by Eric Steinman
Last month I was witness to an illegal pig slaughter. I should probably clarify this statement on all fronts. This slaughter (or “harvest” as people who raise livestock like to call it) was not done in a back alley, like a pit bull fight, nor was it done to satisfy some collective bloodlust or desire to inflict pain. The slaughter was done for a select group of butchers in training (and me as the sole journalist), and expertly conducted by a highly skilled butcher, who had been doing this for over 45 years. The pig was slaughtered on a farm and, to my eyes, was slaughtered in a way that was about as humane and judicious as one would hope for. The thing that made it illegal, or technically sub-legal, was that there were no USDA inspectors present, nor was it done at a USDA-approved slaughterhouse. All of which made this meat unsellable to the public (instead the pig was going to be consumed by friends of the farm owners) and beyond showing the mechanics of an animal slaughter, revealed that simply raising livestock for slaughter is a complicated, and often costly, endeavor.
While many of us omnivores like to think our grass-fed, pasture-raised, meat is hyper-local (the lucky ones among us can actually locate such farms on a map) the fact is that while your meat may have been raised within a few miles of your grill, it wasn’t likely slaughtered and processed anywhere close by. The fact is, because of USDA standards (which most agree are very necessary) most livestock intended for human consumption are trucked, sometimes hundreds of miles away, to meet their maker, which raises the carbon footprint of the pig and cattle and often causes undue stress.
While there used to be numerous slaughterhouses around the country within the farm country where these animals are raised, those numbers have dwindled greatly, leaving very few facilities to address the demand. According to an NPR report, over the past few decades slaughterhouse consolidation has left small-scale producers scrambling. Just four corporations slaughter about 80 percent of the cattle in the United States. Many facilities now only process large numbers of animals at a time, and will not allow ranches to bring in – and get back out – the same animals. This obviously impacts the issue of quality control to a great degree.
While some in the slaughterhouse industry are doing their best to address the problem, with small-scale slaughterhouses popping up in Washington state to handle the backlog of animals, a great deal of creativity and funding is needed to contend with this issue. The rise of mobile slaughterhouse units, which is USDA subsidized and used for very small scale processing of animals on-farm, shows promise. The cost is prohibitive (upwards of $300,000 a piece).
There is seemingly no real answer or solution to this mounting problem, and it is a costly problem for struggling farmers who just want to keep their local meat local and affordable. The hope is that consumer demand for local, pasture-raised meat, with a clear point of origin, will drive innovation toward a more sustainable model.
Do you know where your meat comes from?