Behind the Scenes of O‘ahu’s Slaughterhouse

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The line was silent for a moment – and then Leonard Oshiro laughed, a deep chuckle spanning an increasingly uncomfortable number of seconds. After a pause, the general manager of O‘ahu’s only USDA-certified hog and cattle slaughterhouse finally answered my proposal to visit with a gruff, “What, ’cause we’re going to close?”

These days on the islands, Spam doesn’t have exclusive rights to the title “mystery meat.” In every single one of O‘ahu’s grocery stores, all pork products and the large majority of beef has been shipped from the mainland, where it was raised, slaughtered, processed, then chilled or frozen and shipped in Matson containers. “If you buy frozen stuff, when was it killed? Could be one year ago,” says Leonard. “You buy chilled, you know it’s going to take seven days over the ocean and another three days here. By the time it gets to a shelf, you’re talking almost two weeks.” But even Chinatown ethnic markets, traditionally devoted to “hot pork” (pork that’s been slaughtered within 48 hours), have started mixing in chilled mainland carcasses with their local stocks. And as urban sprawl crawls up the mountains and into the valleys, the island’s general population continues to distance itself from the bloody background of the meat it eats, eating from Costco or McDonald’s or whatever’s nearby, and sleeping easy.

A local man with a piercing look and shuffling walk, Leonard grew up as close to the meat market as you can – on a hog farm in Wai‘anae from which he still commutes. He has an uncanny ability to be both abrasive and accommodating. When my photographer and I explained why we wanted a picture of him among the slaughterhouse scenery – to show the personal side of the complicated, controversial meat market – he refused, then just minutes later allowed us to snap a shot of him in front of a worker spraying off a gutted hog carcass.

Leonard was part of the formation of the Hawaii Livestock Cooperative, created in 1998 to preserve the slaughtering lifeline of the meat market, which backed and now runs the Campbell Industrial Park slaughterhouse in Kapolei. But the facility has been bombarded with a slurry of opposition and disappointment since day one. Leornard ticks off a number of things as soon as I meet him. First, a dead dairy industry and empty promises from Palama Meat Co., both intended to be the backbone of its cattle supply. Second, the skyrocketing cost of mainland-sourced grain, which island hogs and cattle are traditionally raised on, due to demand for ethanol. Third, increased efficiency of Matson’s shipping methods, allowing chilled and refrigerated meat from distant locations to be offered at undercutting prices.

And the list goes on these days with animal rights activists who have begun clamoring about what they deem inhumane treatment of live mainland hogs imported by the slaughterhouse. After being associated with enough of this negative publicity and the target of subsequent mail-writing campaigns, Foodland and Times (the only large markets that were still buying from slaughterhouses) stopped selling any pork slaughtered in Hawai‘i at all. Now, only mainland raised and slaughtered pork fills the freezers of these two grocery chains.

Of the more than 50 hobby and commercial hog farms that populate rural O‘ahu from Waianae to Waimanalo, only two actually send animals to the slaughterhouse – the rest rely on direct farm sales, which are when hogs are selected and slaughtered on-site for personal consumption. One of these two slaughterhouse stalwarts, Shimokawa Farms, is nestled deep along the backbone of the Ko‘olau Mountains, where the lush surroundings bring a mysterious charm to the cinder blocks and rusting trucks marking its first 200 yards. Beyond them lies an infrastructure of concrete and corrugated steel that contains 50 sows, six studs and 300 to 400 hogs being raised from birth to slaughtering weight.

Just two years ago, the family farm used to be twice the size. “The slaughterhouse is really struggling because there’s not enough farmers that support it,” says Wayne Shimokawa, who runs the half-century old family farm with his brother Robert. Wayne has a soothing voice and dirty black jeans tucked into rubber boots. He stands a few yards in front of the hog maternity ward after giving us an all access tour of the farm, a friendly, chained Rottweiler at his feet. “The bottom line is that what wholesalers are paying us for these hogs is really tough. By the time it hits the market, the local farmers may walk in and say, ‘Wow, look at what these guys are charging and I’m only getting this much,’” he explains.

“Also, I guess, the amount of production of hogs on O‘ahu already has already fallen quite dramatically versus 15 or 20 years ago. … Gosh, another large hog farm just shut down end of last year, and they were one of the biggest ones here.” Since the ’90s, the cost of imported grain has tripled, but with the average size of farms less than three acres, there is no way farms can grow their own feed.

Instead, Wayne and Robert’s hogs spend the first half of their lives being fattened up on the expensive grain, and the second chowing down on recycled food waste – known in old-school terms as “slop” – picked up from hotels and restaurants and re-cooked at the farm. “Using food waste is a little more feasible for us at this point. Pigs don’t grow as fast, but at least it’s a cheaper cost,” says Wayne. Both Leonard and Dr. Halina Zaleski, UH Mānoa’s swine department extension specialist, say this feed option may keep the industry alive, since it is hailed as environmentally friendly, a big plus on an isolated island, and farmers get paid to pick up the waste. However, many chefs debate the quality of this meat, and it takes almost twice as long to raise the hogs to slaughtering weight. Leonard’s family farm in Wai‘anae still, in fact, sticks to strictly grain.

Another hog farm in Waimanalo, Shinsato Farms, owns the only other USDA-certified slaughterhouse on the island, a tiny plant designated for its own hogs only. Thanks to its quaint family-farm history and easily accessed, USDA-certified product, Shinsato has monopolized the pork market of gourmets within the local food movement – think Ed Kenney of town, Kevin Hanney of Salt Kitchen & Tasting Bar, and Robert McGee of Plancha and the Whole Ox Deli.

Instead, the bulk of local hog supporters are those individuals or families from traditional backgrounds, mostly Filipino, who walk onto farms, choose a hog, and slaughter it themselves right on the property. These types of “farm sales” are definitely not USDA-certified, but are allowed because they are qualified as personal consumption only. “To sell a pig on the farm versus selling to a wholesaler, your cost difference is $100, a little bit more per animal,” explains Wayne, but selling pork this way can be a more feasible option due to the flexible demand of individual consumers versus a rigorous contract with wholesalers, who request only certain cuts of pork. Even for Wayne, one of two farmers with a wholesale contract, 60 percent of his livestock is still sold through farm sales, creating an unreliable and hush-hush market for pork that is guaranteed to be local.

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Because of the limited availability of local pork, back at the Kapolei slaughterhouse, Leonard has to import 90 to 95 percent of his hog supply from the mainland to keep up with the demand. “It keeps the volume going through the slaughterhouse and it supports any fluctuations,” says Dr. Zaleski. This move has created new fodder for animal rights activists who have been attempting to close the slaughterhouse since the day it was proposed at a Kapolei town committee meeting. Animal Rights Hawaii cites cruelly hot days spent in shipping containers and no food on the last day on the water. While Hawaii Livestock Coalition has its own counterpoints, such as the handler who is with the animals at every moment on their final journey, their arguments often fall on deaf ears.

In April 2011, Senate Bill 249 was introduced, proposing that the state buy the slaughterhouse for the security of future local farmers (the bill was rejected in September). In response, Down to Earth, one of O‘ahu’s only all vegetarian, organic and natural foods store, started the Facebook group “Stop Hawaii Slaughterhouse Bill SB 249.” One post reads, “If [Russell Kokobun of the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture] really wants food security, then why doesn’t he use these funds to support small family organic farmers?”

The problem with this reasoning is that hog farms are local and family-run, but they aren’t easily romanticized; their livestock isn’t running free through the open range, and trying to raise porkers organically actually makes them surprisingly susceptible to parasites. It’s expensive, smelly work and extremely difficult to give a good name. Wayne himself plans on shutting down or leasing out his farm soon enough. “I’m burnt out,” he says with a laugh. “If it’s not one thing, it’s another. My brother-in-law made a good point,” he says, referring to his own struggle with animal rights activists in a time when he can barely afford upkeep. “America has never starved. That’s why they don’t realize the importance of the American farmer, you know?”

However, while O‘ahu tends to forsake its pig farmers, it has always had a crush on its ranchers and cowboys, who are making a late comeback thanks to the words like “grass-fed” and are setting the groundwork with the Campbell slaughterhouse once more. The entire right side of the Campbell facility, which boasts a separate entrance and larger corrals and hooks, was built with high hopes and high ceilings, but has remained largely unused until recently. Now, 10 to 15 cattle from Hawaii Cattle Producers Co-op, who source from the Big Island and Kaua‘i, and O‘ahu’s Kualoa Ranch are slaughtered here every Thursday. These cattle are being heralded as the facility’s saving grace.

“We were expecting a lot of cattle that never came through, and the hogs alone can’t pay for the whole cattle side,” explains Dr. Zaleski, whose expertise was also consulted during the formation the Hawaii Livestock Co-op. Fortunately in the last year, numbers have increased from about 10 cattle per month to 40 or 50. The Campbell slaughterhouse now even garners recognition as the location of slaughter on the homepage of Kualoa Ranch’s website, right below this charming language: “Kualoa Ranch cattle are all raised on our 4,000-acre property where they’re free to graze in the 1,500 acres of pasture … The cattle are grass-fed, which produces leaner cuts of meat, lowering the fat content and providing a healthier choice.”

“Ranchers are stewards of large swaths of contiguous land that should remain in agriculture and open space,” says Dan Nakasone, who works as a ranch hand at North Shore Cattle Company every weekend and has coordinated projects for the Hawai‘i Department of Agriculture. “It’s obvious that if anything happened to the Campbell facility, the industry would lose a critical option. It’s the newest facility and it has the most capacity. It would be especially bad for Kualoa Ranch if it were to shut down.” Additionally, for Dan, if the slaughterhouse were gone, and “any neighboring facilities were to shut down, that particular island would be in deep kim chee.”

The Campbell slaughterhouse is family-sized compared to mainland facilities, handling only 850 hogs and about 150 cattle a month. If we relied solely on locally grown meat, the slaughterhouse wouldn’t be able to handle the volume, but it’s the largest dual facility on the islands and handles too much traffic for a mobile slaughterhouse, which travels from farm to farm, to be a feasible replacement or to be maintained at sanitary according to Leonard.

When I took the exit off the H-2 at Kapolei and headed for Barber’s Point to visit the slaughterhouse, I realized I was entering the underbelly of O‘ahu – not in the seedy kind of way, but in hard mechanics, the cogs behind the shining, golden beachfront. It’s what city folk, and even most country folk, barely recognize about our island. It’s the place where palm trees are interspersed with heavy machinery and industrial plants, workers wear rubber boots instead of aloha shirts, and energy is created with fossil fuels.

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It’s here where livestock from farmers across several islands, as well as hogs imported from the mainland, arrive for slaughtering. The meat then goes to processing facilities, which in turn feeds into the broader market. “The slaughterhouse is the bottleneck,” says Leonard. “Farmers have to get their meat to the market. It’s a funnel in, funnel out.”

Two facilities, Hawaii Food Products and Wong’s Meat Market, process the carcasses. Through them, freshly slaughtered local and mainland pork goes to Chinatown, Waipahu, and a handful of restaurants. Beef from Big Island, Kaua‘i and O‘ahu heads to distribution companies (Higa Food Service and Hawaii Ranchers Beef), restaurants (including Roy’s, which snaps up the local veal), and to the shelves of grocery stores, including Times and Foodland. In turn, caterers, luau hosts and restaurants buy an array of products from ethnic markets and various meat retailers. So while we consume meats in plate lunches and dinners out, there’s a chance we could be eating local, supporting a variety of meat-based jobs, and have no idea. Contrarily, we could be eating mainland meat without knowing it either.

One of the notes I jotted down, “slaughter with aloha,” caught me off guard when I was reading back through my notebook. Then I read this quote from Dr. Zaleski: “Even though the slaughterhouse only gets sheep once a year from 4-H, the agriculture-oriented youth group, they put in a whole plan to slaughter sheep, and they’re willing to go with goats too, because now there’s a 4-H goat project. It’s a lot of work to get a plan approved by the USDA. Leonard will bend over backwards.”

“It’s not an easy job, but I enjoy it,” says Leonard from his desk, which overlooks shelves stacked with binders full of approved plans and piles of pork and beef paperwork. Just outside the warehouse, about 30 mainland hogs are in holding stalls, awaiting slaughter the next morning. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”