Most consumers are comfortable with the fact that for them to enjoy their steaks, bacon or chicken wings, an animal must be put to death and processed into meat. However, just because they are comfortable with that fact, it doesn’t mean that they want to see it, know about it or live in the vicinity of where it’s taking place.
Such is the state of slaughter in the United States today. Consumers are projected to eat a record amount of meat, so there must be a steady supply of available protein. The slaughter process must be done humanely and with great respect to the animal, and existing regulations and employee training ensure that this happens in every slaughter plant every day. However, industry consolidation has reduced the amount of packers to a handful of dominant players, and federal regulations are so strict that some companies are closing down or exiting the slaughter side of the business.
According to the Livestock Slaughter 2017 Summary, assembled by the National Agricultural Statistics Service and released this past April, there were 834 plants slaughtering under federal inspection on January 1, 2018 compared with 814 last year. While it is good for the industry that the number of slaughterhouse ticked upward, there is a high concentration of volume done at the largest plants. Of the 666 plants that slaughtered at least one head of cattle in 2017, the 13 largest plants accounted for 57 percent of the total cattle killed. Similarly, there were hogs slaughtered at 636 plants, with the 13 largest accounting for 59 percent of the total. Seventy-two percent of calves slaughtered in the country came from five of 190 plants, and 38 percent of sheep or lambs slaughtered in the country came from just two of 537 plants.
Total red meat production in the country increased 3 percent, with a total of 52.1 billion pounds produced in 2017. Federally inspected plants were far and away the dominant source for slaughter, as would be expected. Federal inspection accounted for 98.5 percent of cattle slaughter, 98.2 percent of calf slaughter, 99.3 of hog slaughter and 88.9 of sheep and lambs slaughtered. Just four states — Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Texas — accounted for 49 percent of all commercial meat production in the United States.
Conventional protein is widely available, but the most vulnerable (and most lucrative, potentially) niches are the ones that feel the squeeze of consolidation. The larger packers may not take the low volumes of grass-fed, antibiotic-free or specialty animals that small, independent producers raise. If a local abattoir closes down or shifts operations, it can have a profound effect on the nearby agricultural community.
“This can be devastating to a community and also to the livestock, that now have to be transported farther for processing,” says Erika Voogd of Voogd Consulting Inc. “The family farmers, farmer’s markets and many high-end chefs rely on these small plants for custom processing of their animals into specific cuts, recipes and styles of products.”
Voogd has traveled the world, applying her expertise in animal welfare, food safety and more critical issues in the meat and poultry industries. She believes that there is an increased need and a demand for smaller processors who are willing to kill a dozen animals at a time instead of hundreds per day.
“I believe there is a greater interest in smaller “niche” style processing plants due to the consumer movement towards wanting to know where their food comes from and wanting a personal relationship with the retailer,” she says.
One solution that has been used in several areas to remedy the lack of a local slaughterhouse is to operate a mobile slaughter unit (MSU). There are USDA and state-inspected units in operation in different parts of the country for poultry and red meat species, according to the Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN). The organization notes that such mobile units are typically cheaper to build than a stationary slaughter facility, and it can travel to the animals instead of having to put the animals in a trailer to travel to the slaughterhouse.
As a downside, they are limited in their capacity and accessibility. NMPAN also notes that since the units only handle slaughter, they still require access to a cut-and-wrap facility. To get a full overview of the MSU, visit http://www.nichemeatprocessing.org/mobile-unit-overview. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) also has information about MSUs, as well as two archived webinars, on its compliance guides index page, available at http://bit.ly/2GsVt2g.
Chico Locker & Sausage Co., located in Chico, Calif., has a refrigerated truck that the company uses for on-farm slaughter. Due to California regulations, the company is only able to process custom exempt products, meaning that the meat is sent back to the family that owned the animal. It cannot be put into commerce.
David Dewey, Chico Locker owner, said that the need for on-farm slaughter had dropped, but demand has risen over the last couple of years. There are very few slaughterhouses in northern California, so farmers have limited options for having their animals processed.
“Every town had a locker plant in it, and as guys got older and couldn’t sell them, they closed them down and retired,” Dewey says of the locker plants that used to be in the area. “We just happened to diversify and put in a deli, started making sausage and started doing other things that helped the bottom line.
“Now [on-farm processing] is starting to grow again with farm to table. Everybody wants to know where their food is coming from,” he adds.
Most of the animals that Chico Locker processes on-farm are hogs, cattle and sheet, but the company has slaughtered emus, ostriches, alpacas, llamas and goats as well. Dewey says that the custom exempt laws do hamper the efforts of producers to sell their own products at farmer’s markets and restaurants. The nearest slaughterhouses are booked months in advance, and the other alternatives are hundreds of miles away. While Dewey says he’s skeptical that the laws may be loosened, he’s hopeful that some smaller slaughterhouses might open up again.
No margin for error in slaughter
From a practical, regulatory standpoint and from a moral standpoint, any slaughter operation should designed with the comfort of the animal in mind.
“The last few minutes of life, combined with the transport, breeding, trust of humans and nutrition all contribute to the meat quality and palatability,” Voogd says. Furthermore, humane handling is a regulatory requirement and a high point of concern among consumers, she adds.
Common defects that can occur when an animal is handled improperly prior to slaughter include bruising and dark cutting beef. Any agitated animal, particularly one as large as a cow, can be a danger to employees as well. Reducing stress and pain throughout the life of the animal improves both the final product and employee safety.
Technology has helped to make the process easier on both the animal and the operator.
“There have been many advances in the hand held stun tools making, the bolts longer and the power stronger, to more effectively stun larger livestock,” Voogd says. “Many companies have developed improved mats and flooring to prevent slips and improve animal footing.”
The proper use of restraints can help reduce incidents of mis-stunning and other injuries suffered in the kill process, Voogd says. The use of head restraints has improved the accuracy of captive bolt stunning of cattle, and the use of side restraints on pigs has improved the accuracy and consistency of the electrical stunning in the smaller plants.
The use of constant amperage electrical stunners has greatly improved overall stun quality in electrically stunned pigs. Voogd says that one plant reduced broken backs and pelvis’s from 17 percent to less than 0.25 percent per day.
“By using a scissor style wand for head/heart stunning, the plant can be assured of wand placement and reduce the chance for interrupted stunning, which is a welfare and quality issue,” she adds.
Controlled atmosphere stunning has been gaining in use among chicken slaughter and hog slaughter. The group handling aspect of it in pigs can reduce pre-slaughter stress, but Voogd says that the cost could be an issue for a smaller processor.
“I am aware of one medium sized processor that installed a CO2 system for about 60 pigs per hour/500 per day. The system is working well and producing a high quality product with a low initial investment.”
The training level and disposition of the slaughter personnel also play a part in making a successful kill step. Voogd advises operators to stay calm, be patient, understand the basic principles of handling animals and learn about animal behavior every day. Keep trying new ideas, record what works and what doesn’t and share your improvements.
“The bottom line is you have to like and respect animals. We are killing these animals to nourish our own bodies. If we treat them poorly, the karma of a bad experience carries through to the meat. If you do not believe that and do not do your job with that thought in mind, get out of the business,” she says.