected nearly $140,000 in unspent federal funds toward the project. A Co-Op took on the task of designing and building the unit and then drove through a labyrinth of government regulations in order to put it on the road.
But a crucial piece of the puzzle was missing. The ranchers needed a processor that had facilities to cut and store the meat. So the mobile unit sat unused for years before Fogle took it over. He combined the operation with his retail shop, in the process providing small-scale meat producers in the Paso Robles area with an alternative to big commercial processing plants.
There are some production issues. Ranchers need a specially-designed space for the truck to operate on their property and the mobile truck can only process about ten heads of cattle per day, so it’s not a method that’s practical for every rancher.
But, for consumers, it provides a food production chain capable of being monitored from pasture to plate.
“It was a lifestyle that everybody inherited,” contends Paul Arangorin, head chef of the Paso Robles Inn.
For local chefs like Arangorin, it’s also a reflection of family history. Arangorin grew up in kitchens where home chefs used every ingredient they had and eating local and seasonally was not a foodie fad but a way of life.
Arangorin already buys pork and other cuts of meat from Fogle to serve at the Inn and, in the future, he plans on expanding the menu to include more unusual ingredients like organ meats, using the whole animal, thus introducing new foods — and a bit of local flavor — to his customers.
“[It’s] eating locally, eating fresh, eating what’s in your backyard,” said Arangorin.
For meat producers like Fogle, it’s also about the animals and making sure they’re raised as humanely and comfortably as possible.
“You look around and you see the cattle in the pasture, in the pens, and this is where they were born,” Fogle explained. “They live their whole lives here. For us to come to them for the harvest as [opposed to loading] them on a truck and [taking] them 500 miles or wherever they are going to go to harvest. The stress rate is way, way low.”
For the moment this is only mobile processing unit in California that handles “big” livestock like heads of cattle and sheep but that may change soon. Since 2009 the USDA has offered about $17 million to small-scale meat producers across the United States and some have begun developing their own mobile units.
Fogle says he has been approached by people in Marin County and beyond looking for information and ideas about how to develop more mobile units for processing in northern California.