As COVID-19 Disrupts Beef Supply Chain, Oklahoma Ranchers Look For Local Solutions

Jun 8, 2020

A growing demand for more locally-sourced food options has been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on large meat processing hubs throughout the country. Oklahoma ranchers want to increase the state’s cattle processing and packing capacity to provide more local beef options for Oklahoma consumers. 

The Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (ODAFF) and the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association created the Packer/Processor Task Force to explore how the state could solve some of the supply-chain issues the beef cattle industry is facing.

The task force, which was created in early May, is exploring possibilities of increasing cattle packing and processing capacity in the state by way of building more slaughter plants and meat packing plants or adding onto already-existing plants, said Blayne Arthur, Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture.

COVID-19 has caused large facilities to halt or slow production because of employee sickness, which has caused a backlog of cattle in feedlots and less beef on supermarket shelves. Currently, a large number of Oklahoma’s slaughter-ready cattle are shipped to Colorado or Kansas for processing into beef products for grocery stores, Arthur said. 

Michael Kelsey, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, said increasing the state’s cattle packing and processing capacity should not impact the amount of feedlot space in the state.

Kelsey said for the most part increasing Oklahoma’s beef processing and packaging capacity is not something that will happen overnight. He said there are things that can be done in the short term to help facilities that already exist — whether that’s updating or expanding a facility. 

“We are in this for the long haul,” Kelsey said. “We are interested in building and developing and benefiting Oklahoma consumers and beef cattle ranchers and farmers in the long term.”

The task force is waiting on a list from the Oklahoma Department of Commerce of “shovel-ready” sites, which could provide a space for a new beef processing or packing facility in Oklahoma.

Related to Oklahoma’s beef industry but not a direct result of the task force, was the signing of House Bill 2008, signed into law on May 20 by Gov. Kevin Stitt.  

Jan Lee Rowlett, Legislative Liaison for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture Food and Forestry, said the bill allows the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture Food and Forestry to explore new opportunities and ways to use technology to make the meat inspection process more efficient in the state. The bill doesn’t make any immediate changes, as any new rules must come from the USDA first. 

“We definitely don't want to compromise food safety in any way,” Rowlett said. “The trick to finding a place to be more flexible is going to be finding regulatory hurdles that are in place now but aren't accomplishing very much in the way of food safety -- which is not easy.”

Rowlett said one idea that has been floated around is adding some flexibility to where products can be sold based on whether they have been state inspected or federally inspected. Right now beef that is inspected on the state level cannot be sold interstate, despite meeting federal requirements. Oklahoma’s meat inspection program is regulated by the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service.

“There is great opportunity in Oklahoma.” Kelsey said. “We want to make sure Oklahomans know as you see those cattle in the pasture, that’s your beef.”