Select right meat processor for best finish of your specialty meat product
By John Mesko
This article refers to meat processing regulations, which vary by state. Check with the authority in your state regarding these regulations.
While most vegetable producers harvest and sell their product without any further processing, meat producers must engage with another business in order to sell their product to retailers, restaurants, or consumers. The buying experience and the final product that ends up in the customer’s freezer is influenced as much by the processor as the farmer. A strong partnership between the farmer and the processor is essential for success.
I’ve been raising and selling 100 percent grass-fed and pastured meat products directly to consumers for the past 11 years. During that time, my family and I have worked with six different meat processors, often helping them understand the unique needs of direct marketers. Along the way, we’ve learned how important the relationship between farmer and processor really is, and how to maximize that relationship to everyone’s benefit. These are some of the tips we’ve collected in the process.
Levels of Processors
If you’re raising organic livestock to be sold as a certified organic product, you’ll need to select a certified organic meat processor or inspire your local processor to become certified. To find a certified meat processor, search the Midwest Organic Resources Directory at mosesorganic.org/organic-resource-directory.
If organic certification isn’t the priority, you need to consider where you will sell your product, and select a processor that has the required inspection level for that purpose. Inspection requirements vary by state, so you’ll need to check with the agency in your state that regulates the slaughter and sale of meat. In most locations, you’ll have three options for inspection level: custom, state, and USDA.
The first level, often referred to as “custom,” or “custom-exempt” is the most basic. These processors are inspected regularly, but not daily. There may or may not be an inspector on site during processing any given day. Meat processed at this inspection level generally cannot be sold for retail, at farmers markets, or to a restaurant. Some states have requirements which dictate how many individual customers can purchase part of an animal. For example, in Minnesota, a beef animal can be sold to up to four people, a hog or sheep to up to two people under custom inspection.
Most states offer a “state-inspected” level of processing. At these processors, inspectors are available to inspect an d approve meat, which generally allows meat processed at these plants to be sold at retail (grocery, co-op, or farmers market) or to a restaurant, in addition to directly to consumers.
Some smaller processors may not be able to have a state inspector present every day. This will impact your scheduling considerably. In addition to considering your own work schedule and the availability of capacity at the processor, you’ll also need to make sure there is an inspector on site on the day you’ll be bringing animals. Bear in mind these inspectors are employees of the state (or in some cases, the USDA), and are not employed by the processor. Make sure the processor and inspector are good at communicating with each other. If you’ve had your lamb harvest and subsequent meat deliveries scheduled for six months and, on processing day, the inspector isn’t on site due to a miscommunication between inspector and processor—and you don’t find out until you are ready to unload—you have a major problem (been there).
If you are selling meat across state lines, you’ll want to find a USDA-inspected processing plant. Some states have reciprocity agreements with neighboring states, allowing meat that is state-inspected in one to be sold in another.
USDA-inspected facilities are generally going to have a USDA inspector on site each day of slaughter. For the bigger processors, this could be five days a week. For smaller processors, it may only be one day a week. If you plan to sell meat in several states, or plan to ship meat, you’ll definitely want a USDA-inspected processor.
A final note on inspection: each level of inspection generally will vary in the price you’ll have to pay, with custom being the least expensive. If you know you will sell quarters and halves of beef only within your state, then a custom processor would be fine, and probably less expensive.
Facility Size, Location
Large processors often have more options available to producers. Some may have the ability to do more for you to facilitate your customer relationships. On the other hand, a smaller processor may be more accommodating and flexible, and can get to know you and your preferences more easily.
How far are you willing to haul your animals to slaughter? Long trailer rides, of course, increase costs in terms of time and fuel, but also can stress animals, particularly in winter, affecting meat quality.
What kind of packaging options are available? What do your customers expect? What is consistent with your farm’s “brand?” Do you want your meat in clear plastic vacuum-sealed packaging, or would you be comfortable with paper wrapping? What about the ground product? Many processors offer plastic bags, which are great for frozen product, but may have some labeling limitations, which brings me to my next point.
How do you want your meat labelled? Many processors routinely put their own label on each package of meat. State- and USDA-inspected meat is required to identify the processor and include the inspection “bug” (small round sticker) on each package. Your marketing plan will help you determine your brand and how you want to represent your product.
When we started selling our meat, my wife, Lisa, designed a logo with our farm name that we wanted attached to each package of meat. We found some processors were unwilling or unable to use our label on the meat. With one, we offered to pay them more for this extra step, and suddenly they were happy to do it! As our business became more established, and most of our business was from repeat customers, we decided to save some money and dropped the label.
Another labelling question you may want to ask regards how the individual cut of meat is identified. Let’s assume you are packaging for retail sale by individual cut, and you are willing to pay for it. You could supply the processor a per cut price list, and most larger processors would be able to produce a label very similar to what your customers might find in a grocery store, complete with a nicely printed “T-Bone Steak” or other cut identity, a weight, a price per pound, and total price for the package. This presents a very professional look to your product, but is also considerably more expensive.
Are you going to be picking up your meat yourself or having your customers pick it up? This question has many ripple effects. If you are charging a premium price (and you should) for your grass-fed or certified organic product, you will probably want to be the face the customer associates with your product, and should arrange pickup or delivery through you. This prevents the processor from becoming your competitor for meat sales. Many processors have a retail meat case of their own. Some will purchase from local farms or (more likely) from large-scale meat wholesale houses and offer bulk or by-the-cut product. You want to make sure they don’t have a chance to offer their “product” to your customers at a much lower price—even if your customers understand the extra value they get with your custom-raised meat.
If you plan to pick up your meat and deliver it yourself, you’ll want to make sure the purchase, pickup and loading process fits your expectations. At pickup, many processors will bring the meat out of the deep freeze in wire trays and then transfer that product into cardboard boxes for you to take. Some processors have nice boxes of all the same size with or without their label. Others will use whatever boxes they have on hand. In many cases, particularly with those processors who have their own retail meat case, those boxes “on hand” will be boxes they got when they purchased boxed meat for resale. These boxes may be labeled with the label of mega slaughterhouse/meat wholesaler, such as JBS or Cisco. You may want to consider how showing up to your customer with your certified organic, 100 percent grass-fed beef in a JBS box will look.
Additionally, will you have help boxing up your meat? Or will you have to handle meat at -10F yourself? What kind of work space is available to transfer the meat from the wire butcher trays to boxes? Will you be in “the back” or will you be out front with other customers? What about loading? Boxes can weigh 50-60 lbs. or more. Will you have help? The answers to these questions will impact your brand, your time needed to pick up, the equipment and help you may need, order accuracy and food safety.
As mentioned earlier, stress can greatly affect meat quality. You’ll certainly want to become familiar with the handling facilities and most importantly, the handlers who’ll be helping you unload your animals. Animals don’t like loud, metal-clanging sounds. Are the handling facilities quiet? Are slopes safe? Do the animals have to traverse steps? Who will be handling your precious animals? In my experience, these people are generally meat cutters, not livestock handlers.
While unloading, will your animals be able to see or hear other animals being handled and/or killed? Do the handlers understand basic livestock handling, such as: Don’t yell at, kick, or shock the animals. Rather, use the animals’ own curiosities and propensities to get them off the trailer and into the plant.
What is the method of killing the animal? Are they stunned mechanically or electrically? How quickly are the animals then bled? Conscientious consumers will certainly ask about this. You should know every detail, and proceed cautiously with a processor who won’t at least explain it to you or at best let you on the kill floor during processing.
There is widespread agreement within the chef community that the most influential factor in meat tenderness and overall quality is not breed, size, age, or gender of the animal, but rather how long the carcass was allowed to hang in dry aging. Most processors will use a standard 7-10 days and anything less should be avoided. However if you are able to secure the services of a processor who will allow you to hang the meat 21 days or more, you will have access to a different type of customer, one who understands—and will pay for—the resulting quality of meat.
Since most processors use a “first in, first out” approach regarding the cooler space, changing the length of time a carcass remains in the cooler will cause disruption to the processing schedule. You’d want to be assured the processor is able to make this change, keep your carcasses properly identified, and be able to cut your carcasses on the promised day. You should expect to pay a premium for this level of service. If you aren’t asked for more money to do this, you’ve found a true partner.
Processor as Partner
Ultimately, the relationship with your processor is a relationship with individuals. You should ask who you’ll be dealing with when you call to schedule processing appointments and who will be taking your cut-up instructions. Sit down with these people and make sure you can understand each other. Particularly, you’ll want to know ahead of time exactly what cut-up information is needed, and in what form it can be taken. To avoid confusion and costly errors, I recommend using an email instruction, once you’re sure the other person refers to cuts the same way. You also want this person to understand your business enough to be able to suggest better, more efficient cuts to maximize your yield.
Finally, in building a good business partnership, the way you engage with your processor is just as important as how they engage with you. Your business will benefit greatly if the processor is eager to take your animals rather than constantly wondering what you are doing and why they agreed to process your livestock. Are your animals relatively clean when you bring them in, or are they covered in manure because they were over-crowded and stressed on the trailer ride? Are your animals of top quality? Everyone wants to work with the best, and processors want to be associated with the best farmers, regardless of size. When you bring an animal in for slaughter, do you ever hear, “That’s a nice hog”? You should.
Do you keep your appointments? Processors vary in their ability to be flexible if you cancel at the last minute. You may need to change aspects of your business to make sure you can show up on time, every time. Are your checks good? Do you pay on time? Are you willing to pay more for extra service, or change orders? Understanding how your decisions impact your processor will go a long way to help them understand how their decisions or mistakes affect you.
Your goal should be to have such a strong relationship with your processor that when it is time to request special treatment, lodge a complaint, or squeeze an emergency slaughter date into a crowded schedule, the processor will be ready and willing to accommodate you. Everyone benefits from you and your processor having this good relationship, including your customers, who will be able to get their orders on time, correct, and of the highest quality.
John Mesko and his family own Lighthouse Farm in Minnesota. He is the executive director of MOSES.
From the September | October 2017 Issue