Getting quality beef products to consumers is a common goal across the industry, from seedstock producers to feeders. How this is accomplished, and how each step of this process is handled, is constantly at the forefront of industry conversations. ASA Publication editor Lilly Platts spoke to Denise Perry, plant manager at Lorentz Meats, a mid-sized processor in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Perry and the Lorentz family have a long history in the industry, and provide meaningful insight into the industry and the complexities of operating a successful facility.
Platts: Tell me how you became a part of Lorentz Meats.
Perry: I grew up in Cannon Falls, poking my head over the counter at Lorentz Meats, back when they were still a custom processor. I have fond memories of my mom chatting with Ed Lorentz and deciding what meat she was going to bring home for dinner. I never imagined I would end up back in my hometown, with my PhD in animal and meat science, managing one of the most influential small meat processing plants and largest bison processor in the US. I like to tell people that I am a “recovering professor” as I taught animal and food sciences courses at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville for five years before I started feeling too disconnected from the industry and was itching to get closer to the action. I missed the meat world and was fortunate enough to land a spot with Lorentz Meats where I continue to grow personally and professionally.
Platts: Lorentz Meats focuses on niche markets, like grass-fed, or organic. How has that market developed and grown?
Perry: I do not believe there is one simple answer to why the niche industry has grown. I think in a general sense, people are increasingly disconnected from the raising of the animals that end up on our plates. Niche markets focus on reconnecting consumers with the growing, raising, and origins of the product. Consumers are taking the opportunity to make thoughtful, well-informed decisions relative to where their meat came from and they appreciate when they are able to connect with the raising and ultimate sacrifice of the animal. As Wendell Berry has written: “A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.” I believe we will see the niche markets continue to grow and evolve with the times. The pandemic has drastically changed the focus and conversation around our industry. Suddenly, sourcing meat from a small or very small processor is seen just as much as a niche as the raising claims themselves. Given the history of Lorentz, I think that speaks to how the market has grown. In 2001, Mike and Rob Lorentz expanded their parents’ original vision of the “mom and pop shop” to a federally inspected facility, allowing producers to brand and market their product to a customer base beyond Minnesota’s borders. Mike and Rob, both growing up in the meat industry, will tell you that the transition was not easy or absent of challenge. Running a meat processing facility is extremely challenging, from the unique skills required to produce, to managing the byproducts of production, working with tight margins, as well as understanding and working with government regulation. The reality is, it takes time, perseverance, vision, a vast array of knowledge, business acumen, and in many situations, some trusting investors. Mike was pushing grass-fed as a vision back in 2001, long before it was mainstream. In early 2000, they were also one of the first US plants to gain USDA approval to export elk processed at Lorentz to Europe.
Platts: How have you seen brands find their market, and how does Lorentz Meats support that?
Perry: Our focus is on brands that believe in the specific market they are catering to, many of whom have a personal connection with the markets they aspire to serve, plain and simple. If we produce for a grass-fed brand, we want the brand owner who is passionate about and truly believes in grass-fed beef’s benefit to the industry and/or consumers. This passion ensures the brand owner also holds their producers accountable for the claims connected to the brand. The validity of those claims are not just the brand owner’s reputation, but Lorentz Meats’s reputation as well. The same is true with any of the other brands we produce that may not be focused on a niche claim, but perhaps serve a certain cultural market, for example. I believe the brand owners we work with truly believe in the claim(s) and product they market to consumers.
Platts: The sustainability of our food system was brought to the forefront due to COVID-19. Overall, what is your view of the current system?
Perry: Ultimately, I see fragility in the general concept of our industrialized world, and the last two years have been a stark example of our general vulnerability to disruption. We have become a spoiled nation where, more and more, the majority has always had everything at their fingertips. Few of us remember a time when anything we wanted “now” was not easily accessible. I think the major issues and holes in the supply chain right now lie more with the naivety of our consuming public and their complete disconnect and understanding of what it takes to bring products to the store shelves. Supply chain disruptions across the board have all been huge indicators to the universal issue and ultimate hole in manufacturing, which is the workforce.
Platts: Labor has been a major challenge across industries, including for meat processors. How has Lorentz Meats handled this?
Perry: As a society, we need to understand the need for our work to contribute to society or we will continue to go down a very slippery and dangerous path of bare shelves. The work in the meat industry, in particular, can still be quite labor intensive and sometimes dangerous. The smaller the plant gets, the more labor intensive and skilled the work becomes because automation is not as practical for the variety of work we do. With all of that said, our employees were constantly reminded during the pandemic that they were not just coming into a “job,” but ensuring that store shelves continued to get filled with meat. Their work mattered. If there was food for them to purchase in the stores, then there was security in our communities. That was a larger-than-life message that we were so proud to remind our employees of through everything.
Platts: Major funding has been dedicated to encouraging the establishment of small processing facilities over the last two years. What are the challenges of starting a meat processing facility, and is this a trend a solution to supply issues?
Perry: Diversification as a general rule is never a bad strategy. I have yet to hear a story where putting one’s eggs all in one basket ended well, and the same could be said for the meat processing industry. Do I think having exponentially more small and very small processors is going to prevent the potential future supply chain disruptions similar to what we may have seen during the pandemic? No. The way our economic system has been built — unless the structure changes significantly in the near future — we still need the large plants to help maintain food security and get products to all markets. Food security is a huge avenue to maintaining peace and civility. Do I think having exponentially more small and very small processors will impart a value on our rural communities and provide producers more options beyond marketing to the big plants and offer consumers more opportunity to reconnect with their food systems? Yes. Do I think, had we had more small and very small plants serving rural communities prior to the pandemic, we would have seen less animal waste when big packers were behind due to worker shortage during the pandemic? Absolutely. Lorentz Meats’s size in the processing market is very unique. We are big in the small and very small processing plant world, and we are tiny compared to the big meat plant world. At our size, we are able to produce volumes for our brand owners that have a national and international footprint. Small and very small plants, much like our Vermont partner, have the opportunity to make large regional impacts, opening up direct marketing opportunities for producers by way of restaurants, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, local co-ops, independent grocery stores, etc. You get enough of those strategically placed throughout the US and suddenly “the little guys” have a large collective influence in serving producers and feeding our communities.
Platts: Consumer mistrust in the meat industry continues to grow. What do you see?
Perry: As a general rule, when it comes to food safety and quality, I trust what is coming from the large plants. People purchase and eat the products made in these plants. Why would these large processors want to risk making the millions of consumers they feed on a daily basis ill or worse, due to their facility’s unsafe manufacturing practices? That would not be a very sustainable business model. As I used to preach to my students when I taught animal welfare, size of the farm does not guarantee a superior (or inferior) level of animal quality/safety/ welfare/health. I do not immediately peg a large processing plant evil simply by size, any more than I do not immediately peg a very small plant as “better” simply due to their size. When it comes to more of the specialty raising claims, I do become a bit more skeptical of the larger corporation’s or brand owner’s ability to maintain integrity in such claims. I don’t want to take a blanket approach to skepticism, but I would tell consumers to approach with caution. Producing something on a very large scale typically does not translate honestly to a specialty market simply from a sustainable supply standpoint.
Platts: What would you tell a cow-calf producer who is interested in becoming more involved with the end product, and possibly add value through specific raising claims?
Perry: I would recommend they work backwards. Go to the grocery stores (or online) and see what is out there for raising claims, what values they may share with specific labels. The more connected programs will likely also be found in local co-ops, maybe farmer’s markets, Whole Foods, etc. Once they find a brand (or brands) that speak to them, I would encourage them to do a bit of additional research on the brand owner (website, etc.). If the values and story align with their values and the story they want their beef to tell to the end consumer, they should reach out to the brand owner and discuss opportunities to supply their feeders, etc. If the brand owner isn’t interested in forging a relationship with a producer that actively sought them out in this way, they likely aren’t the brand that type of producer (passionate) wants to work with anyway.
About Lorentz Meats
Lorentz Meats was founded in 1968 when Ed and Mary Lorentz purchased Bremer Brothers Meat Market in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. In 1997, their sons Rob and Mike purchased the business. The brothers have coordinated several expansions, and today, the facility has a slaughter capacity of 120 head per day. On average, they harvest 90 head of beef and/or bison per day, and employ around 150 people. The facility is federally inspected, and carries a number of food safety and animal welfare third-party certifications, allowing brand owners to expand into national markets such as Kroger, Whole Foods, Costco, Sam’s Club, and Aldi. The business focuses on helping niche brands produce meat products, from processing to packaging and labeling. Niche meats generally refer to any non-commodity meat, but generally involve naturally or organically produced products. They recently implemented a five-head limit, but also cater to small local producers. To learn more about the business go to lorentzmeats.com.
- Created: 22 May 2022
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