It’s was a few years ago now, but on a trip to China, Japan and Hong Kong sponsored by the National Pork Board, I was introduced to the “Incredibly Versatile Shipping Container.”

Okay, the system wasn’t actually branded as such, but it could have been. On one of the upper floors of what our touring group were told was the world’s largest parking garage, dozens of 40-foot steel shipping containers were being staged by many more dozens of workers.

But to label them “containers” is a gross disservice to how those metal boxes were being repurposed. The whole process was incredibly labor-intensive, but of course that is the one commodity that China possess in abundance.

First, workers steam-cleaned the boxes, then lined the insides with heavy-duty polyethylene sheeting. Next, ceiling racks were installed, followed by rolling garment racks, since the containers we watched getting loaded were filled with clothing — but again, “filled” hardly does justice to the level of sophistication involved.

The shirts, slacks, jackets and pullovers — all on individual hangers — were first sorted by style and sizes. Then they were fitted with barcode price tags, scanned, wheeled into the container and covered with a light plastic film. Upon arrival in the UK, which was where the container was headed, it would be off-loaded from the ship, placed on a truck, driven to a shopping mall outside London, and the garment racks would be wheeled out of the container right onto the floor of a clothing store, ready to be sold. No further handling required.

Basically, a seasonal sale in a box.

A Mini-Meat Plant
Impressive as that just-in-time merchandising system appeared to be, an American inventor may have done the Container-By-Any-Other-Name gig one better.

In January, Dirigo Food Safety announced the launch of a “plug-and-play” shipping container that is a self-contained meat plant.

Called “The Locker,” the unit is a turnkey cut-and-wrap facility that can process beef, pork, lamb and other red meats into value-added products, such as bacon and sausage.

The unit is engineered to allow small- to mid-scale livestock producers and farmers to process and profit from whole-animal utilization. Patented by Dr. Michele Pfannenstiel, a veterinarian and U.S. Army-trained food safety expert, The Locker is deigned to handle primal and subprimal cuts transferred from a separate USDA-inspected mobile slaughter unit.

The Yarmouth, Maine-manufactured plant-in-a-box can give smaller producers a chance to capitalize on consumer demand for locally raised, farm-grown specialty meats without having to raise the capital needed for even the smallest of brick-and-mortar processing plants.

According to the manufacturer, The Locker is delivered fully assembled in a reconditioned 40-foot container that needs only hook-ups to potable water, electricity and sewage disposal. Inside, the unit contains refrigerated work space, a carcass rail system, cutting tables, a drop-down desk, a boot-change area and production space stocked with further processing equipment: a grinder, stuffer, smoker, combi-oven and a vacuum packaging machine, along with room for other preferred charcuterie equipment. Its design is USDA-compliant and the unit comes with approved HACCP plans for the standard products typically produced.

I absolutely love this idea, and if I had an extra $100K sitting around, I’d buy one myself. That’s because these units could potentially impact animal agriculture in some very important ways.

For one, if dozens — someday perhaps hundreds — of small-scale producers become processor-marketers, that would keep more of the land currently devoted to livestock in production. That’s critical, because once farmland is carved up and developed into commercial or residential properties, it’s gone forever.

I’ve sung that song to every pundit and politician with whom I’ve ever interacted, and not a one has ever considered land use to be a priority. Yet the land itself is arguably any country’s most important agricultural resource, certainly for raising food animals.

Second, the proliferation of self-contained mini-meat plants turning out processed meats would improve consumer choice in meat and poultry products, whether it’s organic, pastured, grass-fed, heritage-bred or whatever. I don’t want a world where you have ground beef, boneless breasts and maybe a brand or two of sausage for sale at the supermarket — and that’s it for the meat department.

And not to mention any names, but neither would I be too happy about having to pay sky-high prices for the (alleged) alternatives on sale at pricier stores selling “whole foods” in a tony neighborhood near you.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, having an affordable, manageable system to process meat and poultry on-farm would provide a way to address the challenge of recruiting the next generation of farmers and producers, which, absent the means for young people to enter the business, is a crisis waiting to happen.

Think about what the development of the Brewery in a Box — well, more like in a garage or storage shed — has done to the once-dominant beer barons. Nothing short of turning them upside down, inside out and back on their heels like never before in history. The capability to start up your own brewing business without having to first win the Powerball Lottery has given literally thousands of entrepreneurs the chance to start burgeoning businesses and offer consumers an incredible array of unique, exotic, specialized beers.

If only such a revolution could arise within the meat industry, I could die happy.

Not that I’m planning an exit anytime soon.

But even if technology could replicate for producers and meat processors what has happened with the boutique brewery business, there is one other serious investment that has to be considered.

As Rebecca Thistlethwaite, the program manager at the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network, said in a story about The Locker on CivilEats.com, “The labors and duress involved in meat slaughter and processing are as fundamental as the equipment. People have to think long and hard about that.”

And be prepared to work long and hard, as well.

Editor’s Note: For more information on The Locker, log onto www.dirigofoodsafety.com/locker/. The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.