Hawaii would be the first state to own a slaughterhouse, under a bill moving in the Legislature.
The state House on Tuesday passed Senate Bill 249, which would allow the state to appropriate money to purchase, upgrade and outfit Oahu’s only certified slaughterhouse facility.
The plant is on state-owned land in Campbell Industrial Park. Lawmakers estimate that the bill, sponsored by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz (D, Kaena-Wahiawa-Pupukea), could cost Hawaii taxpayers between $1 million and $1.6 million.
The facility has had a history of financial insolvency. The Hawaii Livestock Cooperative, current owner of the plant, bought the slaughterhouse from the Palama Meat Co. when Palama filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2004.
The plant slaughters about 850 hogs a month, with each animal yielding an average of 200 pounds of meat, said Leonard Oshiro, general manager of Hawaii Livestock Cooperative. He estimated that the plant accounts for about 10 percent of the pork consumed in Hawaii, with most of the rest being imported frozen pork.
HLC primarily does pork, but it is processing local grass-fed beef on a trial basis from places like the North Shore, Oshiro said.
There are also slaughterhouses on the Big Island, Maui and Kauai.
State officials expressed concern about the economic viability of the Kalaeloa facility in 2007 when the Department of Agriculture reported to the Legislature that rising feed costs were stifling Hawaii’s pork and dairy markets.
Animal rights groups, including PETA, the Humane Society and the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii, opposed the bill, saying that the state should not be in the business of supporting meat-based diets. Some animal rights advocates, borrowing a tea party argument, also opposed the bill on the grounds that the deal amounted to a taxpayer bailout for a failing business.
"Why don’t we just give plant farmers a break by simply putting animal agriculture on the free market where it belongs?" said William Harris, an animal rights supporter. "If people want to eat meat, let them pay the open market price."
The bailout argument resonated even among lawmakers who supported the measure.
"They’re right. This is a bailout," said House Minority Leader Kymberly Pine (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point). "But there is no other slaughterhouse on Oahu."
Pine said that though she initially disliked the idea of a bailout, she was persuaded to support the deal because losing the facility would be a "huge risk to Hawaii’s food security."
Myrone Murakami, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, acknowledged that when Hawaii’s local dairy industry collapsed, it took the state’s beef industry with it.
"Where do you think most of our hamburger comes from?" said Murakami. "When the dairy industry was still moving here on Oahu, they culled their milking cows (to be slaughtered for beef)."
Murakami said losing the slaughterhouse would mean more than just the loss of local beef. It would also affect the availability of "hot" pork, a product that needs to be delivered to markets within hours of slaughter to maintain its quality.
Bailout or no, Murakami said the alternative would be much worse.
"They’ve been put in a pretty desperate situation given what has happened to the livestock industry," Murakami said. "But if it fails, the availability of the local stuff will disappear. That’s a given."
Oshiro said the Hawaii Livestock Cooperative spent $3.3 million to finish the Kalaeloa facility in 2000. Building a new facility would cost $8 million to $9 million, he said.
Oshiro said the facility is needed and should be retained.
"We’re saving it for the industry," he said. "That’s my goal. Whether we run it or not, it would be stupid to let it go."