From Gate to Plate-Making Meat
By Erin Flynn
Photography by Bill Albrecht
 
My stomach lurches whenever we pull behind a meat-processing plant, because this is where we abandon our livestock to holding pens. While the death of our beloved swine is unpleasant, turning our rare-breed babies over to the confounding processing system is worse. After nearly a year of hard work, love and care, this is where we lose control. Our hogs, stressed from their first and only two-hour ride on the highway, are unloaded and anxiously wait to walk the plank.


Inside the plant, we place our order, but product options are limited. At one site, we can get fresh meat quickly, but cured meats like bacon and ham would take months and, shockingly, we wouldn’t be allowed to sell any of that product once it’s produced. How can this be? How can livestock farmers make a living if they can’t sell their meat?

It all comes down to stickers and a gauntlet of what many believe to be unfairly applied government regulations. A USDA inspection sticker means meat can be sold across the country, whereas a Texas inspection sticker means it can only be sold statewide. As food-safety fears have escalated with each industrial meat recall, so have regulations required for stickers. Consequently, small, rural facilities that process as few as 1–20 animals per day must adhere to the same regulations as multibillion-dollar businesses like Smithfield that slaughter an estimated 122,000 pigs each day. It’s no surprise, then, that many smaller shops opt out of the red tape and do “custom” work instead—processing livestock or game for a farmer’s personal use only.

Another obstacle for small processors is compliance with HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points)—an extensive, expensive record-keeping and self-monitoring system that must be in place at all federally and state-inspected meat-processing facilities, regardless of size. The unusual spawn of food safety and an astronaut’s diet, HACCP was developed by NASA scientists and Pillsbury to create crumbless, contaminant-free packaged foods for astronauts working in space. The goal of HACCP was to eliminate any physical, chemical or biological hazards that may occur during processing. But after large-scale meat recalls in the ’90s, like the lethal salmonella strain found in Burger King’s hamburgers, the HACCP processed-foods inspection program was applied to raw meat and sparked a sea change in regulations.

Unfortunately, safety regulations intended for factory food production are now eliminating our local food choices, says the founder and director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA), Judith McGeary.

“Everyone should produce safe meat—that’s common sense,” says McGeary. “But we’ve got two problems now: one, HACCP was never intended for raw meat; and two, the level of detail in the regulation. Results-oriented regulation says, ‘Produce meat that is not contaminated.’ We’ve got process-oriented regulation dictating where toilets are and how large the sinks must be.”

Less public, but of equal concern, she adds, are processors’ fears about getting on the wrong side of an inspector. A Missouri processor was written up for violating his HACCP plan when he signed pages he should’ve initialed. With slaughterhouses getting cited and fined for actions that don’t cause health hazards, fewer are willing to deal with the growing regulatory burden.

This means small farmers often face insurmountable obstacles to simply get their product to market. Even obtaining information about the problem is unreasonably difficult. Finding out how many certified meat processors there are in Texas and how that number has changed during the last 20 years requires a Freedom of Information Act request in order for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to reveal it. Even regulators at the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) who certify processors are unsure how many of the 326 businesses on their list produce meat for sale. And no one seems to be keeping track of how many butchers have faded away like small-town hardware stores in the long shadow of Walmart.

Finding a nearby, certified facility that offers a humane, affordable slaughter and a highly skilled, trustworthy butcher has been a fruitless search for many. And forget about using an organic meat processor—there are none in Texas.

“It’s insane,” says Pati Jacobs, co-owner of Bastrop Cattle Company. “Texas is the largest beef producer in the country, yet we’re importing organic beef.” (Jacobs’s drive to have agriculture recognized as a 21st century profession now involves a run for state representative.)

Chefs are frustrated, too. Jesse Griffiths, a butcher, chef and cofounder of Dai Due Supper Club and Butcher Shop, says the weak link is the processors.

“The old town butcher is a dying breed,” he says. “It’s not a skill that has been passed down—today it’s more of a job.” As a result, getting meat to his specifications is challenging. He’s had to explain fundamentals—like how to cut certain steaks or bone out of a ham—and deal with processors who insist on curing meats using prepared mixes laced with MSG and nitrites. A proponent of fresh, clean meats, Griffiths laments that “the care farmers put into their heirloom animals is amazing; they invest time, money and sweat equity, then, because of our laws, we get frozen, Cryovacked and underaged meat.”

Jason Kramer, who raises pastured animals at Yonder Way Farm in Brenham, has had his own share of headaches. “Very few facilities will let you see every step of the process,” he says. After being bamboozled by a processor who claimed to be certified but wasn’t, Kramer was left with hundreds of pounds of meat he couldn’t sell. Now he insists on witnessing all aspects of slaughter and processing. But getting a front-row seat is difficult as farmers around the country must drive their animals long distances for processing. In California, Jean Harrah of Deep Roots Ranch says, “The situation is awful here. To find a place with a USDA sticker, we have to drive either three hours south or four hours north. And we’ve tried three different places for our beef because we weren’t sure we were getting our meat back.” (Meat-switching concerns are not uncommon.)

Still, Dr. Butch Johnson, director and manager of the TDSHS meat and poultry inspection program, defends the hefty regulations. “The threat of E. coli is the same,” says Johnson. “Just because a mom-and-pop shop does ten animals and Burger King does a million, that doesn’t reduce the need to produce a safe and wholesome product.”

But is the threat the same? How can making one pound of locally ground meat from one animal be as risky as making one pound of industrial hamburger meat from various parts of 400 cows raised on feedlots around the U.S. and beyond?

FARFA’s McGeary is puzzled by this too. “It’s pretty well-known that the risk of contamination increases with line speed,” she says, referring to the rate at which a line of animals is processed. “As more animals are processed as they move, more errors occur—typically, guts get spilled, or if the hide is filthy it gets on the meat.” And lines move fast at factories—as many as 325 cattle can fly past cutters per hour.

Despite regulators’ refusal to recognize the needs of small processors, there’s a new glimmer of hope for Central Texas ranchers and farmers. Yonder Way Farm’s Kramer is addressing the dwindling processing options head-on. He plans to open a USDA-certified facility on his farm to process chicken and other livestock. His family’s investment of more than $120,000 ensures he’ll be able to process and sell some of the 80 cattle, 60 hogs and 800 hens he raises—as well as those of his neighbors. He also plans to process both conventionally and organically raised animals, but on different days.

“Finally, we’ll be able to offer our Ranging Roasters, the first fully inspected, organically raised and processed chickens in Central Texas,” says chicken farmer Sue Beckwith, cofounder of Shades of Green Farm in Bastrop.

Not only will Kramer’s new facility reduce Beckwith’s long drive to a Dallas processor, but new markets are now available to her farm. Valerie Broussard, organic-food coordinator at Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom, whose event facility's organic commitment extends down to the biodegradable soap in the kitchen, is overjoyed that she’ll no longer have to source organic chickens from Wisconsin.

“Every month we’ve agreed to buy a set number of Shades of Green’s birds, and we’ll give them two months notice if we make any changes,” says Broussard. “We want these farmers to succeed, and we’re committed to being a reliable source because we are so desperate for local, organic meat.”

Another promising development for local clean-meat fans is underway with Tink Pinkard, a butcher who recently moved to Austin to launch Texas’s first mobile livestock-processing unit.

Pinkard’s passion for this venture grew out of concern for “old time” farmers near his family’s ranch in Rock Springs. “I heard lots of depressing stories,” he says. “There was an older man raising Red Angus—really taking care of his animals—but he went out of business because he couldn’t get to a butcher shop. And I know lots of farmers in Rock Springs who put their hats down because they couldn’t find buyers for their meat.”

If Pinkard can wade through the bureaucratic red tape and secure upwards of $150,000 in financing, his Heritage Processing From Gate to Plate aims to change that. The former fly-fishing guide credits Bruce Dunlop—the Washington hog farmer who designed the first USDA-certified slaughterhouse-on-wheels—with “putting the hook in my lip.” Today, there are about 15 units at work around the country, including one at Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram (state certified for wild game only) that inspired Dunlop.

What Pinkard envisions are certified trucks—perhaps 18-wheelers or FedEx-style delivery trucks—that drive to farms to harvest livestock. This small-scale processing for small-scale producers will give farmers more control over how animals are finished, result in a more humane slaughter and a tastier product (because less adrenaline will be released into the meat) and give rise to more sustainable methods (like composting offal rather than throwing it away—see nichemeatprocessing.org and click on “videos” to see a mobile unit.)

“I’ll harvest from nose to tail,” he says, meaning killing, eviscerating and skinning—skills he acquired at his grandfather’s Louisiana grocery and butcher shop, then fine-tuned while harvesting bison at Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch in Montana. Local farms like Loncito’s Lamb and Richardson Farms have also asked him to package and label their products, but that requires locating and leasing a USDA-certified facility where meat can be refrigerated and aged.

“Let’s start feeding a lot of people—not just the ones who walk past a booth at the farmers market and decide to have pork for dinner,” says Pinkard. “We need to bring up the production levels.”

Personally, I can hardly wait to see his truck drive up our lane.

What you can do


• Tell Congress “No” to food safety bills HR 2749 and S 510, which will cripple local food producers and limit consumers’ ability to seek out alternatives to the industrial food system. Congress is proposing to apply HACCP to every food processor, including local providers of breads, jams and syrups and farmers who prepare foods. Stop forcing one-size-fits-all regulations onto small businesses—exempt small producers. For updates on the status of these bills, visit: govtrack.us.

• Contact local farmers to buy meat in bulk.

• Ask your butcher for fresh, locally raised and processed and sustainably produced meats.

• Encourage a new generation to consider becoming butchers.

• Join FARFA. Multibillion-dollar corporate food companies have armies of lobbyists ensuring rules favor their businesses. Small Texas growers have FARFA. Visit: farmandranchfreedom.org.

Things you should know


• More than 85 percent of U.S. beef cattle are slaughtered by just four companies.

• Two companies sell half of U.S. corn seed.?

• One company controls 40 percent of the U.S. fluid milk supply. Between 1997 and 2007, an average of 5,000 dairy farms were lost annually, for a total loss of over 52,000 dairies in just a decade.

• Five firms dominate the grocery sector, ensuring that low prices paid to farmers aren't passed along to consumers at the store.

• The 500,000 hogs at one Smithfield subsidiary in Utah create eight times more waste than the Salt Lake City metro area, the state’s biggest city.

• The U.S. food system uses 10 nonrenewable fossil fuel calories to produce only one food calorie, and spends a total of 10,551 quadrillion joules of energy each year, which is roughly the same amount used annually by all of France. Only one-fifth of this energy is used in agricultural production. The rest is expended moving, processing, packaging, selling, and storing food after it leaves the farm.

Source: Food & Water Watch

For a good listing of additional references, visit sustainabletable.org/issues