I’ve managed to keep up with the pasture rotations, maintain the feed quality, and raise happy hogs by satisfying their nature to root, explore, and play. But in the end, handling at slaughter can ruin all this effort to raise top quality pork. I knew from my family’s own experiences in raising beef cattle that handling stress at slaughter could impact the meat. It wasn’t until I read studies by Temple Grandin and others that I understood how stressed animals have higher lactate levels, which can lead to poor meat quality.
I’d scheduled my hogs with Country Meat Cutters based on recommendations from others, but my own unanswered question hung at the back of my mind. How could I really know that my hogs would be handled well at the critical moments? How could I ensure myself and my customers that months of humane animal husbandry wouldn’t end with hogs squealing and freaked out in the moments before death. It’s not like packing plants let you walk around and see what goes on behind closed doors, at least not the plants I’ve been to.
Leslie, a friend of ours, brought the whole question to the front of my mind, asking if I could ensure that the hogs were killed as humanely as possible. I had to tell her that I didn’t actually know, that I had to go on reputation that Country Meat Cutters processed animals with up-to-date methods. I hated not knowing the complete answer.
When the rain kept me inside on Tuesday, I called Country Meat Cutters to ask about their killing and handling process, and spoke directly with Deb, one of the owners. “Why don’t you come up and see?” she said after answering a few of my questions. “We kill on Thursdays. Cattle in the morning, hogs in the afternoon.” I told her I would come at some point.
I wondered what I’d see. I knew it wouldn’t be pretty. What if I didn’t like it? What would I tell customers? What would I do then?
After pondering it while moving pigs, while taking a shower, while lying awake in bed, I decided that I’d write exactly what I saw on the blog. People who eat meat need to understand how it gets to the grocery store. I figured whatever I would see at Country Meat Cutters would be a representative example, and that if people couldn’t stomach at least reading about the process, then they shouldn’t be eating meat.
“That’s quite a position for you to take, if you’re trying to sell pork,” my dad said on the phone. True, but I can’t separate my obligation to answer the question from the obligation to honestly share the answer.
I pulled into Country Meat Cutters at exactly 1 p.m. yesterday. I wondered if they’d remembered inviting me. Walking up to the office entrance, I expected a surly woman of a certain age, the front-office gatekeeper personality that always seems annoyed when someone walks through the door. A bright-eyed woman, younger than I am and wearing a hair net, asked, “Can I help ya’?’ with a smile.
I told her I’d spoken with Deb and came to watch them kill hogs.
“Ok,” she said. “Come on back,” and she led me through empty cutting rooms, all concrete floors with drains and a heavy track along the ceiling. Down the hall, a tall, thin woman wearing a fleece and ball cap was reviewing a clipboard stacked with paperwork. This was Deb.
Deb immediately showed me into the kill floor where they were still processing beef. Two men skinned a beef as it lay legs up on a trolly. Another man was removing the hide from a carcass now hanging from the twin-hooked gambrel. Then they gutted the carcass. Another man on a platform sawed a carcass in half vertically with a handheld bandsaw suspended from a cable. Someone else hosed down the halves. I watched them work for a minute, impressed by their efficiency.
“We have a lot of beef today. They’ll get to hogs in a while,” Deb said. “Do you want to see the rest?”
She showed me the freezers where they cool carcasses before cutting them, and then the freezers where they hold the processed meat for customers (I know why she wore a fleece). Then the smoking room where they smoke the hams and bacon, the wrapping area, and the cutting rooms. She explained their labeling and wrapping system and then showed me how they track the meat from kill through processing and showed me her best example of a farmer’s spreadsheet that indicated which animals went to which customers. Back down the hall to the kill floor, she introduced me to Greg, the other owner and her husband. Greg wore a bloody waterproof apron, and two knives in a plastic scabbard hung from a stainless steel chain around his waist. He worked the kill floor right alongside his employees.
“We actually have a load of sheep to do before we get to hogs,” he said. “You’re welcome to watch as long as you want.”
He guided me to a spot at the rail along “the pit”. The pole barn with the holding pens is adjacent to the processing building, but it’s about four feet lower than the processing building. The pit in the kill room is a depressed concrete bunker the same level as the holding pens. Animals walk a level path and stop in the pit because they can’t go any farther.
The slaughterman in the pit opened the door to the aisle outside and led two sheep in. The sheep looked around, not frightened, but trying to get a sense of where they were. The slaughterman hosed down their heads and then hit a switch, illuminating the lights on a red box mounted to the wall. He grabbed the stunner, a prod the size of a baseball bat, with a pair of V-prongs on the end. He touched the stunner to the back of a sheep’s head and the animal dropped without a sound. He quickly hung up the stunner, grabbed a knife from his scabbard, and slit the sheep’s throat so it could bleed into the drain on the floor.
Stunning, done properly, will induce “instantaneous, painless unconsciousness” according to Temple Grandin, in an explanation of stunning. The heart will continue to beat, just long enough to pump out blood that would otherwise taint the meat. The animal should feel nothing, not even the shock.
The slaughterman hooked the sheep’s rear hooves to a hoist to lift it out of the pit. He stunned and bled the next sheep quickly, without a sound. Another man was already hoisting the first sheep into the skinning cradle. The slaughterman led two more sheep in.
Eight men and one woman worked the kill floor. They were an even mix of Hispanic and white and a broad age range. They moved efficiently, but not with a rush. They smiled and joked with each other. Anyone who walked past me said hi. I watched the slaughterman kill and bleed two more sheep. I was surprised that I didn’t mind watching this. Animal stress stresses me the same way hearing a baby crying will stress most parents. I’ve been in a a building with five thousand laying hens from a big name organic co-op and I’ve been in a couple confinement hog operations. I remember more animal stress in those places than I saw in the kill pit.
Far from the negative image most slaughter houses get, Country Meat Cutters looked like a good environment for animals and employees. They had several more sheep to process before they got to hogs. I didn’t need to wait around. I had my answer. Now, you do too.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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