Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Thoughts on Slaughter

Wooly Pigs is about to send our first pigs to market. Some of the first pigs are going to some famous American restaurants, including The French Laundry. This is a huge deal for everyone involved, and a bit stressful.

Restaurants can only serve USDA-inspected meat. Farmers trying to deliver high-quality meat have to work hard to control stress before slaughter. USDA slaughter typically involves things that naturally stress the pigs, so the farmer has to really work hard to keep things calm. As it is possible to ruin an entire animal's meat with stress, the farmer is looking at potentially throwing away entire animals.

The farmer can easily control breed, feed and how he raises the animal (important determinants of meat quality). But the law forbids the farmer from managing slaughter, except when someone buys a pig or half a pig, and has it slaughtered on farm. When the farmer slaughters on farm, he's in a position to deliver the highest quality meat.


Many people don't think much about slaughter, despite it being an integral part of eating meat. Few know that typical American slaughter really hurts meat quality. Almost nobody knows about alternatives to typical slaughter.

Slaughter is quite simple: the pig is stunned, typically by being hit on the head. While the pig is senseless, the butcher cuts an artery so that it quickly bleeds to death, without recovering consciousness. Here is a guide to the process.

Stress before slaughter is bad for the animal and the meat eventually made from it. Stress reduces meat quality.

Ideally the pig is going about his business when he falls unconscious, perhaps due to a blow to the head. He's dead soon after, without ever waking up. What we see may look messy, violent and bloody - but from the pig's point of view, he lost consciousness and that was it; he never felt anything bad. Imagine dying in one's sleep.

This no-stress method of slaughter is only possible with on-farm slaughter, as slaughtering a pig any other way only involves more stressors. Loading pigs used to living outside into a truck, and then taking them to a slaughterhouse, stresses them. If the pigs have to be herded somewhere, even into a mobile slaughter unit that visits their farm, there's typically some stress. Just smelling strange stuff can stress pigs.

A farmer who slaughters himself can waste fewer pigs by not killing the stressed ones. If a pig is stressed, he lives another day. Eventually he'll get slaughtered. Such careful selection isn't usually possible if animals go to a plant: all of them get slaughtered, relaxed or not, and the farmer has to sort it out later. That leads to a lot of waste: a producer determined to only sell the best meat has to discard the low-quality carcasses.

Comparison With Austria

Austria has a meat inspection law, but it is different enough to allow small farmers to consistently give their customers better meat.

In Austria, a farm can have a slaughterhouse. It gets inspected, and then the farm may slaughter on site. There's no inspector on the farm. The farmer is supposed to get the pigs into the slaughter room and do everything there. After he prepares the halves, the farmer takes the carcass to an off-site state inspector, who examines it. If it is OK, he gives it the necessary stamps, and the meat may be sold.

The interesting thing is that unlike in the USA, slaughter does not necessarily happen in view of the inspector. The farmer can bend the rules.

This leads to small farmers like Christoph Wiesner doing the following: they kill the pig in its pen, as with custom slaughter in America. They then drag the pig into their slaughter room and prepare the carcass (scald and evisceration) for inspection.

When the inspector gets the halves, he can't tell that the pig was slaughtered in a pen. He just sees the meat. If the meat is wholesome, it gets the stamps, at which point the meat is legal. It might even get sold in a very fancy restaurant like this one. In America, that would be a huge scandal.

Of course, the farmer is supposed to kill the pig on the kill floor - but getting the pigs to go into the room is tricky, and might alarm them. It is easier and more humane to slaughter them in their pens. The farmers who do this argue that the meat is just as safe: whether the animal dies in its pen or in a clean room, it is the same.


Individual consumers are strongly advised to do custom
slaughter. There are numerous reasons:
  • More humane for animals, better meat quality
  • Buying a half or whole is cheaper per pound. Just buy a freezer to hold the meat, or share with friends and family.
  • Custom butchers are motivated to process your meat how you want it. They are usually good at what they do.

Advice for the Savvy Customer

  • Visit the farm before you buy. Make sure they are finishing the hogs on good stuff, like acorns or barley. Continental Europeans have a system they use to produce good meat. If you follow the system, you get the desired results.
  • Freezers are cheap to buy and run. You can buy a lot of meat and eat it over several months.
  • If you buy between January and July, you might get a discount - it is slow then.
  • If you can stomach it, go watch them slaughter your pig. If they screw it up, tell them you want one killed properly. You are going to eat it - you might as well watch.
  • If you are there when they kill the pigs, take the one that has the carcass you want. E.g. take the leaner or fatter pig. Most people don't care, so if they are killing a few, you get the one you want. If you want the heads or organs of the other pigs, you can probably get those too, for free.
  • If you buy an older pig, make sure it hangs in the cooler long enough. E.g. 5-7 days for a year-old pig. Your custom butcher will probably be OK with this. But your local USDA plant may be too busy to allow your meat to rest; they'll want the meat in and out. Yet another reason to do custom slaughter.


Clarke said...

Very nice post, Heath. Great level of detailed information here regarding the "proper" slaughtering procedure.

It's interesting to note that the USDA can treat this process with disregard, almost cookie-cutter like. And the affects that it has on the animal end up on our tables.

Congratulations on getting your pork to Keller's French Laundry. I hope things go smoothly for you. It sounds like you've taken great care in raising these pigs properly. It would be a damned shame if carelessness at the slaughterhouse soured the deal.

Looking forward to more posts. Thanks again for the info.

Heath Putnam said...


USDA slaughter really works against humane treatment of animals, meat quality and small farmers. Austria shows that you can have safety and much better tasting stuff.

The USDA is very serious about slaughter and meat inspection - they just care about entirely different things. That's one reason why our food products in America taste the way they do.

Thanks for your congratulations about TFL. I just hope we get the pigs slaughtered without stress so that they get the meat they ordered. If we can't do it right, we won't send the meat.

If we blow it, it will be a disgustingly large amount of waste.

Rafe said...

Can you explain more about how stress affects the quality of the meat?

kitchenbeard said...

Please post about how things go. I'd be very interested to learn more about both sides of the process.

Heather said...

Glad to see you're blogging this. Your comments on the USDA standards are important and deserve more attention from the general public. I look forward to future updates.

Unknown said...

so how does one go about requesting custom slaughter with a breeder?

Nick Bergus said...

I look forward to reading more about your pig raising and slaughtering experiences.

Kevin Kossowan said...

Fantastic post. Really appreciate it. I've been wanting to buy a side from a respectable local farmer for a while, and you've solidified my resolve. Keep up the good work!

Lester Hunt said...

A most informative post on a topic I knew nothing about. I will link to it on my blog. Please do post on how it goes. And good luck with your blog!

Ellen said...

Considering the many recent recalls of USDA-slaughtered-inspected-processed beef, I would say that the USDA inspection is becoming meaningless. Though I don't understand the Austrian process, either. What can an inspector tell just by looking at the carcass? Finally - what planet do you live on where freezers are cheap to buy and run? Obviously, electricity is a lot cheaper where you live than it is in the DC area. Not to mention that many of us live in apartments, townhouses, etc and don't have the space for a big freezer.

Molly said...

Great post. I just discovered you through Ruhlman's blog (he posted an email you wrote).

A lot of interesting information. It's hard to trust a custom slaughter sometimes. My uncle had a situation where they seemed to have traded some of his good meat out for some other meat after it went to the shop for wrapping and freezing (?). Is that common of the "make a buck" custom slaughters?

How would one best pick a local farm or custom slaughterer BEFORE committing to purchase the meat or services?

Heath Putnam said...

Thanks for your comments.

I've tried to answer all your questions here.

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