>> Customers want quality meat by the cut but suffer in the hands of slaughterhouses.
>> Processor makes costly mistakes then sues for payment on bad service.
One of the biggest obstacles for livestock farmers around the country is the lack of access to slaughterhouses. Often, the “local” slaughterhouse is the only game in town and has no market incentive to provide good service to customers. It is not uncommon for farmers to get back custom meat that they did not order or to get back meat from animals they did not raise. When farmers complain to the slaughterhouse owner, a frequent response is, “If you don’t like it, you can go somewhere else,” without any offer by the owner to make good on the mistakes that were made. “Somewhere else” could be several hours away, resulting in significant added expense for the farmer and additional stress on the animals. Farmers usually do not have the resources to take the slaughterhouse owner to court and wind up taking a loss without any compensation. Here is the story of FTCLDF member, Neil Perin, a farmer who fought back.
Quality Slaughterhouses Are Hard to Find
As a farmer of rare and endangered livestock who cares about the animals as well as the consumers destined to enjoy the various products we raise, finding a slaughterhouse and processor is one of the most important aspects that most people fail to consider. Today, much like with the farming community in general, there are fewer and fewer slaughtering facilities owned by ever aging folks who close their businesses when they retire because there’s no one to take over for them.
There are a number of issues that arise from this reality, e.g., spending more time looking for a facility, incurring more costs of time and money in traveling further to reach the facility, and contending with the leverage that the few facilities left have over us growers and producers. The sad truth that we face when it is time to have an animal processed is that we must often choose the lesser of many “evils” in selecting a processor—choosing the one we think will make the fewest mistakes and not go out of their way to take advantage of us.
A common reality is dealing with processors who have the attitude, “If you don’t like how we do things or the quality of work we do, go somewhere else. Oh, wait, there is nowhere else!” They know that there is little to nothing we farmers can do if we are dissatisfied with any aspect of their service, or lack thereof. Under these conditions, we at Arcadian Acres find ourselves in the midst of a legal battle in an attempt to right several wrongs we have suffered from one such local processor.
Here at Arcadian Acres, we raise a number of heritage breeds of cattle, hogs, and poultry that are recognized as endangered species. We seek to preserve these breeds by allowing them the lives they deserve of foraging and grazing in the fields and woods our farm is home to. Being raised with no pharmaceuticals, additives, or GMO feeds, many regard our products as among the highest quality for culinary use and nutrition; consumers make a special point to seek out myself and other similar farmers for our specialty products.
Regardless of the care and quality a farmer, such as myself, puts into raising his or her animals, we all must find a government approved and inspected processing facility if we want to legally sell our products. We are subjected to a barrage of regulations that force us to transport our animals to slaughter and give them a lesser quality end of life than many of us would want—thanks to the overzealous government regulatory system, such is the way of things.
The Slaughterhouse Omen
After much time spent researching and contacting facilities in the local region (within 200 miles), we decided to try one with a reasonable reputation that was only about 50 miles away. The following is an account of our experience with what we will call Facility R. This unfortunate encounter has led to our legal battle and the need for help from the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF). We want to publicize the incident in hopes of spreading awareness of these types of situations and the need to reform the industry to help prevent similar situations in the future.
Originally when we started using Facility R, we only had our Red Wattle hogs ready for slaughter and had to accept a number of compromises on the services we desired. Despite the disappointment in discovering that our hogs had been skinned rather than scalded, we had been assured of the quality of care the animals would receive, as well as assurance of getting our own product back versus someone else’s random pig (a common horror story among farmers is getting back an animal other than their own). These two factors were important to us, so we started taking our animals to be slaughtered and processed at Facility R.
After a short time, the inevitable “cut order problem” occurred where customers had ordered things one way, and the slaughterhouse had cut them another. Although Facility R offered to replace the incorrectly cut product with some of its own product, our customers are particular about buying from us for the reasons previously discussed, and we promptly declined the substitution. A solution was suggested by the slaughterhouse to reimburse me for the loss of business; this did not make me or my customers happy but, admittedly, it was all that could be done. After that, we took the initiative to find yet another processor.
After further research, we settled on another processor, albeit one which also had issues and compromises (as they all do), but they also offered certain services we were interested in. After some time, and our farm growing in success and recognition, interest in our products emerged from outside our state of Ohio. Along with the list of challenges we farmers face concerning government overregulation, there are very few USDA or “federal” inspected processors in Ohio, which means that most of us farmers can only sell our products within state lines.
In keeping up with the laws and regulations, I was aware and recalled that the slaughterhouse we had dealt with, Facility R, was one of the few facilities that had gone “federal”. When we used them to process our animals, we were allowed to ship product anywhere in the country and were able to extend offering our products to whoever wanted/needed them.
With this in mind, coupled with the good intention of Facility R to make right their admitted mistake previously with the hogs, we decided to give them another try when it came time to process three of our Randall Rose veal calves.
The Nightmare with a Slaughterhouse
Having worked in the past with the customers destined to receive the Randall Rose veal, we all discussed and agreed to reiterate repeatedly our standards and the way we desired our product to be handled and processed. Things like stressing our interest in “whole animal consumption” and that we wanted back all fat and bone trim, all organs, and various other instructions as to how we wanted our meats cut and packaged. After unloading the live animals, I again went over everything with Facility R and, with nothing more I could do to ensure communication of what and how we wanted this done, I left things in their hands. Then it all started going downhill, and just snowballed all the way down…
The first issue arose the next day when the animals were actually slaughtered. The special Randall cattle we raise have hides that are exceptionally beautiful; we had requested they be saved so we could have them tanned. Rather than salting and storing them for us as was agreed, the processor called and said that if we wanted them, a trip must be made right then to pick them up. Facility R had forgotten we wanted the hides and had just thrown them in a barrel of trash, along with the organs they were supposed to save—they apologized and admitted to having forgotten that as well. Frustrating as it was, it was no surprise, and a trip was made to salvage the hides.
The second issue arose when upon picking up the product for delivery to my customers, I was informed that they had not only failed to save the organs but they neglected to save the fat when processing the animals—something the customers and I had explicitly explained repeatedly. Exasperating as it was, as well as nothing to be done about it, the product was taken and delivered to some frustrated customers.
The third issue was discovered when I got back to the farm and unloaded the rose veal to be kept and sold at our local farmers market. While unloading and taking inventory, I noticed a number of things were wrong: Steaks were boneless when they should be bone in, steaks cut 3/4” when instructed to be 1-3/4”, and a whole slew of cuts I had not asked for such as cube steak. Having a Le Cordon Bleu culinary degree and being the farmer of rare specialty animals, the thought of requesting something like cube steak to be done with my animals is beyond absurd and laughable—clearly the processor had made a mistake.
After the frustration of putting away an order obviously not correctly processed, the fourth issue was realized when tallying the weight totals in comparison to the hanging weights I had been told the animals weighed. When an animal is killed, the processor removes the head, drains the blood, removes the hide and organs, and then weighs the carcass; this is known as the “hanging weight”, compared to the “live weight” or “processed weight”.
Typically, farmers do not save the bones, fat and other trim from processing—something I’ve never been able to understand—and in keeping with their typical routine, many people only get back between 60-80% of their animal, whereas we—in requesting all trim be returned—should expect to get back 95-100% of our animals. When done tallying the weights of what I had received back, I found that I had only received roughly 70% of my animals, resulting in a loss of roughly 80 pounds. That translates into over $800 wholesale, let alone the retail rate for the product we had planned on when sold at the farmers market.
Upon this aggravating discovery, I called Facility R and asked if perhaps a mixup had been made or perhaps some of my product had been forgotten to be returned. After a short response from a confused receptionist, I was astonished to hear the phone be taken from the receptionist by none other than the slaughterhouse owner, who wasted no time bluntly saying that they didn’t need or want our business, that we were too picky and complained too much, and that we had been given all the product we were going to get; and since they already had our check, there was nothing we could do. I was then told that they would refuse to process the one other animal scheduled for the following week, and to not contact them again.
In a mix of anger, frustration, and prudent expedition, our bank was contacted and instructed to put a stop payment on the check we had written to pay for the processing. Our reasoning was that, in having been shorted well over $800 in product not including the product incorrectly cut, we were well past the roughly $500 processing fee. If disrespect was Facility R’s response, canceling the payment check seemed the logical and reasonable thing to do. The customers slated to receive product from the following week’s animal were informed of the situation and their processing fees were refunded from my own pocket.
Things Get Ugly
Shortly thereafter, Facility R contacted us claiming that we had stolen the product by taking it without paying and that I was facing felony criminal charges since the service was over $500. Calling their bluff, I wasted no time contacting a number of sheriff and legal offices to verify that neither of these claims were valid and that Facility R would need to pursue the matter in court. With that reassurance, we chose not to respond.
Then, to my continued astonishment, I received texts from my customers who had purchased the Randall Rose veal in question. I was informed that the slaughterhouse owner had personally contacted my customers, threatened them, stated false claims that my customers were committing a felony by possessing “stolen” product, and then proceeded to claim that the trim and organs were not saved because the animals were in poor health with pneumonia and showed other signs of neglect—urging them to reconsider any future purchases from us.
Of the two customers I heard from, one was an individual who promptly laughed off these claims. The other was a restaurant owner and, while he reiterated confidence in the care and quality of my animals and products, he stated his inability to continue doing business out of legal prudence. Basically, until things were resolved with the slaughterhouse, the restaurant would “play it safe”. This customer was a long-time monthly regular who purchased a substantial amount and accounted for a decent chunk of business.
Aside from being outrageously offended and upset that someone would call into question the care of my animals (given the effort we make to ensure their happiness and health), the slander of reputation and resulting loss of business was of great concern. Shortly after that, I received court documents stating Arcadian Acres was being sued by the slaughterhouse in small claims court for the processing fee.
The Crux (Crooks) of the Matter
As initially explained, we farmers have virtually no options in these situations. Here we have a processor who acknowledged a series of mistakes and, out of stubbornness and pride, not only refused to accept and correct the mistakes, but aggressively and offensively threatened and attacked us personally, legally, and even professionally through blatant lies and slander. Most farmers have neither the time nor resources to combat such an assault, and we typically end up just “sucking it up”, taking the loss, and moving on to the next processor in hopes they are “better than the last one”. It’s a sad truth we all face, and if you know any farmers yourselves, you’ll undoubtedly find the same to be true across the board.
“Enough is enough,” we thought. Someone has to stand up for themselves and for farmers everywhere and demand that this sort of strong arm blackmail does not continue and that other farmers have defensive options and means to recover lost business and stolen goods. We decided to countersue for the lost product and for lost business resulting from the blatant slander by Facility R’s owners. Slander is a statement of known untrue information, with the intent and result to cause damage to a person or their business, all of which was clearly the case here.
Nervousness and uncertainty was abundant in the first court hearing. Although I knew the facts were on our side, the reality is that the slaughterhouse owner was the sole processor in the area, a farming community, had served on the FDA inspection team, and was well known in the local super small rural community, as well as in the local farming industry. His “good ol’ boy” status was undeniable and his familiarity to everyone, which gave him the confidence to do what he did and believe he would get away with it, was abundantly apparent.
Despite this, we were thrilled to find the judge had no interest or consideration for anything but the facts, which were completely on our side. With no proof of the questionability of animal health other than the slaughterhouse owner’s claim, the judge was prepared to rule in our favor; but then the owner insisted he could get the government inspector to corroborate his statements. So the case was given a continuance.
Immediately following the court hearing, Facility R’s lawyer ran after us and begged us to dismiss our case if they would dismiss theirs, stating that the slaughterhouse owner clearly didn’t understand he had no case and was about to be liable for large damages. The lawyer said that the owner was simply a “proud man that didn’t like to lose, and would spend any amount of time and money to ‘win’”.
Damages aside, fighting a court battle is extremely time consuming as well as costly, and I offered to drop the charges if the slaughterhouse owner would issue a written statement of apology and admittance of lying and of the animals’ health being fine, so I could have something solid for my customers and in case of a future issue resulting from this incident. The owner refused, fired his lawyer, and hired a new one who is much more aggressive; he immediately informed us that he would be requesting the case be moved to a higher court, which would require me to hire a lawyer rather than represent myself. Explaining to me that the lawyer costs would surpass any possibly recuperated settlement on my part, he insisted I now had no choice but to submit to dismissing the case.
I was determined not to let myself, the little guy, get stomped out and silenced by “the man”. Multiple attorneys were referenced and informed of the case in its entirety, all of whom agreed that our countersuit for slander and loss was completely in line and that, although potentially costly in time and money, it was a case worth pursuing.
As if destined to be, while still on the way home from court, I received a call from FTCLDF President Pete Kennedy who expressed the organization’s interest in my case and in helping. Having been a long-time member and supporter of FTCLDF, I had contacted them initially about the case; after some discussion and review of the facts, they graciously offered to take on the case and to help publicize this incident and the common plight of the small farmer.
Many thanks go out to FTCLDF and its General Counsel, Gary Cox, for helping myself and so many others stand up to the government-imposed system of overregulation that keeps us small farmers down in so many ways. With any luck and grace, this will be one of the first steps to reforming this standard of industry and to allowing people to produce, process, and obtain foods of their own approval and choosing rather than those of Big Brother’s biased and corrupt standard approval system.
What You Can Do
1. Support the PRIME Act (H.R. 3187), which would give states the option of allowing the sale of custom processed meat. It would be a major step forward in addressing the lack of local slaughterhouses in most of the U.S. At this time, federal law prohibits the sale of custom processed meat. If you have not already phoned your congressional representative asking him or her to cosponsor the PRIME Act, we encourage you to do so. Here is a link to our latest action alert.
2. Support Farm-to-Consumer with a donation. The Annual Appeal has been extended to September 17; donate now and choose your gift(s)!
YOUR FUND AT WORK
Services provided by FTCLDF go beyond providing legal representation for members in court cases. The Fund is not an insurance company and cannot guarantee representation on all legal matters; possible representation is just one of the benefits of membership.
Educational and Political Action Services also provide an avenue for FTCLDF to build grassroots activism to create the most favorable regulatory climate possible. In addition to advising on bill language, FTCLDF supports favorable legislation via action alerts, social media outreach, and the online petition service.
You can help FTCLDF by becoming a member or donating today.
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