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Processing Meats on Farm

Mobile Slaughter Yesterday,

Today and Tomorrow?

by Lynn Miller

“Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away…”

It was 1971 in Drain, Oregon, and I managed a small cattle and sheep ranch for some investors. Part of my wage was a steer to raise for personal use or sale. There were only two of us in the family at the time and I knew we wouldn’t consume a whole beef in a timely manner so I made arrangements to sell half to someone with the understanding that the cut and wrapped packages would have to carry a NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION stamp on the wrapping paper.

I had seen the truck running around locally with a sign on the side which said CUSTOM MEAT CUTTER and a phone number so I called. It was a small family-owned business thirty miles away. They told me straight away that their facility wasn’t federally inspected. I didn’t care. (In my rustic, hardscrabble, farm and ranch community, federal inspection was a joke – an extra fee you paid to get a stamp of approval with no one really inspecting anything.)

As a service to small ranches and farms, for a nominal fee, this custom cutter would send out their truck, a 1952 Ford 2-ton with a plywood box on the back featuring a steel trolley-track which extended out three feet back of the big rear door. If I made arrangements to have the steer close at hand, the driver would dispatch it and prepare it for a return trip to their cooler, where it would hang for 10 to 14 days before being cut and wrapped. They requested that there be a water hose nearby during slaughter.

So I made the arrangements like many others before me. Pretty sure of what was to follow. There weren’t any surprises. The driver got out of the truck, made small talk, checked the site and the water availability and removed a 22-gauge rifle from the cab. One perfectly placed shot and the steer dropped dead. Quickly the driver became butcher; making a clean incision at the jugular vein to bleed out the animal. He backed the truck up and rigged a butcher’s stretcher bar between the hocks. He then pulled a trolley out along the track and threaded a cable from his winch hooking the end into the stretcher bar center ring. Slowly the dead steer was yarded upside down until it hung free. Then came the hands-on process of eviscerating, skinning and halving the carcass.

The two halves were winched into the truck box and wrapped in plastic sheets with tags stapled to them. The driver offered to take the hide, head and vital organs if they weren’t desired. Everything was hosed off and the driver left to go back to the butcher shop and cooler.

On another occasion, I hauled a 250 lb pig 50 miles into a custom cutter’s facility near Elmira, Oregon where everything was done for me including smoking and curing hams and bacon with a maple recipe that was outrageously good. No inspection and the packages stamped accordingly.

These services are still legal in many parts of the country. And, depending on how remote and “rural” an area is, it is completely acceptable. But with the growth in ‘certified organic’ local foods and the swelling of food poisoning scares, if a famer is to avail him or herself of the strong new market demand for direct meat sales every effort must be made to go well beyond simple compliance with state and federal regulations.

For me in my yesterdays, the scenario above repeated many times over, constitutes my earned understanding of ‘mobile slaughtering’. That’s why this new buzz around these words, as if this was something absolutely unique and brand new, seems a bit odd. Odd, that is, until I started to do some research.

Today is just a worry away…

Today, restaurants, local shops, and individuals are demanding local, fresh, clean meat products from farmers they might actually know. That demand now figures into the millions. In some cases they are even demanding organic certification. That translates to state and federally inspected facilities, process and product. The new application of the term mobile slaughtering presupposes that we are talking about a facility and process that is federally inspected and approved, that cancels out those old guys with their plywood boxes mounted crudely to the back of a flatbed truck. Enter the shiny, stainless steel, fully heated, cooled and plumbed mobil antiseptic processing plant. Not a bad thing IF it honors those and that which it would serve. But if such a big shiny farm invader inserts itelf into the independent small farmer’s world with the sort of industrial insistence some dairy co-ops have come to represent, it could quickly become a nightmare.

But shouldn’t we back up a notch and ask why bother? We must bother because, as it has been said many times and many ways, this is one of those places where opportunity and need meet but without a suitable bridge. Let’s not make it into a toll bridge with a customs office at the end. Beware those who smell a very big profit with this need.

The demand for fresh, local meat products – with no taint of industrial process – is absolutely staggering. And there seems no end to the growth of that demand – ergo opportunity. On the other side we have a comensurate growth in the number of new small farms answering the call for these products. But the farm, typically, is not set up to realize the value-added processing that takes the chicken, duck, catfish, turkey, steer, lamb or hog through to a cut and wrapped article. And the industrial options aren’t options. So we have a situation where it is clear that answering the processing need in a scale and cost appropriate way will not only add to farm profitability but, perhaps more importantly, will allow for, and encourage, the growth in small farm numbers to expand exponentially. Far-sighted farmers and farm organizations saw this and have been working over the last eight years to theoretically answer the need with research, development, prototype and infrastructure (though too little of that essential element). So we now have some working examples to consider.

On Lopez Island, west and north of Seattle, the first of these fully approved mobile slaughter units was put into operation in 2002 with a USDA nod and federal inspector on board. Since that time the USDA has certified eight others for large animals across the country. (Separately, a handful of specialized units geared towards poultry are cropping up in various configurations across the country.) While these are very few in number they do now represent some working history that would seem to point in interesting directions. All of the units which have been in full operation report tremendous local farm community acceptance and process success with every indication of growth in numbers. Those are internal conclusions. Externally we are beginning to see the making of an almost predictable backlash against the model(s). There are the opening squeaks of a propaganda campaign to paint mobile slaughter units as engines of contamination. This in spite of the fact that great pains have been taken to design these various prototypes to satisfy all state and federal sanitation regulations AND include on-board USDA inspectors assuring, in some cases, that the meats also measure up to organic certification standards as well.

The concept of the mobile slaughtering unit is gaining traction and all around the country news articles are popping up. Perhaps this is why we are seeing folks prompted to make criticisms that come more from speculation than knowledge. One of those frequently stated in New England is that the concept has a serious flaw because it does not take into reality the pressing need for suitable matching cold storage and flash freezing capabilities.

There are a variety of theories around how long meat should “cool” in the carcass before it is cut, wrapped and frozen. And there is great mystery and argument around what constitutes true ”fresh” (- i.e. if it has ever been frozen, how can you possible call it fresh?). But customarily a large animal carcass should cool from 8 days to two weeks. So what we see here is a bit of a disconnect. All of these prototype units presuppose delivery of a slaughtered carcass to a centralized cooling facility. It should be obvious that a mobile unit of anywhere from 35 to 55 feet long would quickly lack space to handle cold storage for any appreciable number of carcasses. And these units, in order to be fully useful and profitable need to move on the very next day to another farm.

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