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L.A.'s Last Beef Plant Considers Packing It In

E.B. Manning has been creative in boosting the sum of its cow parts, but rising costs and big rivals are taking a toll

November 16, 2003|Evelyn Iritani | Times Staff Writer

For Lloyd Manning, the owner of the last beef-packing plant in Los Angeles County, absolutely no part of a cow is sacred.

"If I could sell the moo, I'd do it," said the tall, big-boned president of E.B. Manning & Son Inc., sitting in the office of his family's custom meatpacking house in Pico Rivera.

Don't think he hasn't tried. A few years ago, he tape- recorded bawling Holstein steers as they entered his small corral and called Walt Disney Co. to see if the entertainment giant could use the real-live moos for the big screen. He was turned down.

But just about every other crazy scheme has worked. Manning found a market for the furrowed muscles of cows' digestive tracts in Japan, where they are sliced, grilled and dipped in soy sauce. Cow tongues end up as taco filling in local Latino markets. Koreans and Mexicans mix neck bones and tails into soup. Eyeballs? Schools buy them so youthful scientists can practice their dissecting skills.

By exploiting the varied palates of the world's consumers, and ferreting out customers for almost all of each bovine that arrives at his plant, Manning has stayed in business in the face of long odds. For 45 years, E.B. Manning & Son has survived a roller coaster of E. coli, "mad cow" and other food safety scares, as well as an industry consolidation that has left a handful of agricultural conglomerates dominating the cattle business from birth to slaughter.

Now, Manning reckons, he may have run out of creative options. Since the 1960s, more than 50 packers in the Los Angeles area have closed their doors, and he wonders whether it's time to shut his.

"Go into the dope business," joked the 55-year-old, fourth-generation meatpacker with a cowboy's dark sense of humor. "It's a lot more lucrative and you'll have a lot more fun."

Beef wasn't as complicated when his great-grandfather Emerson B. Manning and grandfather Lew H. -- Big Louie, he was called -- came to California. Like many East Coast refugees who arrived in the late 1800s, they started working in the citrus groves. In the 1920s, they launched a side business in slaughtering cows. Three decades later, they opened a packinghouse east of Los Angeles surrounded by 160 acres of farmland.

Lloyd, one of three children born to Big Louie's son Lloyd Sr., grew up with the smell of manure and blood. On weekends and during the summer, he cleaned the corral and the kill floor where the cows were slaughtered. By the time he went off to college, he vowed he would never work in the meatpacking business. After graduation he got a job as a commodities trader. But in 1985, when his family asked him to come home to help two years after his grandfather's death, he returned to E.B. Manning & Son.

Those were tough times for the American cattle industry. In the mid-1970s, President Nixon had imposed price controls on beef and other staples to stem spiraling inflation. A drought had sent grain prices soaring, pushing up the cost of raising cattle. The expansion of supermarkets had closed many small neighborhood markets, putting more pricing power in the hands of fewer buyers.

Rise of Conglomerates

The biggest force for change, and consolidation, was the invention of labor-saving machinery that made it easier and cheaper to process huge numbers of cows. Today, four giant agricultural conglomerates slaughter more than 80% of U.S. cattle. They are Swift & Co., formerly ConAgra; Tyson Fresh Meats, formerly IBP; Excel Corp., a subsidiary of Cargill; and National Beef Packing Co.

To save the family business, Manning went looking overseas for connoisseurs of cow parts that would make some Americans queasy, and through the years he turned the plant into a model of precision slicing and niche marketing.

Meat cutters were taught how to slice off unwanted fat and bones and trim a carcass in the most profitable manner. They remove and clean the undigested matter inside the stomach so it can be sent to a composting company that blends it with grass clippings for fertilizer. Cows' bottom teeth are sold to dental schools for students to practice drilling, and hair is used to make paintbrushes. Pet companies buy ears, hoofs and bull penises as ingredients in doggie chews.

And Manning cultivated a small following in the Jewish community. Three mornings a week, a trained kosher slaughterer, known as a shochet, goes to the plant. The shochet performs a blessing and then slaughters the cattle with a razor-sharp knife, killing them instantly. Before the carcasses are sent to the packing room, they are inspected to make sure that there are no lesions, particularly on the lungs, that would disqualify the meat from carrying the kosher label.

Finding just the right market is important: Selling a cow's bones to South Korea -- instead of dispatching them to the rendering plant, where they would be turned into bone meal -- added 6% to 8% to the revenue that Manning could squeeze out of a carcass. (Privately held E.B. Manning does not disclose its finances.)

Where's the Beef? Japan

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