Do you know your processor?
By now, you’ve been asked and can probably answer the question, “Do you know your farmer?” But here is another question, one that is equally important: Do you know your meat processor? Do you know who is responsible for the harvest and processing of your farmer’s animals, and where this facility is located? Do you know what it looks like inside, what their food safety record is, who works there, or how far away from your home it is?
The farmer is responsible for choosing the breed, feed, and whether or not to give hormones or antibiotics. Your processor is the one who is responsible for slaughtering that animal properly and cutting it so that you receive the meat in the same quality that the farmer raised it. E. coli, salmonella, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, listeria... these confusing diseases that we have grown to fear aren't necessarily a threat to you as a result of the farmer, but in most cases it's a result of poor handling at your processor. The reality is that slaughter is a necessary step in the journey from pasture to cheeseburger. How these last steps happen is up to you.
So why do we know so little about the meat processing system? One theory could be that we have become so desensitized and disconnected from the food system that we have neglected to remember that there is an entire important step between cows on lush pasture and your neighborhood butcher. On the other hand, it could be because as processors continue to consolidate, they have put up a wall of delightful marketing materials that we can't see around. Either way, who cares if the cow you're eating had an amazing life, if it could have had one awful, stressed out, mis-handled final day?
The artisan butcher revival is gaining momentum. Trendy or not, these butchers are showing that there is a right and wrong way to handle meat, and that must include how and where that meat is processed. Butchers and processors can work together to make sure that the care the farmer has put into growing a quality animal stays with it at slaughter and when it arrives at the retail shop.
When you play 20 questions with your farmer, ask where they get their meat processed. Then visit those places. If you call the processor and ask for a tour and they won't let you in, then that is the first sign that you should tell your farmer to ditch them and find someone else.
If you're on this blog, if you shop at the farmers market, eat organic, yada yada yada, you probably already know your farmer. But the real test is if you can name your farmer's processor. The question you should be asking after "where and how was this raised?" is "who killed it?”