Central Valley Meat Co. in Hanford plans to expand its footprint, both in size and production, to meet an anticipated demand for beef products by U.S. consumers. Image via Google Earth
Written by John Lindt
Central Valley Meat wants to do a two-phase expansion of its beef processing plant in Hanford and has applied to Kings County for a conditional use permit. The big plant already processes about 1,500 head of cattle a day.
According to the application filed earlier this year, the company plans to increase the capacity three-fold to 4,500 head a day. The facility is located just off of Highway 198 at the urban edge of Hanford, putting jurisdiction for permitting with the county.
County planner Kao Nou Yang says the process is in an early stage in environmental review, just now receiving comments from stakeholders including the city and the California Department of Transportation.
“The project will be heard by the county planning commission with a public hearing but not any time soon,” said Yang. She adds the county has not yet determined the extent of the environmental review.
The application from company owner Brian Coelho says they want to expand the footprint of the plant by 130 acres on farmland to the south, with new access off Hanford-Armona Road. The company hopes to break ground on the first phase this summer with build-out of both phases within the next five years.
The application does not indicate how many employees would be added once the expansion is complete. Already the meat plant is staffed by 1,020 employees. The scale of expansion proposed would seem to argue for more workers although meat processors across the nation are working on automation technology and robotics to do more of the work.
Coelho did not return this reporter’s phone call.
The largest expansion would be in phase 2 with the addition of a new 103,000 square-foot processing facility along with a 187,000 square-foot freezer.
The application says the new rendering plant will process 10.5 million pounds a week resulting in 2 million pounds of tallow and about 3 million pounds of bone and meat.
Harris Ranch merger
Central Valley Meat made news in 2019 when it purchased Selma-based Harris Ranch, including Harris Feeding Co. and Harris Ranch Beef Co. Although both companies are operating separately, this new application indicates more head of cattle from its sister company will soon be coming to Hanford.
The application also makes reference to another company — NewCo (pet food maker) “affiliated with Central Valley Meat Company (CVM) in Hanford, CA and Harris Ranch Beef Company (HRBC) in Selma, CA. NewCo is proposing to construct and operate a new meat rendering facility in Hanford immediately adjacent to the CVM beef processing facility. NewCo will service the needs of CVM and HRBC along with other regional beef processing facilities. The NewCo rendering facility shall be designed as a single species, all-beef facility, with all required certifications for a pet food-grade rendering facility.”
The plant is intended to primarily service the needs of two beef processing plants with a present combined slaughter capacity of up to 3,000 head per day. Additionally, the facility will be sized to accept other regional beef suppliers with enough additional capacity to process approximately another 1,500 head of cattle per day. The facility will be designed and constructed in proper capacity to handle maximum combined total of 4,500 head of cattle derived every day over six days of slaughter operations per week, according to the application.
Central Valley Meat also made news last year in the midst of the pandemic when it was fined $50,000 over its lack of enforcement of masks for employees and failing to prevent Covid-19 infections at their facility. They were among five companies charged by California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. During the worst of Covid’s spread, employees working in close quarters fell ill to the virus with as many as 200 employees impacted. The company was slapped with at least one lawsuit from a former employee.
The pandemic has pushed many food operators dependent on a mostly immigrant workforce to look at laborsaving technology, including robotics to do the typically repetitive tasks found in a slaughterhouse.
The U.S. meatpacking industry employed nearly 600,000 workers — a large portion of whom are immigrants — at wages averaging $15.92 an hour in 2019. The field has high turnover, and a January 2005 report released by the Government Accountability Office showed that some worksites experience over 100% annual churn.
Not just beef plants have been impacted by the pandemic. Foster Farms, the largest chicken processor in California, has struggled to contain Covid in its facilities. The Merced County Health Department ordered one of the Foster Livingston plants to close for a week in September 2020 after 400 of the 3,700 workers tested positive for Covid. Eight died. The United Farm Workers union, which represents Foster’s Livingston employees, sued Foster in December 2020 seeking a court order to require processor to do more to protect its employees.
In December 2020, after 200 of the 1,400 workers in a Foster plant in Fresno tested positive, Foster closed the plant for a deep cleaning and promised to test employees twice a week after reopening, reports Rural Migration News.
Not far away from Hanford, the Darling Ingredients rendering plant near Fresno has been targeted by environmental and justice groups for odor issues and may have to close by 2023.
By comparison, the Hanford plant has not seen many odor complaints, says Yang with Kings County.
Central Valley Meat has been shut several times by the USDA — once in 2012 after an undercover video showed what was called animal cruelty and then again in 2014 for unsanitary conditions. Federal purchases were suspended for a while and In-N-Out Burger withdrew from a contract to buy meat.
The beef industry faces criticism from those who say it accelerates global warming. In the past year, plant alternatives — fake meat — appears to be making a big dent in consumer preference both at the grocery store and in restaurants. Even the largest meat packer JBS is investing in “faux burgers,” promoting the idea that a growing world population can’t all afford meat.
“Plant-based will help us to reduce this protein gap with more affordable products compared with animal protein, which will be more premium,” the JBS present said. “We see plant-based as an independent business in the future.”
Even this week a cadre of animal rights advocates were seen protesting along Interstate 5 near the Harris Ranch feed yard asking for a ban on “factory farms.”
Facing the competition
Today, Central Valley Meat is probably the largest independent beef packer in California. The beef industry in the US is concentrated with four top packers controlling about 70 to 80% of all cattle used to supply food. Two large packers are majority owned by Brazilian investors.
Central Valley Meat is said to be the 7th largest by head slaughtered daily, now with Harris Ranch and CVM combined. The company supplies the big California market — a top burger-eating state — but also exports some product. Recent reports suggest beef exports are on the rise in 2021. At the same time, Covid-19 cases are falling and demand for beef and pork could see an increase.
The annual Top 30 Beef Packers report compiled by Cattle Buyers Weekly shows that the top three operators — Tyson, JBS USA and Cargill — controlled 60.4% of the US commercial cattle slaughter in 2019. The top five operators, extended to include National and American Foods Group, controlled 76.1%.
Even with the pandemic, beef boosters are optimistic.
”The great news for the beef industry is when consumers did dine out in 2020, they were choosing meat. Eighty-five percent of consumers indicated they were regularly eating a meat dish when dining out and if eating out for dinner, they indicated beef was their popular choice. As an industry, “the goal needs to focus on keeping meat a relevant option,” says one analyst.
It appears Central Valley Meat sees a bright future in this bid to build a new modern facility looking to put its troubles behind them. Unlike many of the big packers, CVM continues to be family-owned. Coelho tells the story.
“In 1981, my father started Coelho Meat Company with 3 employees, processing 15 head of cattle a day. Today, our family of companies employs over 900 people, processes over 1,500 head of cattle a day, and operates two state of the art facilities in Hanford and Vernon, CA.
From our humble beginnings, we have not forgotten our core principle of “Excellence Beyond Expectations.” We continually strive for improvement and work hard to provide our customers with the safest, highest quality food products, and outstanding services. We invest our continued efforts in supporting our customers’, employees’ and suppliers’ ongoing success.”