Legislators View Palmer Meat Plant

Palmer’s Mt. McKinley Meat and Sausage is the only US Department of Agriculture approved slaughterhouse in Southcentral Alaska. But the facility may only have one more year in operation, if a financial evaluation plan does not pencil out in favor of keeping it in business.  A tour of the meat packing plant by state officials this week was designed to educate legislators on the key role the plant plays in an emerging Alaska industry.

Buzz saws rang inside Mt. McKinley Meat and Sausage on Thursday, and butchering and packing went on as usual, despite the gaggle of state lawmakers observing all the action. Thirty or so State representatives and department commissioners, wearing obligatory hairnets and MMMS regulatory blue smocks, were being guided through the plant by manager Frank Huffman, much as a docent leads a museum tour.

“Let’s go out this door right here, folks “, he said, leading the way.

Mt. McKinley is under the state’s budget cutting gun: legislators have looked at the one hundred thousand dollars it loses most years, and have decided not to continue subsidizing the plant in the next fiscal year. But Huffman says closing the doors will hurt Southcentral’s fledgling livestock industry, and with no local livestock some retailers will be hurt.

“All the product at Carr’s Market, Safeway, Fred Meyer, etc, etc, is USDA inspected someplace.”

Meat butchered for commercial sale must have a USDA stamp, and can come only from a USDA approved packing house, and if Mt. McKinley shuts down, the Southcentral livestock producers could use one of two others near Fairbanks. But that would mean  heavy additional costs to Southcentral producers and is not a likely option.

How will no meat packing plant hurt consumers? Well, those reindeer hot dogs are big sellers everywhere in Alaska, Huffman says.  No local slaughterhouse could change that.

“Well, the reindeer dogs you are probably buying now, a lot of it…. Canadian reindeer.. Canadian reindeer. We kill reindeer here from the Reindeer Farm here in Palmer for Alaska Sausage. We bone ’em out and process them for them, and they make their product with it. And you see it in all the stores. That Alaska grown product, that is going to go away.”

Huffman says a reindeer industry could flourish in Alaska. Huffman says local farmers produce pigs, goats, beef, and even yak for commercial sale, all of which are processed at the Palmer facility.

Danny Consenstein, state director of the federal Farm Services Agency, says a meat industry is possible in Alaska.. but at present, there’s just not enough of it being raised.

“We have the capacity to supply Alaska and to supply the rest of the country with high quality reindeer meat, high quality beef, pork, all of this. But we need a plan. We need a plan to support the production side of growing more meat.”

Consenstein says more and more consumers are demanding locally produced product.

“I hear this all the time: ‘where can I buy locally produced meat?’.  It’s just a matter of the supply side. I think the state can recognize the opportunities and start to put a plan together.”]

Just what that plan could be is still up in the air.

Earlier this summer, the state Board of Agriculture and Conservation, [BAC] approved a move to bring in an outside company to evaluate the financial health of the slaughterhouse, with the aim of deciding whether or not to put it into private ownership. Although supporters of the plan to privatize the slaughterhouse says it will save the state money, opponents of the move say that state general fund dollars do not pay for slaughterhouse operations. That money comes from interest on the state’s Agricultural Revolving Loan Fund. Last year, Mt. Mckinley made a 40 thousand dollar profit.