The U.S. Department of Agriculture is providing grants to help expand meat processing in Maine.
In this April 27, 2010, file photo, sliced meat is weighed at a meat market in Topsham. Credit: Pat Wellenbach / AP

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded nearly $1 million to expand slaughterhouses and meat processing in Maine while potentially opening new markets for livestock farms.

Five businesses and nonprofits will each receive about $200,000 through the USDA’s Meat and Poultry Inspection Readiness Grant Program as part of $22 million distributed nationwide. The grant program is aimed at helping facilities upgrade or expand in order to comply with federal inspection requirements and meet standards for out-of-state sales. The national program was launched at a time when demand for slaughter and processing far outstrips capacity in many regions of the country.

The five facilities in Maine are:

— Fork Food Lab in Portland

— Olde Haven Farm LLC in Chelsea

— Hatch’s Custom Meat Cutting LLC in Crystal

— Nest & Mullen LLC in Kennebunk

— Rooney’s Meat Shop LLC in Mapleton

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for greater capacity at the local and regional level to ensure that disruptions — such as COVID-related shutdowns of production lines at large, commercial processing plants — have a smaller impact. In an interview with Maine Public, Vilsack pointed to the Fork Food Lab project in Portland as an example because the $200,000 grant will allow the nonprofit to purchase the specialized equipment needed to meet federal inspection standards.

“This will allow it to become the first shared-use kitchen facility in New England with dedicated space for a multitude of meat processing [activities],” Vilsack said. “So this is going to allow five processors to sell across state lines. It is also going to create the opportunity to do some training and will provide the opportunity as well for a number of start-ups, anywhere from five to eight processing start-ups. So it’s really an exciting project and program and opportunity to expand that local and regional food system.”

Vilsack said Nest & Mullen in Kennebunk will use the grant to replace a processing facility that was destroyed by fire in September 2020 while Rooney’s in Mapleton will obtain refrigeration systems to meet federal requirements.

“So it’s an opportunity for facilities in Maine to receive some assistance, and it’s an opportunity for them to expand their market,” Vilsack said.

Maine has eight processing facilities that are inspected daily that can be used by farmers hoping to sell meat, according to a report prepared for state lawmakers earlier this year. Maine also has 44 custom slaughter and processing facilities that produce meat for customers but that cannot be sold commercially.

“Maine has long struggled with inadequate institutional capacity for animal slaughter,” reads the report from the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry working group. “There are simply not enough inspected slaughterhouses in the state to slaughter and process the number of animals that Maine producers wish to raise.”

“The meat shortages that occurred in 2020 when the large out-of-state meatpacking plants had to shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the capacity problem drastically,” the report continues. “At present, producers must make appointments for animal processing at inspected facilities many months or even years in advance and often are making appointments for the slaughter and processing of animals not yet born.”

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.