By Dusty Sonnenberg, CCA, Ohio Field Leader: a project of the Ohio Soybean Council and soybean checkoff
National headlines have repeatedly announced that COVID-19 has caused a disruption in the commercial meat system. The growing number of sick employees at major meat packers has caused a slowdown in the processing lines and even shutdown some entire facilities.
Over the years, the United States has created a highly efficient food supply, to the extent that the meat supply chain has become a “just-in-time” system. In the pork industry, efficiency is calculated down to the day. It takes 11 months (roughly 335 days) from the time a mother pig (sow) is bred, and then farrows (has the baby pigs), then those pigs are raised, and then butchered and delivered to the grocery store meat case. The entire system is dependent on every step of the process occurring on time and at the right time. Any disruption in any part of the system causes a break in the chain. In the case of COVID-19, the break in the chain comes near the end as the animals are ready to be harvested, but the processor is not capable of handling the number of animals they typically would if they were running at full capacity before the issues of COVID-19. As a result, there has been a backlog of animals ready for market, but with no way to process them. This has led to shortages in the meat case at the grocery store, and those stores with meat are limiting the amount consumers can purchase.
The combination of grocery meat cases being empty, coupled with livestock producers having finished animals that cannot be commercially processed, has modified social media platforms to become a virtual livestock exchanges for consumers buying animals directly from farmers to stock their freezers. Farmers are attempting to sell those “ready-for-market” animals directly to the consumers and fill a need both parties have. Every day this new “farm to table” exchange is connecting farmers with consumers in a close relationship that cuts out the “middle-man.”
Problems arise, though when that middle-man happens to be the one who actually does the cutting of the meat. While local processors are not generally considered the “middle-man” in the farmer to consumer transaction, the tremendous demand for their service has far exceeded their available capacity. Locally inspected meat processors provide a tremendous service to farmers and consumers alike, transforming a live animal into retail cuts of meat that everyone envisions being prepared on the grill. The problem now is that the demand for local processing has surpassed what the local processors are able to handle. There is an abundant supply of finished livestock across the country, just not a viable way to efficiently harvest them for the consumers.
In generations past, families in rural America butchered their own hogs, cattle, and poultry to provide meat for their daily needs. Today home processing is still an acceptable and legal alternative to purchasing meat from a supermarket or butcher shop. The catch is that the meat can legally only be used by the owner that is actually doing the home processing. The Ohio Administrative Code 901:2-104 (C) (1) lists regulations and penalties for custom slaughter.
Before a lay person purchases a live animal directly from a farmer with the intention of harvesting and processing it at home, there are several things that should be considered.
“There is something to be said for a neighbor wanting to purchase an animal directly from a farmer to help them out, and also put meat in their own freezer,” said Lyda Garcia, Ohio State University Extension meat specialist. “Unfortunately, if the neighbor does not have a way to process the animal, they are stuck in the same situation the farmer was.”
Knowing the steps and understanding the process is necessary.
“A person interested in home/farm slaughter should reach out to someone with experience,” Garcia said. “It sounds a little odd, but the easy part is the slaughter. What you do with the carcass after that is where it gets more complicated.
“There is a process. There is a right way to do it. Food safety is not something to be taken lightly. Reaching out to find someone with experience can make the process much easier. Don’t hesitate to contact your local OSU Extension office for guidance.”
Garcia along with Lynn Knipe, another OSU Extension Meat Specialists, have written a publication titled: What You Need to Know About Animal Processing on the Farm in Ohio. It is not a paper that instructs how to process an animal at home, it just points out important considerations in the process.
Garcia and Knipe point out that meat from animals slaughtered on the farm by individuals cannot legally be sold. It is only legal to sell the meat cuts if they have been processed at a fully inspected establishment by either USDA-FSIS, or the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA). If animals are owned by a second party, and slaughtered on the farm, technically a custom slaughter license is required through the ODA’s Division of Meat Inspection.
While most anyone legally can slaughter an animal, it takes more than a sharp knife and a YouTube video to perform the task properly.
“A skilled, highly-trained person is strongly recommended to lead the practice,” Knipe said. “Having someone who is very experienced and skilled in this line of work, and fully understands the importance of animal welfare, humane stunning, sanitary dressing procedures, processing into the primal, sub primal, and retail cuts is ideal.”
While most individuals purchasing animals directly from a farmer during this unprecedented time have good intentions, without an ideal set-up, including an inspector and proper tools and equipment food safety may be at risk.
“Outdoor processing can allow for an acceptable environment, but a risk of cross contamination due to improper dressing procedures and inadequate sanitation can pose a health risk,” Knipe said.
Having a knowledgeable inspector on hand to look for signs of a potentially sick animal is important.
“It is important to look for obvious signs of disease on the head, internal organs in the main cavity of the body, and on the carcass during slaughter,” Knipe said. “If signs of septicemia, abscesses, or jaundice meat are noticed, the carcass should be condemned. Even enlarged lymph nodes are of concern.”
A rule of thumb for a lay person just getting started is to follow their instincts.
“If your gut tells you something is wrong, just discard it,” Garcia said. “Anytime you slaughter an animal there is going to be an odor, but if something really smells wrong, it probably is. You should start by performing a live (antemortem) inspection of the animal. If it looks normal then that is a good start. If the animal has droopy ears, and sunk in eyes, and a cough or discharge, then there may be reason for concern, and the animal may need to be discarded.”
After skinning, evisceration, and rinsing with water, it is recommended that the carcass be thoroughly sprayed with a vinegar solution to destroy E. coli on beef carcasses and Salmonella on pork carcasses. This vinegar solution is made by diluting commercial vinegar (5% acetic acid) by half with water.
Time and efficiency are very important, especially when harvesting in the summer. In previous generations, when farmers harvested meat on the farm, they were doing it in the winter when the overnight temperatures fall into the 20s or below. That makes cooling the carcass much easier. Cooling a carcass in the late spring and summer when overnight temps are in the 50s and 60s and daytime temperatures get into the 80s poses much more of a challenge. It is important to get the carcass temperature below 40 degrees as soon as possible after slaughter and cleaning.
“During the warm/hot weather we are now experiencing, it is even more important to cool the carcass quickly. We recommend submerging the hot pork sides in an ice bath,” Knipe said. “Using a clean plastic 55-gallon drum filled with ice water if they don’t have another way to chill the carcass would be one option.”
It is important to get the carcass temperature below 40 degrees as soon as possible after slaughter and cleaning. It is not recommended that stock tanks or metal barrels be used for the chilling process, because of challenges in properly cleaning them. It is important that the barrel used for chilling has not been previously used for anything but food-grade materials. In the event that no cleanable drums are available for use in chilling carcasses, another option is to hot process the carcass, to get smaller cuts and end-products into a refrigerator or freezer as quickly as possible. More information on hot processing is available on request from OSU Extension.
Garcia and Knipe are also working to develop a video that will address the specifics of meat processing and be multifaceted.
“We want to make a video that will show on-farm processing beyond where the paper went,” Garcia said. “This video would cover the actual slaughter and animal welfare, food safety steps, and the typical home equipment people would have available. We realize not everyone has access to commercial equipment and coolers, so we want an instructional video that is realistic to actual situations, and what people will have to work with.”
Equipment and tools would include knives and handsaws, which should be washed frequently, between strokes. Boiling water is recommended for sanitizing knives during the slaughter process. Having a supply of clean, potable water is critical, as well as a pressurized hose to wash the carcass, tools, and equipment.
Carcasses should be rinsed/washed from the top working downward. Soap should be used to clean equipment, tools, and hands. “Dawn” dishwashing liquid is recommended because it cuts through the fat and grease. Tables should be nonporous material that is easy to clean.
Plastic and rubber material aprons are the best choice, and easy to wash and rinse. A ball cap will help to reduce hair contamination, especially during the processing steps.
Hands and forearms should be washed frequently, in between steps to minimize cross contamination. Do not to cross the dirty hand with the clean hand.
Things to consider beyond the actual meat processing include: disposal of wastewater and inedible parts as well as the blood; smells attracting pests; and any noise and smells that may be disturbing to the neighbors. Local OSU Extension Offices, the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and county health departments all have additional resources to provide assistance.
Knipe and Garcia make the following disclaimer: This information is intended to inform those thinking about, or involved, in processing animals on the farm. The information is intended to present the importance of food safety and risks that come with it. It is not intended to explain the process of dressing procedures, nor promote this type of scenario. Meat processing is complicated. It should not be taken lightly. Person(s) involved should understand that carelessness is not an option with food safety.