As America focuses on COVID-19 and possible meat shortages, local farmers and others are getting nervous that the Virgin Islands abattoirs have been closed for months and there is no other way to process USDA certified beef, pork, sheep and goats.
Agriculture Commissioner Positive Nelson voluntarily closed the territory’s abattoirs for four months before the USDA could close it for numerous citations. A mandatory closure would have been “a longer process,” he said. According to the commissioner, the biggest infractions were the lack of updated standard operating procedures for the St. Croix abattoir.
“Every day we operated out-of-date, we could have been cited and risked closure,” he told the Source during a phone interview.
Dale Browne, owner of Sejah Farms, raises goats and is anxious for the abattoir to reopen. He said even if it can only open once a week or once a month, that would help. His customers are requesting meat that he can’t supply. His customers usually buy the whole animal and the abattoir is the only place that can slaughter and process meat legally.
When it’s operational the abattoir processes goats, cows and sheep. Jody Lawaetz, of Annaly Farms, said the closure hasn’t impacted her business much – she remembers when it was closed for long period of time. Annaly reduced its herd from 1,500 to fewer than 20 over the last few years, partly because of the unreliability of the abattoir.
Lawaetz outlined some of the problems with a closed processing plant. The animals put a strain on food sources and in just a couple of weeks the meat won’t be as good. The animals will “age out” and meat will become tougher. Eventually, the animals begin to starve, she said. Right now, weeds are crowding out grass which means farmers will have to buy feed for their animals.
“Last week, I noticed imported beef prices becoming very high. I wish we could make local meat affordable for our customers. It’s what they like,” Lawaetz.
The road to restarting the abattoirs, after correcting the violations, are a series of inspections. The first was last week, and another is scheduled next week. After taking care of some smaller repairs, such as installing new insulation, painting and fixing faulty freezer doors, the final inspection will be conducted with the regional director from Puerto Rico.
“We don’t expect to be dragged over the grill,” Nelson said.
His goal is to open the St. Croix abattoir by the middle of May. The St. Thomas facility won’t be ready until July “if all goes well.” In the meantime, animals to be slaughtered will be transported from St. Thomas to St. Croix.
Depending on whether cow, goats, sheep or pigs are being processed, Nelson said around 20 animals can be slaughtered a day when the facility is fully functional. There is a new director and two new butchers waiting for reopening. They will join the other USDA-certified butcher who can process and stamp the meat. Only federally inspected and stamped meat can be sold in the territory.
“It’s ironic, but happily people finally realize food security is growing more food here,” Nelson said.