How We Process Our Animals
Processing animals on a small farm can be tedious and difficult. Most of us would rather avoid the topic. It is the most miserable part of farm work and also the most meaningful and important. We would rather visit a farm and see the animals, but never develop a relationship with them. No one wants to consider how that relationship ends. More conscious meat eaters will insist on animals being raised well, but we should also take great pains to ensure that animals’ lives are ended as peacefully as possible.
Industrial processing plants are modern marvels of technology and innovation. A beef processing plant can process 100-300 cows per hour. Commercial hog processing plants can process several hundred per hour, a maximum of about 1100 per hour. Chicken processing plants measure in the thousands of birds per hour. The efficiency of these plants helps make meat cheaper, but it comes at a cost for health and food safety.
Years ago I was able to see part of a chicken processing plant. What caught me off guard was the cooling tank. USDA guidelines require chicken to be cooled to a certain temperature quickly after processing. Because processing plants process thousands of birds an hour, this is usually done with water. Because the chickens are mechanically eviscerated (pulling the intestines out of the body cavity), the intestines are often broken, spilling the contents onto the meat. When thousands of birds are cooled in the same chilling tank, the bacteria on those birds mixes and infects many other birds. Because of these bacterial loads, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes guidelines encouraging industrial plants to use specific levels of chlorine (or other forms of chlorine like chlorite) in the water to help disinfect the birds. Processing by hand may be less efficient and profitable, but it can create safer, less chemically treated meat.
At Dowdle Family Farms, we personally process each chicken by hand. We are allowed to do this for up to 1,000 birds per year. We do this in part because we do not have a close USDA processing center for poultry. However, we also do this because we can take more care when processing our chickens. When we process by hand on the farm, it takes much longer, but we wash each chicken off after evisceration. Though we cool our chickens quickly with ice water, there are a dozen or so chickens, not thousands in our chilling tank. We do not need to use chlorine or other harmful chemical because we are more careful when we process them. I would rather pay more money for a cleaner, safer, healthier chicken than I would for a cheaper chicken then requires chlorine to make it anywhere close to safe to eat.
In commercial pork and beef processing plants, the volume of animals that runs through the plant means that when carcasses are cut up, the cuts of meat are combined. Several studies have published results of DNA tests on a pound of ground beef. They have found DNA from several hundred different animals in one pound of ground beef. This means that if one animal is sick, its tissue is dispersed throughout many packages of beef. When I purchase ground meat - whether it be sausage, beef, or chicken – I would rather it come from one or two animals that I know are healthy. Eating a hamburger with meat from over a hundred different animals is not appealing to me. Also, when the meat from thousands of animals are placed together, it seems like we move from viewing meat as an animal that we eat for food, to a commodity. When meat is considered a commodity, we lose the distinctiveness of the animals in the process. They are no longer beings, but just marketable forms of protein. We lose a connection to the process, to the animal and to the natural cycles that have allowed humans to grow and thrive as a species.
One of the primary benefits of having our beef and pork processed at a small, local processor is that we process in small batches. We usually take two cows at a time and two to four pigs at a time for processing. Because our animals are processed and cut by hand, there is more care given to each animal. Our beef is dry aged for 21 days before it is divided into individual cuts. Further, our ground beef and ground pork products are single sourced products. This means that they come from a single animal. We process our animals in small batches at a local processor so that when you purchase our ground meat products, you get single sourced ground meat. Not only do we believe that this is safe, but it is easier to remember that we are eating animals, an act that requires significant cost.
At Dowdle Family Farms, we go through some extra work and expense to ensure that our animals are processed safely and carefully. We think the extra time and energy is worth it to achieve a superior, safer product to eat for our family and yours.