Meat processing facility opens at Belltower

 

March 18, 2022

Ty and Sarina O'Connor, along with son Cash and an employee of OCC Legacy Cuts, pause for a picture inside one of the multiple modules that make up the brand new state-of-the-art meat processing facility located at Belltower.

Twenty-two miles south of Ekalaka, just off of Highway 323 next to Belltower Hall, sits a brand new state-of-the-art meat processing facility. Some sixteen months ago owners Ty and Sarina O'Connor started the planning process to build it. On Monday, they will be ready to start doing custom processing.

The facility is actually made up of an ecosystem of several interlocking modules, made by a company named Friesla, that came from Washington. The entire USDA-approved system includes modules for harvesting, chilling, aging, cutting, wrapping, freezing and storing meat.

O'Connors admitted that it wasn't an easy process. Drought and a drastic increase in the cost of the modules and materials, construction and even trucking that occurred partway through had them considering stopping the build before the project was completed.

Instead, they trudged on.

"It's something the community needs," Ty told the Eagle on Tuesday.

Not only will the OCC Legacy Cuts meat processing facility provide a service to the area, it is also creating jobs.

Currently there are around eight people, in addition to O'Connors, already working at the facility. They hope to add a few more employees soon.

On Tuesday those employees were processing beef for O'Connors, familiarizing themselves with the plant and the process in preparation of what's to come.

"Right now we can process five per day," O'Connor said, "but we think we can get that down to half an hour per animal. Fifteen per day, 5 days a week is our goal."

Speed is only one small part of the equation though, as the facility is on track to be USDA certified sometime around the first of May. O'Connor explained some of the many additional steps and precautions that need to be taken in order for OCC Legacy Cuts to be USDA certified, sanitizing and cleaning to name a few. Workers were also honing those skills on Tuesday.


There are approximately 800 federally inspected livestock slaughterhouses in the U.S. and about 1,900 state-inspected or custom exempt facilities. That's down from nearly 10,000 meat processing plants in 1967, when the law mandating USDA inspection was passed. According to the Montana Department of Livestock, there are currently thirty-six state regulated meat processing plants in Montana.

The term "custom exempt" refers to those licensed operations that slaughter and/or process livestock that no part of the animal will ever enter commerce. All products, including carcasses, must be returned to the owners marked "Not For Sale." The owner may not sell any custom exempt processed meat. Products in commerce must bear the mark of inspection for a state or federally inspected establishment.

Basically, there's a lack of USDA-certified processing facilities both in the region and nationally. Fulfilling orders can be troublesome for many. In some instances it can take between six months to a year to obtain a kill slot.

An interior view of OCC Legacy Cuts

O'Connors expect that once the facility is certified, a USDA agent will travel from South Dakota four days per week to OCC Legacy Cuts until the USDA can hire a full-time person to work in Ekalaka. Current plans are for OCC Legacy Cuts to process USDA certified and/or certified organic beef Monday through Thursday once they are authorized, and then do custom exempt processing on Fridays.

"We'll still do local and custom exempt processing as much as we can when that time comes," Sarina said.

Until that time, OCC Legacy Cuts will be providing custom exempt processing five days per week. Interested parties can contact OCC Legacy Cuts at (406) 975-8415.

 

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