After a farmer has put a lot of care and attention into raising a high quality animal (or at least one would hope), the butchering of that animal can either elevate or degrade the quality- it is the most critical step. In order to sell retail cuts of meat a farmer must have it processed under USDA (United States Department of Agriculture, or as some folks call it- USDuh) inspection or in some states they can process under state inspection (which use USDA equivalent standards). However, if a farmer plans to sell meat across state lines, they will need USDA-inspected meat cutting. Having a USDA stamp on the meat’s label will give the farmer more flexibility in selling their meat- they can sell direct or wholesale to stores or restaurants with that stamp. It doesn’t necessarily mean that meat is safer. There are plenty of small, custom butcher shops that have impeccable food safety records. But custom butcher shops don’t have the level of inspection that would allow a farmer to use them to process retail cuts of meat. In fact, the custom shops often stamp the meat packages with “Not for Sale” on them. I have seen farmers in a few states selling “Not for Sale” meat as so-called pet food. But I doubt too many customers are buying $18/lb. pork tenderloin for their doggies, if ya know what I mean. Of course, a farmer can always choose to do things illegally and process meat on their farms or in a custom facility, but it’s risky to run a business by breaking the law. For personal consumption, friends and family, on-farm processing is the way to go (especially if they all come out to help!).
Nonetheless, finding a USDA-inspected butcher can be a frustrating endeavor. For illustration, we had only three USDA-inspected butchers to cut and wrap our pigs in the entire state of California (that we could find). We tried all of them and were unhappy with the quality of all three. After making a couple futile phone calls to the USDA to find another, we downloaded the latest list of USDA inspected meat plants for the state (see this link: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/regulations_&_Policies/Meat_Poultry_Egg_Inspection_Directory/index.asp ). Unfortunately this directory is organized alphabetically by name of processor, instead of by state or by animal species they process, so you will get to waste lots of time wading through it to find facilities in your state. We read through hundreds of pages to find around 20 potential butchering facilities in California and then spent another day calling each one of them. Turns out they all do specialty items like beef jerky, sausage, or meatballs, but only 1 out of 20 was willing to process whole pigs for us. Their employees had NEVER broken down whole pigs before because they were accustomed to working with 50lb. boxes of pork shoulder to make only a single product- meatballs. We spent a day working with their butchers, explaining how we wanted things, and left them with detailed cutting instructions, crossing our fingers as we left. Long story short, they messed up every single cut and we lost money trying to sell those inferior cuts at market. They simply did not have the skills to work with whole animals, nor cut & wrap retail cuts for a farmer.
If you are a meat producer, there are all sorts of pit falls to be aware of when getting your meat cut & wrapped. If you are a butcher, maybe this section will inspire you to communicate better with the farmers you work with and participate in educating both the farmer and consumers. If you are a consumer, while you may never have to think about these things, understanding the logistics and the challenges might make you a better partner in the food system. Here are some of the key lessons we have learned about butchering, both from our own experience as farmers and talking to other farmers around the country:
Research all the possibilities for USDA or State inspected butchering available to you. Call them and try to talk to the owner/manager about their experience, species they typically work with, markets they typically cut for, what kind of specialty products they offer, packaging equipment, etc. Do they seem excited to have your business or can you hear their eyes rolling in their heads at the thought of cutting your meat. If they don’t seem particularly enamored with working with you then they probably won’t do a quality job with your meat either. Leave them be. After you have found a motivated butchering facility to cut your meat, go visit in person. Tour the facility if you can, see their walk-in coolers, watch their butchers at work, inspect the cleanliness of the facility, ask them about their procedures for packaging and freezing the meat, etc. If they won’t give you a tour, they either have something to hide or don’t want your business. Leave them be. Don’t forget to get a price sheet and maybe buy a few meat products they have on display, such as their specialty sausages or a steak to see how well they cut it. If you plan to run a lot of animals through a facility, I would suggest asking the butcher for some references of other farmers they have cut for. You don’t want to risk a lot of volume of meat getting poorly butchered. If they can’t provide any references, ask them why.
PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUTTING INSTRUCTIONS
Once you have selected a butcher to work with, you have to provide them with cutting instructions that make the most of your animal, that will sell at market, and that the butchers are capable of doing. Ask them for advice too- they should have a good handle on ways to cut up your animal. Questions to consider when developing your cutting instructions include:
1. SIZE & THICKNESS: How big or thick do I want my cuts? For example, will you make small roasts around 2-3 pounds or big, family-size roasts of 4-5 pounds? Will your steaks or chops be cut thick or do your customers like them thinner?
2. BONE-IN OR BONELESS: Will you leave the bones in the steaks and roasts or remove them? If you remove them, will you loose value on those bones? If you leave them in, will your customers be willing to pay for that?
3. SEASONALITY: Think about the season of the year that you will be marketing this load of meat. Roasts sell better in the winter, steaks & chops sell better in the summer. Summer also means hot dog & link sausage season for the barbeque.
4. QUANTITY: Do you customers tend to have smaller or bigger families? Will they buy chops individually, 2 per package, 4 per package, etc? Should you cut that rack of ribs into smaller 1-2 pounds packages? In my opinion it is always easier to sell smaller packages than it is to sell larger packages. If people want more they can simply buy more packages. Think versatility.
5. ORGAN MEATS & FAT: How can you maximize the value of the carcass? Will you save and package the bones for customer wanting to make stock? Will you save and package the organ meats or turn them into other products such as liver pate? Will you save and package the backfat for customers wanting to make lard or tallow? Could you make lard or tallow yourself in order to sell easier? Will your fat scraps be saved for sausage or grind? Also, what fat percentage will you make your ground meats (i.e. 15% fat, 20% fat, etc.)? Will some of your customers be asking for a lean ground meat product while others asking for a fattier product?
6. NITRITES: Will you use sodium nitrite or use a nitrite-free curing process for things like hot dogs, hams, bacon, cured sausages or salamis? Will your customers demand this? Will the quality be sufficient? You may ask the butcher to provide you with a sample of their nitrite-free product before you order up a bunch of it with your animal. Even if your customers demand it, if they purchase one of your nitrite-free products and hate it, they won’t buy it again and you may even loose a customer. You may even decide not to cure certain parts of the animal if you are not happy with their curing quality. For example, you could sell uncured pork leg roasts instead of ham or turn that meat into higher value sausage. Pork belly might sell just as well as cured bacon, depending on your customers. Consider the tradeoffs.
7. CURING & SMOKING: On the subject of curing and smoking, find out more about their practices. How long do they cure? Do they dry cure or only wet cure? Do they really smoke the meat or use liquid smoke instead? If their curing and smoking practices are not high quality, it may degrade the value of your meat instead of elevating it. The whole point is to ADD VALUE, otherwise you might as well sell your animal by the side.
GET TO KNOW YOUR MARKET
Getting to know the preferences of your customers is critical to almost every one of the questions above. But how do you go about finding the preferences of your customers, especially when you are a new producer that is looking for new customers? First off, look at the demographic data of the potential customer base (start with zip code data). Things like average age, average family size, income levels, racial or ethnicity data will all give you some clues to your potential customer base. For example, a young population may not have the income nor the cooking skills to utilize a wide variety of meat cuts, but they may love small packages of easy to cook cuts or things like jerky that you don’t have to cook at all. Small families will want smaller packages; larger families might like larger packages or may be looking for budget cuts to feed more people. Income levels will determine many things such as package size, sales of budget cuts versus high-end cuts, what kind of value-added products you may want to make or not make, etc. Ethnicity data may indicate whether or not you should use religious slaughter (i.e. hallal or kosher?), what animals will likely sell (i.e. lamb or pork?), how you want to process things (i.e. making an all beef hot dog versus a pork/beef frankfurter?), what types of further processing you may want to do (i.e. kinds of sausage, cured products, etc.). There is an amazing array of sausages out there, for example, but will your customers want chorizo, andouille, or bratwurst?
After scanning the demographic data, I suggest wandering around the markets you plan to sell in. Do some people watching, eavesdrop at a meat booth, see what is selling and listen to what kinds of questions people are asking. Or if you plan to sell mostly via an on-line storefront or meat buying club, look at what other producers are doing in your marketplace or survey those customers already on your email list about their preferences.
PACKAGING & LABELING
Packaging of meat can be in wax-covered butcher paper with our without a plastic liner or plastic vacuum-sealed packages. Smaller facilities, especially state-inspected facilities, may not have an expensive, commercial vacuum-sealer so they wrap everything in butcher paper. Butcher paper is great when a customer walks into a shop, selects a cuts of meat through the window, and the butcher wraps their cut in paper. But if you plan to sell pre-packaged meat at farmers’ markets or other locations, you may want to use transparent vacuum-sealed packaging so that customers can see the meat through the packaging. That gives them a measure of selection and more confidence in the product. Make sure you handle the vacuum-sealed packages gently so that you don’t accidentally break the seal or puncture the meat. Butcher paper can tear and can get mushy from moisture such as ice build-up in your freezer. However, butcher paper may be cheaper as the price of plastic increases. Perhaps it is best to experiment with both and see which meets your needs. Maintaining the meat quality will also allow you to maintain your profit margins.
Labeling is sort of a nightmare. Some butchers will print up labels for you on their standard labeling machine, sometimes even programming the name of your farm onto the label format. If they aren’t willing to do that, you can have them slap their label on the packages, but that can confuse your customers. For example, if you used Jerry’s Fine Meats to do your USDA cut & wrap and he put his label on your packages, would your customers think it was your meat or Jerry’s? If you want to custom design labels with colors, a logo, your address, or other information, you will have to custom order those. Usually your butcher will have somebody they work with for label rolls. However, you may have to pay a bit for the copy to be made (original design) and then buy a bunch of labels in bulk. This could be hard if you are utilizing several different facilities to get all your animal processed or if you don’t know how long you plan to work with a butcher, perhaps one that you are testing out. If you want to have any claims or growing practices listed on your label, the design will actually need to go to the USDA FSIS for approval (http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Regulations_&_Policies/Labeling_Procedures/index.asp) This could take months before approved. Any nutritional claims will have to be supported via nutritional testing, so you may want to leave those out to reduce your paperwork and bureaucratic headaches. Even though generic research shows that grassfed animals have higher levels of CLA, for example, you can’t write that on your label unless you have tested your meat for the exact levels of those fatty acids. Usually you can get away with generic quality claims, such as “best-tasting pork” or “chicken just like grandma raised” but production practices such as 100% grassfed, certified organic, pasture-raised, etc. will have to be approved.
Additionally, if you paper wrap the label may not adhere very well. Keep that in mind. They may just stamp the paper directly with the meat information and not put on a label, which may not look as professional as you might be going for. Also, you may or may not choose to have the package date stamped, but consider the pros and cons. The pros are that date stamping allows you to keep better track of the age of your inventory but the cons are that your customers may scoff at the idea of buying meat a few months old, even if it is perfectly good. In my opinion, beef and poultry freezes well for up to 6 months and pork, lamb, & goat freezes well for up to a year. It may last for much longer, but I don’t recommend selling it to customers past those months. The quality may suffer and you may loose future business as a result of selling lesser quality product. Quality is what you are selling, so keep it up. Keep the older meat for yourself or your livestock guard dogs!
If you are going to sell fresh meat, then you are probably going to be doing a lot more frequent driving to get your animals killed and butchered in order to have continuous supply of fresh cuts. Personally, I don’t think your customers will care enough to pay for the extra time and logistics of dealing in fresh meat. Frozen meat is more versatile and will give your customers more confidence in the safety of your product and their ability to store it until they have time to cook it.
The actual freezing of the meat is important. It should happen rapidly and fully. Sometimes when there is 30-40lbs. of packages in a box, the interior packages don’t freeze fully and may end up spoiling or getting ice inside the packages. If your butcher will do the rapid freezing for you, make sure they don’t just stack up hundreds of pounds of boxes on top of each other in a walk-in freezer. You will get uneven freezing as a result and potential loss. If you are concerned about the freezing procedure, you may want to discuss them with the butcher, or come in and arrange the packages and boxes yourself. I think opening the boxes up and spreading them out will lead to more even and rapid freezing. If you just take everything home while it is still warm and jam pack your chest freezers, the inner packages will probably not freeze well. A vacuum-sealed plastic package full of moist meat will get ice crystals inside when the moisture slowly freezes. This ice can lead to freezer burn damage and compromise meat quality. So rapid and thorough freezing is preferred (as is letting carcass hang for a bit before butchering so that it is not too moist when packaging).
I like to rent cold storage space because that way I can spread my meat boxes out on a couple pallets, open the tops, and stack them in a way to increase cold air flow around the boxes. Chest freezers don’t really give you that space. Once I know all the meat has frozen well, I can consolidate the boxes and re-stack them so I don’t have to pay for the extra pallet space. In addition to cold storage rental, we also had a few large chest freezers in our garage. That way we had meat inventory close by for weekly sales at farmers markets and around once a week we would go to the cold storage rental to pick up more boxes. Luckily, it was only a 10 minute drive from our house. You may not be so lucky. If you need to invest in freezers for on-farm meat storage, chest freezers hold more and maintain lower temperatures than upright freezers. Walk-in freezers hold considerably more, but their energy costs will be huge as well, especially if they have air gaps around the doors. If you buy freezers second hand, make sure they have good seals or buy brand new seals for them. Look for the most efficient ones available. I have heard of some farmers adding insulation to the outside in the form of rigid foam board or even straw bales (but beware of attracting rodents!) to increase efficiency and maintain lower temperatures.
Photo above of TLC Ranch pork loin chops by Linda Ozaki (www.winkphotography.net). All rights reserved.