Loving a Good Slaughterhouse

By Ben Eisendrath

On a drive through Pennsylvania, the author and his father stop at Jamison Lamb, one of the premier providers of fresh lamb to the East Coast, to witness a day in the life of a specialty slaughterhouse.

Ben Eisendrath

"I want to see your slaughterhouse," I told John.

With his wife, Sukey, John runs Jamison Lamb, one of the premier providers of fresh lamb to the Eastern United States culinary community. Every year, they process 3,000 to 5,000 lambs, handling, packaging, and shipping animals raised in Pennsylvania, both on their own pastures and from nearby ranches.

I was at their farm with my father during one of our annual road trips, he in his '64 Morgan and me on my '99 Harley. This year both of us had been blessed with perfect motoring weather. A friend of a friend, hearing that we were traveling through Pennsylvania, described the farm and its idyllic setting, then e-introduced us to its proprietors. We decided to visit.

As billed, the farm was set in Garden-of-Eden surroundings, complete with pastures of rolling hills dotted by clumps of shade trees and lively flocks of sheep.

Dad and I watched as things got started. The first butcher dispatched a lamb with a special captured-bolt tool held like a staple gun.

The farm tour was naturally gorgeous, but dad and I zeroed in on a rare opportunity in the modern food world -- a chance to watch specialist Jamison butchers process a batch of lambs, to herd, kill, and ready them for shipping to restaurants. It was spring -- harvest time. John Jamison was surprised by the question, but agreed.

We arrived bright and early the next morning at the small building the Jamisons use to do this most important work. Five animals were on deck, milling around a small pen in the corner of the pristinely white interior. John explained the skills and role of each of the three 20-something butchers as if they were carefully-ordered batters in his lineup. A helmeted inspector from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) waited at the end of the line to check each finished animal. Hoses were running at every station. Jamison stressed that above all, time is of the essence -- the animals must have no idea what's coming.

"Stress is both inhumane and damaging to the meat," he said.

John lectured us on the folly of operations that don't follow speed rules, railing against those who would pollute their meat with the adrenaline of fear or shock it with cold. He showed us his two carefully controlled cooling rooms -- one slightly colder than the other -- designed to bring the finished animal gradually to near-freezing, a process that prevents toughening "cold shortening," or the clenching of muscles subjected to sudden cold.

Dad and I watched as things got started. The first butcher dispatched a lamb with a special captured-bolt tool held like a staple gun. The animal was hoisted out of the pen and handled expertly by each man in the order before arriving at the USDA inspector as a clean 35 lb package of premium meat. All in the space of ten minutes. As soon as the first man's station was clear the next lamb was processed. Special care was taken for speed between the fourth and fifth lamb, with John pointing out that the highest danger of stress lies in the moment the last creature realizes it is alone. Until the end, to our considerable amazement, the little herd wandered about.

So what we had was a slaughterhouse that was gleamingly sanitary, complete with the USDA on-hand, processing local lambs in such a way that they appeared to have no inkling that the end was nigh. Lambs that knew nothing other than cavorting around in a Pennsylvania postcard.

Dad and I had expected to witness the necessary evil (to us carnivores) of a skilled slaughterhouse, a spectacle we believe should be familiar to all meat eaters. And coming from an adventurous culinary background overseas and then rough-edged rural Michigan we'd seen plenty of variety in these scenes. But this one was different. We came away feeling plain-old good. For us, John and Sukey became a point of reference for how food animals should be treated.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/loving-a-good-slaughterhouse/254926/