December 20, 2010
I just got back from west Texas where I toured a big industrial beef processing plant and I am still in shock by what I witnessed there. But I am not shocked in the way you might expect based on the negative portrayals of the beef industry that seem so rampant in the media. Rather, I am stunned by how humanly the animals were treated and by the detailed attention given to food safety at every stage of the process.
This wasn't some boutique, alternative meat processing center either, it was a facility of Cargill, one of the largest beef producers in the world. I spent more than 6 hours there and witnessed every aspect of the system from slaughter to the storage of meat. I walked though the center of it all with my eyes wide open. This was no staged tour. If you could stage this, Broadway's top producer Julie Tamour, may as well just step aside.
My tour proceeded backwards in order starting where the meat is cut into steaks and roasts and ending at the "dirtier" processing areas in order to prevent tracking any bacteria into sanitary zones. The meat cutting area was mesmerizing with more than 450 expert butchers carving out tenderloins and briskets with awe-inspiring speed and accuracy. There is a precise tracking system so that every piece of meat can be traced back to a specific animal.
Next, continuing to walk backwards through the process, I saw how the halved carcasses that went through the line, were marked for safety and quality by USDA inspectors and were tracked to go to a specific retailer. In fact, there are 5 separate USDA inspection points throughout the process. Everything in this area was orderly, sparkling clean and refrigerator cold.
The next area was shokingly stinky, but my interest and fascination overruled my nose. It was the organ removal area where the innards are inspected and fabricated into offal -- tripe, sweetbreads, liver, intestines and so on. Even with this inherently messy task (Mike Rowe -- you have to cover that on Dirtiest Jobs!) the waste management and cleanliness or the area was something to behold.
The last thing I saw was the actual harvest or killing. To be sure, it is not a pleasurable thing to witness in general, but if you eat meat, the simple fact is an animal is sacrificed for your nourishment, a reality we are all too removed from in modern society. The trick is to do it humanely, and this is where I was most impressed. The system Cargill uses was developed in part by Dr. Temple Grandin, the autistic animal scientist who, with her heightened sensitivity, was able to pinpoint specific ways to keep cows stress-free throughout the process (there is an award winning HBO film about her starring Claire Danes.) The whole environment is kept purposefully calm, with no loud noises or bright lights. Before they realize what is going on the cows are hit precisely on the head, given a concussion so they are rendered senseless, then their throats are cut and their blood is drained. The whole thing takes roughly a minute. I watched intently as the cows moved through and noticed no shred of panic or unease.
Later that afternoon I went to the Texas Tech Department of Animal and Food Science meat lab for a 3 hour private butchering lesson with Professor J Chance Brooks and the National Cattleman's Beef Association's Bridget Wasser. I thank them tremendously for an invaluable hands-on education on the various cuts of meat and exactly how they are derived.
I am sure not all beef processing plants are as exemplary as the one I saw, and I applaud those who expose unacceptable practices, but it is important (and I think quite a relief) to know that there is another side to the story. I guess the truest way to explain how I feel about the way beef is produced after all I saw that busy day is to tell you that for dinner that night I thoroughly enjoyed a nice piece of beef tenderloin.