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A Glimpse into Modern Meat Science at Boiler Butcher Basics 2021

September 7, 2021 | Articles
grocery store meat counter

Photo by Jayson Lusk

Author: Taylor Thompson, MS Student, Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics

A popular topic in the media these days is meat processing. COVID-19 stressed supply chains around the world in a variety of industries, but the agricultural industries and meat industries in particular were especially focused upon and faced specific challenges in plants with worker illness

Articles about meat industry giants seem to constantly pop up in my news feed, recently involving everything from cyber-attacks to recalls, and new government action has raised many questions about the consolidation of the animal processing industry. This is big news that involves a great deal of federal money. Because of this, the general public is becoming more aware of companies such as Tyson, JBS, Cargill and Sysco. But what about the systems and processes themselves that go into animal harvest, fabrication and processing? As a general public, we tend to shy away from those questions. Presumably, we understand that animals are raised on farms. Then we walk into Walmart, Kroger, Whole Foods, etc. and buy our beef, pork and chicken. But how did it get from the farm to the grocery store? What is the process? 

To begin, I’d like to say that I too was, in many ways, ignorant about the “missing middle”. I grew up involved in cattle operations (cow/calf operations and bull development research). I have a working understanding of farm operations as they pertain to animal production, and I’m tuned into trends in consumer demand and meat prices. When entering grocery stores, I know where to go for my beef, chicken and pork selections. I go to certain restaurants when I want a good steak, others when I want pork BBQ and others for fried/hot chicken (as a Nashville area native). However, with the production and consumption basis covered, I still lacked proper processing knowledge until the opportunity became available to learn about harvest, fabrication, processing and food safety. Led by Purdue’s Meat Science expert in the Animal Science Department, Dr. Stacy Zuelly, Purdue’s Boiler Butcher Basics classes provided hands on training in meat processing, covering everything from initial harvest to the butchering of specific cuts. The class provided experience for industry professionals and amateurs (like myself) alike. Classes consisted of pork, poultry, lamb/goat and beef. 

While I only participated in the two-day beef class, I came away with some key findings I think are interesting in the context of Consumer Corner:

  1. The process is carefully constructed through data and research.

It is understandable that the majority of people do not often (or ever) think about meat processing — especially when maybe the only thing about the industry they’ve heard was from reading The Jungle in high school. The food safety measures in today’s world are science-based and modernized; these processes have been developed over time to promote the safety and quality of all involved.

“The foundation of all meat production systems is food safety. Meat is an excellent source for possible food safety hazards, so proper food safety and sanitations procedures are always the starting point for any meat science program or course.” – Dr. Stacy Zuelly, Assistant Professor of Meat Science, Department of Animal Science

  1. Humane slaughter of the animal is a fundamental part of the operation.

Animal welfare has been a growing concern for consumers in recent decades. This trend has increased pressures on not only processing, but also animal agriculture at the farm level. Best management practices are essential when preparing animals for harvest. The act of slaughter, in particular, is strictly regulated to certify a “rapid and effective” death. 

We know that we as human beings separate ourselves from unpleasant truths — “Fundamentally, we are maintaining access to the good aspect (access to meat for consumption) while separating ourselves by essentially putting out of our own sight the negative aspects (slaughter). In other words, we’re keeping the gloves on…putting the negatives out of sight while maintaining access to the positives.” For many of us, the knowledge that others are managing slaughter and other aspects of the meat supply chain is enough; for those of us who might want to know more of the details, the research on practices that can transform live animals into meat products for consumption as humanely as possible is available for review and continues to transform the process. 

“Humane slaughter procedures have been a cornerstone of meat production in the United States for over 60 years. As livestock producers, we sometimes refer to ourselves as “stewards” of food production. Being a good steward means following through the entire process from conception to consumption.” – Dr. Stacy Zuelly, Assistant Professor of Meat Science, Department of Animal Science 

  1. Employees are skilled, well-informed and care greatly about the quality of their work.

Like many professions, this line of work requires specific knowledge and abilities. Processors and butchers want to ensure quality and freshness. Skills with a knife are essential — taking the hide off, removing the guts, inspecting the head, halving/quartering, etc. are all steps that require specific types of cuts. Understanding how, when and where to cut takes time and practice. For anyone wondering what it is like to get certain cuts like a sirloin or New York strip out of a carcass using an untrained eye…I assure you, having attempted it myself under the watchful eye of Dr. Zuelly, it is very (very) difficult. In total, there are over 140 cuts that are sold at retail. The butchers I worked alongside in class shared great insight and creativity into ways they found to best supply various meat products to their customers.

In conclusion, I believe information on meat processing is important for the general public to have access to if they desire. Meat processing does not get a lot of positive press. Are there ways to improve? Of course. But when you stop and reflect on not only the volume of product, but also the quality, it is extremely impressive what the industry delivers to consumers today. This type of efficiency does not come from mindless slaughter. In fact, it comes from the opposite. It comes from dedicated men and women who care about the animals, their work and the consumer base they are supplying.

“As a producer, it is sometimes hard to wrap your head around all the labor, transportation and oversight that goes into the harvest, fabrication and distribution of meat and meat products, but trust me, there is a LOT.” – Dr. Stacy Zuelly, Assistant Professor of Meat Science, Department of Animal Science