Current rules and regulations have become too onerous for local meat producers.

A solution to Maui County’s invasive deer problem could come from reviving the state’s meat inspection program that was halted back in 1995. 

The hope is a reboot could also get invasive axis deer integrated into Hawaii’s mainstream food system at a more affordable price than currently available under the federal USDA inspection regime.

The state’s axis deer population has long been a point of contention, pitting those who support wholesale eradication against those who see the animals as an untapped food resource.

The latter have been mostly comprised of those who have access to opportunities for hunting, but for most consumers, deer remains a delicacy on the grocery store shelf.

Large deer herds can often be seen across South Maui in the early hours of the morning. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022)

That’s because deer are not considered an “amenable” species under USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, meaning a higher cost of inspection – required during hunting and processing – falls on businesses, not the federal government, when compared to domestic livestock like beef. 

Hawaii’s meat inspection workforce wasted away along with the slaughterhouse industry, with the virtual disappearance of a local pork industry and increased number of cattle being shipped to the mainland for finishing and slaughter. 

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture has estimated it would cost $1 million to restore the program and another $1 million to run on an annual basis. 

Those numbers could still make sense.

Axis deer impacts on Maui were estimated to cost $2.1 million per year a 2016 University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization assessment found.  

The deer population has multiplied five times since then.

DOA Animal Industry Division Administrator Isaac Maeda says, in essence, a state program would replace the need to pay USDA and the state would pick up the tab. 

  • ‘Hawaii Grown’ Special Series

A bill that would get Hawaii part of the way there has sailed through the Legislature but lawmakers need to iron out the details in conference committee by April 28.

But Maeda is clear that the intent is narrowly focused on deer and other species that don’t have designated harvesting facilities.

That’s part of the reason the Maui County Department of Agriculture and the Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council supports the idea, as demand for local meat grows.

A state meat inspection program might also create more space for cattle in Hawaii’s existing beef-focused slaughter facilities, the council’s managing director Nicole Galase says.

“A rising tide lifts everyone,” Galase said in an interview.

According to Maeda, the state’s meat inspection program employed 40 staff at one point – the new program would have four. 

Infographic of problems caused by deer on Maui
(April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2022)

Not A Silver Bullet

Bottlenecks in Hawaii’s meat system abound, including a lack of facilities and inspectors and the logistics of interisland shipping in the mix. 

On top of that, the regulatory cards have been stacked heavily against Hawaii’s livestock producers, dwarfed by the top-heavy, large-scale meat processing industry on the mainland. 

That means the current rules and regulations are now too onerous for the local meat producers, according to butcher Bryan Mayer, a meat industry consultant and educator. 

But creating a state program and relieving the costs of inspection might also incentivize local investment, something the meat industry is lacking, Mayer says.

“I think that’s super, super important because they are the people who have skin in the game,” Mayer said in an interview. “They care about what happens in Hawaii.”

A dead Axis Deer rests in an open field along Maunaloa Highway after drought and famine is killing the animals on Molokai. January 15, 2021.
An inflated axis deer population on Molokai paired with drought led to a mass die off of the invasive ungulates in 2021 and now they have migrated east, toward residential areass. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

For a commercial game meat operation like Maui Nui Venison, which processed 9,526 deer in its own harvesting facility last year, inspection fees are only a small part of the puzzle. 

“In looking at the overall cost of executing commercial deer harvesting well, USDA-FSIS fees make up a relatively small percentage,” CEO and cofounder Jake Muise said in an email. 

Muise says that the reality is that if local businesses want to send meat across state lines, they will still need federal inspectors on site and any cost benefit will be negated.

Despite what many see as a shortage in slaughterhouse facilities across Hawaii, Maui has enough to deal with the deer but they are underutilized and just need more support, said Muise.

Maui County spokesperson Mahina Martin says the county is “in the process of identifying existing and potential harvesting facilities” and seeking funding to increase access to them, in light of the meat program’s potential renewal.

Meanwhile, the state appears to be taking a more holistic approach to the complexities of the agricultural industry’s concerns this year, after years of loose promises to double the state’s locally grown food supply. 

The removal of any barriers in the meat industry is going to help Hawaii feed itself, according to Mayer.

“This is never about money. It’s about will,” Mayer said.

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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