INSIGHTS OF A MEAT PROCESSOR
My day job is interesting, and in this age of assembly-line production, somewhat unique. I am a butcher at a small USDA processing facility, but since we also do custom exempt processing, I process meat that was harvested in the field. In fact, for five months of the year, I work for the only mobile slaughterer in the area and for the owner of the small processing facility the rest of the year. Most folks don’t understand the difference between USDA processing and custom exempt processing, so I will share that difference with you first.
COMMERCIAL AND CUSTOM PROCESSING
If you raise meat animals and you want to sell your processed meat by the package to stores, restaurants, schools, individuals or the public in general, you must have your animal slaughtered, inspected and processed at a USDA facility. Although there are a few mobile USDA facilities in the United States, the vast majority are physical plants w here y ou h ave t o d eliver y our a nimal live. The exception to this rule is bison, because they are not considered a domestic animal. Bison meat can be sold by the package without USDA inspection.
If you want to sell your meat animals to individuals by the whole, half, quarter or eighth, you can have them custom processed, in which case the animal is slaughtered in the field, the carcass is loaded into a truck and hauled to a custom processing facility. The meat you derive from these animals cannot be sold by the package to anyone. The purchaser of any portion of the meat must be declared and recorded while the animal is alive.
Both types of processing involve some form of government inspection. Custom processing starts with a mobile slaughter unit that has been approved and inspected by a state agency and requires extensive record keeping on each animal processed, primarily to ensure that the slaughtered animal is not stolen. The mobile slaughter unit comes to your location and the butcher who does this field processing is usually very experienced. The mobile slaughter butcher I work for can kill, skin, gut, hang and deliver twenty beeves in eight hours, which sounds incredible, but after forty years, he should be as good as he is. He knows good livers from bad livers, good meat from bad meat, and healthy animals from unhealthy ones. Once he delivers the meat to the physical plant, it goes through the exact same process as the USDA meat, except there is no presence of a USDA inspector and it does not get the purple USDA stamp, which, by the way, is made from blueberries.
USDA PAPER TRAILS
In USDA processing, the animal is usually delivered live to the facility where it is unloaded in a holding pen and inspected by a USDA inspector, usually a veterinarian. The animal is herded down an alley way that leads to a kill pen inside the facility. The animal is shot or stunned and the inspector checks to make certain it is fully dead. The animal is skinned and gutted and the offal, guts and head are inspected for disease. Once hung, any trace of hair, dirt or manure must be trimmed off with a knife and inspected prior to any washing. After washing and passing inspection by the USDA inspector, the carcass is sprayed with a solution to curtail mold and bacteria. Most large plants use some type of chemical, but we use a solution of vinegar and water. Interestingly, the vinegar and water solution was only approved by USDA recently, although butchers have been using vinegar and water for a hundred years.
Once the meat has hung for a sufficient amount of time in the cooler, it is cut and wrapped under the watchful eye of a USDA inspector who constantly checks the temperature of the room clean and sanitized.
USDA inspected meat is not “better,” nor is it cleaner, but it is accompanied by a huge mound of paper work and record keeping. In fact, most government processes are accompanied by huge amounts of paperwork. In the case of a USDA processing facility, daily records must be kept on kill floor inspections, refrigerator temperatures, water temperatures, percentage of vinegar and water in the solution, sanitation of the cutting room, numbers of animals processed, temperature of the freezers, and on and on. Record keeping is required for every step of the process, which is why there aren’t more USDA facilities: it costs money to create a paper trail.
Without a doubt, the small USDA facility is better than a big one. The difference in processing twenty-five hundred animals per day versus ten animals per day is enormous. A large facility may have twenty or thirty inspectors, but each inspector has a very few seconds, literally from three to six, to inspect his or her portion of the beef as it moves along the chain.
At our facility, inspectors can take as long as they like, which they do. I have never heard of a case of E.coli or BSE coming from a small plant. We have never had any of our meat recalled, although it is a pretty common occurrence with large plants. As far as BSE (mad cow disease) goes, you could just call it BS, in my opinion (mind you, I’m not a doctor), but of course we comply with the requirement to spray purple on the spine of any beef over thirty months of age. You can’t use those purple necks for soup, because we have to throw them in the dumpster. Get this: Once the beef is skinned and hung, we cut the carcass in half with a saw. The saw cuts through the center of the spinal cord as it cuts through the backbone and meat. The spinal cord is removed and disposed of, because it is the item of concern for BSE, but the saw blade disperses the bits of spinal cord throughout the meat and bone with which it comes in contact. Think about that for a moment.
ADVANTAGES OF CUSTOM HARVEST
My personal preference for harvest of any meat is based on my observation, participation, and subsequent experience. I clearly prefer onfarm kill over butchering at a plant. Consider this: with a mobile slaughter unit, I come to your house and to the home of your animal. While your animal is relaxed and unsuspecting, I place one shot into the frontal lobe, usually out of sight of the other animals. This one shot is an instant kill and causes the muscles to go involuntary, which results in the animal falling to the ground. I stick the animal with a knife to bleed it, which takes about five minutes. During this time, the animal may involuntarily kick. I skin the animal and hang it, gut it, clean it and load it in the truck. After I have fifteen to twenty animals in the truck, I take them to the facility for processing.
This is without a doubt the most humane way to harvest an animal, unlike the way we used to kill pigs in a USDA facility: hang them alive upside down by their ankles and stick them in the throat and let them bleed to death. Tell me that method isn’t traumatic. The screaming of the dying pigs would convince you. (Today most butchers shoot them in the head, or use a stun gun.)
I will tell you that with on-farm slaughter, occasionally we have to kill beef in front of other beef and when that happens, the other beef leave the area when we return for harvest the next year. So many people assume that animals are stupid, yet I assure you they are very smart.
TYPICAL USDA PROCEDURES
By contrast, when butchering takes place at the plant, I unload the animal from the farmer’s trailer into a corral, usually with other animals. Immediately, the animal becomes anxious, because the surroundings are new to it and all the smells are strange and frightening. The blood in the kill pen is only forty feet away and the animals can smell it. Herding the animals down the alley and one at a time into the kill pen is a huge chore, depending on where the animals came from, how they were cared for, and the breed. Dairy cows are the easiest, because they are used to a routine of being milked in a barn. Buffalo are the most difficult, because they are more wild than not.
By observing the manure of the waiting animals, I can tell which ones are anxious and which are not, but of course an animal desperately trying to climb out of the enclosure is a pretty good clue. Loose runny manure is a sign of distress and the corral and alley way is full of it by the time the animals are all slaughtered.
Once the animal is slaughtered and hung in the cooler, I can tell the animals that were unduly stressed by the color of the meat. Dark red meat is usually the result of blood being pumped into every muscle by the release of adrenalin. This definitely affects the tenderness of the meat. Every month, I butcher a couple of dairy cows from a friend who owns an organic dairy. He knows the names of each of his five hundred cows and he has never spoken a harsh word to them. I also butcher a couple of beef every month for another friend who carefully raises them, and in both cases these animals become the least anxious during the process. But for the most part, on-farm harvest is far superior to butchering at the plant.
There is one other important difference. In on-farm harvest, the animal is bled while lying down in a totally relaxed position. In harvest, at the plant the animal is bled from a hanging position with the head down. The weight of the animal hanging by the heels places pressure on certain blood vessels in the hind quarters and blood flow is restricted. As a result, the animal continues to bleed while lying in the skinning cradle, and I believe that more blood remains in the meat than in the on-farm bleed.
EXAMINATION OF GUT CONTENTS
My next observations are of the gut contents. The undigested food must be removed from the stomachs and placed into a different barrel, because the rendering plant won’t take the guts if they include manure. As soon as I open a stomach, I know whether or not the animal has been eating grain, because whatever the animal has been fed is present in the paunch. If the animal has been grass-finished, I can observe the quality of the grass or hay by the color. The stomach contents of a grain-fed animal have a repulsive odor, while the grass-fed animal has virtually no smell.
Interestingly, there are a lot of people advertising “grass-fed” these days, but what they don’t say is often more important than what they do say. If you think about it, almost all beef is grass-fed, because they aren’t born in supermarkets, but in fields with grass, and that is where they spend the first months of their lives. I have opened the guts of many animals who were advertised as grass-fed, but whose guts were full of corn or some type of grain, because they weren’t grass-finished. Suffice it to say, grass-finished is what you want to see on the label.
HANGING TIME AND TENDERNESS
As soon as a beef carcass is inspected, it is washed and placed in a cooler where it is quickly cooled to a temperature somewhere between 32 and 36 degrees. The amount of time it hangs in the cooler depends on the farmer’s preference. Most people don’t realize that tenderness is accomplished mostly by genetics, breed, and type of feed. Most of our beef is hung for fourteen days, since 60 percent of the moisture leaves during this time, but some insist on a twenty-eightday hang. When a beef hangs for twenty-eight days, the enzymes in the tissues have broken the meat down and it has decomposed to the point that it is mushy; I personally don’t like tenderness created this way, but prefer tenderness created by genetics and diet.
Hanging time does affect the flavor, since the flavor is concentrated as the moisture leaves the meat, just like a plum becomes sweeter when it is dried. In my opinion, a fourteen- or twenty-one-day hanging time is sufficient and if the beef was good to start with, you will enjoy an excellent, flavor-filled piece of meat. Hanging beef this way is called dry aging. This is why wet aging, where meat is placed into a sealed bag as soon as it is cut and allowed to age in its own blood, is flavorless. Pretty much all commercial meat is wet aged and is why it requires spices or marinade to make it palatable.
The other thing about aging that most butchers won’t tell you is that the number of beef in the cooler, the amount of humidity, and most important, the amount of fat on the animal all affect aging. A very fat steer takes much longer to age than a steer with less fat, because the fat is an insulation coating for the meat, although the hanging times are not changed accordingly, unless the farmer knows this information.
ASSESSING THE CARCASS: FAT
There are plenty of observations to be made at the cutting table, but when I go into the cooler to bring a carcass into the meat room for cutting, I make my first observation. If the beef has hung for twenty-eight days it will have a lot of external mold. Of course, this all has to be trimmed off and since we don’t use surgical instruments and microscopes, some of the meat comes off with the trim. The meat on a twenty-eight-day hang is so soft, it is more difficult and time consuming to process. Most of the twenty-eight-day hangs we do are on very lean cattle because there is still a market comprised of ill-advised people who think fat is bad.
The next observation is of the fat. In our area, most of the farmers think eating fat is bad. On these animals, we trim most of the fat off and since almost no one renders beef tallow or pork fat, we throw it in the garbage. This is not terribly smart, because the farmer pays for the processing by the hanging weight of the animal. If the live weight of a grain-finished steer is 2400 pounds, the hanging weight will be around 1150 pounds. That particular steer will have four or five inches of back fat, all of which is trimmed off and thrown into the garbage. On a recently processed animal this amounted to two hundred pounds of fat, which cost the farmer around one hundred seventy-five dollars for processing: wasted feed and wasted money.
A grain-finished beef carcass will yield about 62 percent of product, whereas as grass-finished beef can yield as much as 75 percent. A grassfinished beef will have more omega-3 (although the content of both omega-3 and omega-6 is very small in beef fat, whether from a grass-fed or grain-fed cow). Vitamin, mineral and CLA content will be higher.
The color and structure of the fat is very telling. Although some breeds have fat that is more pale yellow than others and older cows tend to have yellower fat than younger animals, the color of the fat is mostly determined by the type of feed. Since the majority of beef is harvested at less than thirty months of age, the color of the fat is solely determined by the feed. Grain-finished beef have white fat that is very dense and hard. I joke with the inspectors about using a chain-saw instead of a knife to cut it off. I hate grain-fed beef, because of the fat and because most of what is grain-fed is GMO corn-fed. Of course the muscle is marbled with specks of white fat, because where else can all that fat go? It isn’t used for energy, because the animal is using the sugar and starches from the grain.
Grass-finished beef, on the other hand, has yellow fat that is soft, pliable and easy to cut. The yellow coloring is from the carotenes in the grasses on which the animal was finished.
The same principle applies to hogs, although most hogs have off-white or tan colored fat. Most hogs are bred for leanness, but if you finish your hogs on corn and grain, the fat will be much more dense, harder, and whiter. I discovered quite by accident that there is a huge difference in the fat of the heritage breed Large Black compared to modern lean breeds. Since we render our own lard, I can tell you that a grain-finished average hog will produce about thirty quarts of lard, which will be hard at room temperature. A heritage breed Large Black hog that has been grass-finished with minimal barley will produce about sixty quarts of lard, and the lard will be pourable at room temperature. The Large Black fat will be yellower, softer and very pliable. The leaf or kidney fat, or what would be the suet on a beef, is very flakey and makes excellent pastry lard.
Since my wife and I consume about a quart of lard per week, I consulted Dr. Mary Enig’s book Know Your Fats, and deduced that the monounsaturated percentage is higher because of the feed. I might be wrong, but it is definitely more like olive oil than regular lard.
The majority of people do not want the organ meats. Most of the time, the heart, tongue, kidneys and livers are thrown away. Grass-finished beef generally yield firm, normal size hearts, tongues and livers. Hearts are rarely condemned, since beef do not have “heart” problems like humans. Tongues are rarely condemned unless they have an open sore. Grass-finished beef livers rarely have abscesses and the color is dark red, compared to grain-fed livers, which are often a lighter color, almost tan.
Only when they drink lowland or marshy water do the livers of grain-fed animals have liver flukes, in which case they are condemned. The old timers ate fluked liver because the flukes are in the arteries and can be squeezed out prior to cooking. Soaking the liver in salt water removes them as well. In general, grass-finished beef have organs that are firm to the touch and normal for the size of the animal.
Grain-finished beef on the other hand, have huge livers and large fat deposits around the top of the heart. The fat deposits on the heart do not affect the function of the heart, according to the USDA veterinarian I spoke with, but the heart works harder as do all other organs to deal with the constant diet of grain during final finish. Processing the grain is especially hard on the liver and results in a liver that is mushy and huge and often abscessed. Instead of being firm like grass-finished livers, it is easy to poke your finger through a grain-finished liver. A USDA veterinarian, who works on a 2400-cow-per-day-line, told me that many of the grain-finished livers are condemned.
Grain-finished kidneys are often larger and have larger fat deposits surrounding them (suet), but are rarely condemned. My personal inspection criterion is simple: if it was fed grain or finished on grain, regardless of what it looks like, don’t eat it!
SOME FORGOTTEN CUTS AND BONES
My penultimate observation has to do with yield. Most people are too busy to cook, so most orders are for steaks, a few roasts and the rest burger. We usually throw away the majority of the bones. What a waste! The waste is of course most egregious in the case of a properly raised grass-finished beef. Bones for broth are very expensive and are rather hard to come by. If you purchase a beef, always order all bone-in cuts and tell the butcher that you want the neck bones and every single other bone of the animal. Tell him to cut all bones into six-inch lengths and to save every knuckle. Always order ribs, because even if you don’t like ribs, you want the bones. All bones have marrow, and broth is essential for us WAPF folks. If you aren’t emphatic with the instructions you give your butcher, you will not get all the bones, because your butcher may not know their value.
Always tell your butcher that you want all of the fat, including the suet, which you can use in cooking or make into lotion, and the tallow which you can render for the best fried “taters” you ever had. He shouldn’t charge you extra for any of this, because it is your beef and you own all of it, not just the portion he thinks you should have. Don’t forget to keep the kidneys, if not for your own use then for your dogs and cats, and the tail, heart, tongue and liver for yourself. If you don’t like the heart and tongue, feed it to your dogs, but cook up the oxtail for the best soup in the world.
One final piece of meat to ask for is what we call the hanging tender. This is a fairly goodsized chunk of meat that hangs below the kidney and is usually thrown away. It is a little tougher, but is worth eating because it has an excellent flavor. By the way, one of the most flavorful pieces of meat on an animal is the shank meat around the lower leg, which is usually ground up for burger. Yes, it is full of sinew and a few tendons, but most of those dissolve in cooking and it is very good.
PROPER WRAPPING FOR FREEZING
My final observation has to do with the wrapping. Most people prefer vacuum wrap and it is okay, but only if the wrapper leaves a sufficient amount of edge on it. If you buy a package of hamburger where the plastic has been cut off close to the meat, I guarantee you it will leak. But if the package has an inch or so of plastic beyond the meat, it will not leak unless you damage it by throwing it around in your freezer. I still hand wrap all of my own personal meat, because it is wrapped first in plastic and then in butcher paper. I have eaten this meat six years later with no freezer burn whatsoever.
BECOME A SAVVY BUYER
Most important, all of these processing observations are determined long before the animal is harvested. It is important for you to visit the farmer who raises your animal. Don’t ask him “yes” or “no” questions, because he may tell you what he thinks you want to hear. Have him tell you from start to finish how he breeds his animals, how he cares for them, and what he feeds and finishes them on. Ask him to show you the animals so you can observe how well adjusted they are around strangers. Ask him if he breeds according to the genetics and fat content of the bull or if he, like most, picks the best cow. Ask him if he waits to breed his heifers after they are fully matured and developed or if he breeds them around fourteen to eighteen months like most breeders. Ask him if he times the breeding of his cows to birth in May and June when the weather is conducive to survival like deer and elk do, or does he breed them to birth in January and February so he can get a jump on the market like the big boys do.
Ask him if he practices organic or biodynamic farming methods and refrains from using any type of chemical pour-ons, herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. Ask him if he vaccinates or uses any types of antibiotics or hormones. Ask him if he provides free choice minerals or if he simply gives them salt blocks. Of course, some of these questions require “yes” and “no” answers, but this is information you need to have when selecting your meat animals.
While you may never be in a position to cut the fat on a hanging carcass, either the cold hard fat or the soft pliable fat, you can look not for the tenderest meat, but for the healthiest meat. I am not saying this is an easy task, because in my three-county area, I know of only two farmers who raise their beef the right way and offer it for sale. I eat the beef from one of them, fat and all!
If you have specific questions, or even if you want to make negative comments, you may contact me at email@example.com and I promise I will answer you.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2013.