The Need for Custom Slaughter

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I stood behind Monte Winship on a frigid morning last December as he raised his .25-caliber Winchester rifle and aimed at Léo, a two-and-a-half-year-old Holstein steer.

In an era when Food and Water Watch, an environmental group, reports that four giant corporations—Tyson, Cargill, Swift, and National Beef Packing—process 84 percent of this country's cattle, the scene in that snow-covered field in Vermont is increasingly rare: an animal was about to be humanely slaughtered on the very farm where it had been raised.

Winship and his old, lever-action rifle represent the polar opposite of the huge, 5,000-animal-per-day meatpacking plants that were so graphically brought to the country's attention in Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation. "There aren't many of us left," said Winship, who is in his fifties. "When I was a kid, every town had someone doing this job."

In the jargon of the meat business, Winship's work is considered "custom slaughter." He is a freelancer, traveling from farm to farm, killing cattle and hogs and transporting their gutted carcasses to a nearby facility to be cut into parts, wrapped, and frozen. As a means for converting a living steer into meat, the practice has a lot going for it. For one thing, it is as humane as killing an animal can be.

A humane death for Léo; healthy meat for the consumer. What's not to like? Plenty, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

"It's the best way to slaughter them because you don't have to transport them," Temple Grandin, the renowned author, livestock handling expert, and associate professor at Colorado State University, told me. Being trucked long distances and then herded shoulder-to-shoulder into confined areas with strange sights and noises is a huge stress on animals, she said. A cow killed on its home turf doesn't know what hits it. "If on-farm slaughter is done properly, it's very, very humane," Grandin said.

It is also a way for a skeptical consumer to make sure the animal had access to pasture and did not spend its final months in a feedlot pumped full of hormones and eating an unnatural diet of corn fortified with antibiotics.

A humane death for Léo; healthy meat for the consumer. What's not to like? Plenty, according to the United States Department of Agriculture—the same folks whose rigorous standards all but guarantee that yet another E. coli outbreak hits the news every week. Because the USDA refuses to give on-farm slaughter its little purple stamp of blessing, it is illegal to sell meat butchered this way. Léo's meat would be consumed only by the family of the farmer who had raised him.

On-farm slaughter is one solution to the problem of how to have local, sustainable meat properly killed and butchered, but legal questions aside, it has a major drawback. "Once you get into more than a few animals," said Grandin, who is never one to mince words, "you'd have a dirty mess."

An alternative is to take animals to small slaughterhouses for killing and processing. But even as consumer demand has soared, the number of local processing facilities nationwide has plummeted. More than 1,500 have closed in the last two decades, according to the American Association of Meat Processors, which represents small- and medium-sized processors. As Patrick Martins of Heritage Foods USA, the sales and marketing arm of Slow Food USA, told Food and Water Watch, "The lack of slaughterhouses is the biggest bottleneck in the food business."

Such back-ups create huge problems. In one case, a dozen Vermont farmers pooled their resources to purchase a truck to serve the lucrative New York and Boston markets, where their products sell for three times the going rate in rural Vermont. But the scarcity of slaughterhouses means the animals must be trucked alive out of the state to be processed, which is both inconvenient and expensive. The situation is even more dire in New York State, where only 41 slaughterhouses remained in business in 2008, down from more than 120 in the 1980s. Pam McSweeny, a New York farmer who raises organic meat, has to truck her animals 10 hours to Pennsylvania and back to have them processed, a huge expense.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.
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