From Crisis to Equity: Reinventing the Meat Industry for Resilience and Justice

Damian Rivera and Rosemary Linares, co-owners of Damian’s Craft Meats in Ann Arbor, Michigan.Damian Rivera and Rosemary Linares, co-owners of Damian’s Craft Meats. Photo by Jessica Lofton-Williams.

When our complex food system of global markets, long supply chains, and concentrated ownership falters, as it did during the COVID-19 crisis, the far-reaching effects reverberate throughout communities and impact more than just food costs. Nowhere have the consequences of the breakdown of the food system during the pandemic been more evident than in the meat industry. Rosemary Linares, co-owner of Damian’s Craft Meats in Ann Arbor, Mich., witnessed the slow-motion disaster that unfolded in slaughterhouses across the U.S. as the COVID virus spread. “A meat factory is factory work, and it is, of course, very close. And so, there were a lot of deaths and a lot of people getting sick,” she says. The spread of the virus and deaths due to COVID, as well as government restrictions enforced during the pandemic, led to processing factory closures, which in turn forced farmers to euthanize two million chickens and destroy 29,000 tons of pork. “They basically had to just dump them in a landfill.”

Meanwhile, the eight companies that control the majority of meat processing in the U.S. saw profits soar. “The meat packers did really well at profit generation [during the pandemic]. And they also did a lot of lobbying — more than they ever had before — in 2020,” says Linares.

Over the past few decades, the meat industry has consolidated to the point where most packaged meat found at the grocery store comes from eight major meat processors who butcher and ship their product a considerable distance before it is available to consumers at the supermarket. While processing meat at only a few facilities has the benefit of increased efficiency, the tradeoff is that a catastrophe for even one facility — be it a fire or closure or product recall — has immediate repercussions throughout the industry. The closure of just one Smithfield Foods processing plant in April 2020 — in addition to putting 3,700 people out of work — wiped out 5% of the U.S. pork supply.

“We have to work along the whole value chain to create a regional system that is sustainable because our food system is incredibly fragile.”

Consolidation also eliminates competition and drives up meat prices for consumers while driving down wages for workers and squeezing out smaller processors and the farmers who depend on them. “We have to work along the whole value chain to create a regional system that is sustainable because our food system is incredibly fragile,” says Linares. “We saw that with the pandemic. But it could just as well be a cyberattack, it could be a drought, or a fire — and it just knocks out our entire food system.”

For a decade, Linares and her husband and co-owner of Damian’s Craft Meats, Damian Rivera, have been working to launch a slaughter and processing facility that provides high-quality, local meat products to the region. Despite an abundance of small farms that dot the surrounding Southeast Michigan countryside, local farmers must drive at least 70 miles, one way, to find the nearest USDA-inspected meat processing center. For now, the couple operates an on-farm slaughtering business reminiscent of Damian’s work for the local carnicero at age 10 in Guanajuato, Mexico. But Damian’s small operation simply cannot keep up with demand for increased slaughtering capacity in the region, and the lack of a large-scale local processor continues to represent a huge cost to farmers already operating on low margins.

Despite high demand and the relatively modest scale of the couple’s prospective operation, the journey to get to where they are today, while fulfilling, has been hard work. Linares was first introduced to the Michigan Good Food Fund in 2018 through a connection with Fair Food Network. That year, Michigan Good Food Fund awarded Damian’s Craft Meats (DCM) a catalytic investment award designed to attract additional funders for the business’ plan to shift from on-farm animal processing services to a centralized processing facility owned and operated by DCM. Combining the award with grant funding from the USDA, Linares and Rivera invested in a comprehensive feasibility study and preliminary site design. From that original $120,000 grant a $13.9 million project — including site acquisition and construction of a meat processing plant — has evolved.

For Rivera and Linares, whose great grandparents built a slaughterhouse business in Michigan, the project is about more than fulfilling regional demand. “Slaughtering is in my blood,” says Linares. But it’s clear that this is not her grandparents’ slaughterhouse. Damian’s Craft Meats has a vision to not only strengthen the meat value chain and help to build a more equitable and sustainable regional food system, but to change the meat processing culture altogether by confronting systemic barriers and promoting racial equity. “Not a lot of folks are talking about meat and racial justice at the same time,” says Linares.

Damian Rivera feeding goats at a local farm.Damian Rivera. Photo by Jessica Lofton- Williams.

Damian’s Craft Meats intends to shift the conversation by thinking differently about how they can “share the wealth” and create a more equitable work environment in an industry in which 60 percent of the workforce is Black or Latine. “There are incredible racial disparities and practices that are discriminatory and exploitative to BIPOC community members who are affiliated with the meat industry,” says Linares. Both Linares and Rivera are bilingual and bicultural and are actively committed to worker welfare and inclusive business practices that promote racial equity. In addition to competitive pay and benefits, Damian’s Craft Meats will have written policies and offer training and onboarding in Spanish and English. “We’ll be able to communicate with folks and think about some employee-based stock options and shared ownership models,” adds Linares.

Most recently, Fair Food Network received a $150,000 grant from the Chicago Regional Food Systems Fund that was awarded to Damian’s Craft Meats to catalyze the critical site planning phase of the project. And Linares says she’s expecting to hear in April about a USDA Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program (MPPEP) grant they applied for in November. The MPPEP was designed to improve meat supply chain resiliency by promoting competition and sustainable growth in the meat processing sector. An MPPEP grant award, says Linares, could pay up to 30% of the cost of the new processing facility.

For Linares, building supply chain resiliency and dismantling systems of racism and oppression go hand in hand. The couple’s project to build greater processing capacity in Southeast Michigan, she says, is “a component of what we are working on building…so we can have a stronger community and a stronger food system and be connected to the food we eat.”


Want to read more stories from the field?

Dig into our blog to read about positive community changemakers across the country.