Edible Marin and Wine Country — Spring 2010
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A Good Death: The State Of Slaughter In Our Community
Marissa Guggiana

In agriculture, killing is perhaps the most acute opportunity to show respect for an animal. Slaughter defines the relationship between the rancher and his charges. Every other major landmark in the life of an animal raised for meat could conceivably be managed without human interference.

Selecting the moment when they should die, however, is a matter of design outside of instinct. Since the economics of the farm guide the timing and manner of death, the animal then becomes a commodity. In death, the stewardship of a rancher reaches its climax and, shortly after, ends. A lifetime of care and trust building between an animal and a rancher ascends to the moment when a human will remove the animal from its home, from its familiars, and ask that it offer its life to nourish us. This is an oblatory rite that is rendered no less weighty by its volume or repetition.

To kill with care is also vital to the quality of the meat. Final days spent in terror and dehydration can destroy a lifetime of good ranching. Chris Cosentino, chef at Incanto in San Francisco and notorious preparer of meat both pedestrian and peculiar, offers: “The fear of danger pulls energy away from the body to do whatever is necessary to survive and that high charge of adrenaline can make meat tougher.” A good death is something that can only be supposed at by the living. But suppose we must. In Cosentino’s supposing, “A good kill is as close to instantaneous as you can get.” I would extend the requirement that an animal’s death be as close to instantaneous as possible to include not only the moment of death, but the perfunctory pageantry leading up to it. Transport time has a cumulative impact on an animal’s stress level and also adds to the expense of each animal.

Most small farmers have to slaughter between one and four times a month to maintain a steady supply of fresh meat. If a ranch is diversified, this can become even more complicated, as the majority of slaughterhouses only kill one species. The farther ranchers have to travel to bring an animal to slaughter, the more likely they are to sell off all their animals at the same time and the less likely they are to direct market animals throughout the year. This generally means selling to a large meat company that lumps animals together and puts them on a feedlot to create a consistent flavor.

In northern California, the lack of local slaughtering options is at a crisis point. Like a zombie attack, the consequences and consistency of the approach are more terrifying than the pace. All of the processing facilities listed in the box below, excluding Superior, are small family-owned businesses. The owners are nearly all nudging up to retirement age without a successor generation to follow in their footsteps. Without heirs apparent, we may find these resources closing up.

Rancho actually sold to a development company a few years ago, but the deal was reversed after the crisis in the housing market. And, so, the need to create viable new options is urgent—or local ranching will be a ghostly memory, blanched sheep skeletons under condominiums. If ranchers can’t kill animals within a reasonable distance of where they were raised, ranching will die.

“Besides the added cost for travel and increased carbon footprint, the most problematic thing about traveling so far is that we aren’t able to have the personal relationship with the slaughterhouse. We put our animals into another person’s care, and then, if there are any problems, they’re just much more difficult to address.” Prebilich raises beef, goats, lambs, pigs, chickens and turkeys, so she is well acquainted with the lack of local meat processing options. She is one of a very few small producers that have created a relationship with Fulton Processing in Santa Rosa for the slaughter of chickens. Most other small-scale poultry farmers take their birds to New American Poultry in Sacramento. Beyond the stress that a jostling and sometimes extremely hot ride can inflict on a chicken, there are the dollars and cents of the trip. As Prebilich explains, “If we had to travel all the way to Sacramento every week, we would not have been able to have the chicken business, which has been the foundation of our operation and our ability to barely pay the bills.” The good news is that there are folks working on this problem. The first idea to gain momentum was a proposal to build a new slaughterhouse, preferably one able to kill all food animal species being raised in northern California, as well as wild game. This plan was spearheaded by Sam Goldberger of North Coast Meats, whose stated raison d’etre is to advance the local meat system. His proposed 18 million dollar “silver bullet” encountered NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) resistance, however, as well as insufficient funding.

Goldberger has led a lonely cavalry for years, but without investment capital the gallop slows and slows.

The second strategy is to build a mobile slaughterhouse. Or several. A MPU (mobile processing unit) like the one shown in the photo has limited capacity but can travel to a farm and so it is ostensibly the most humane and certainly the least expensive option for slaughter. It was only recently that California got its first USDA approved MPU, in Monterey County. This operation will set a vital precedent for future mobile abattoirs.

Besides a USDA backlog, the main problem with MPUs is that it is difficult to make a profit from them. Each MPU costs around $200,000 and their limited capacity means it is hard to kill enough animals in a day to support this cost. Most MPUs around the country are run by cooperatives of ranchers, so that profits made on the meat produced are shared.

Lastly, there is increasing interest in purchasing an existing local slaughterhouse and updating the facility to be more humane, more sterile and to allow for more species to be killed and butchered. This would cost far less than constructing a new building and would reduce the risk of red tape stalling the project. Goldberger posits, “We need to be prepared within one year to acquire Rancho to assure continuing availability of slaughter; then perform needed upgrades, and finally to explore options for the construction of a new, state-of-the-art facility. If Rancho is acquired we should have 3-4 years for the latter.” According to Goldberger, “We do not need to relax standards, nor re-institute state inspection. If anything, we need to make health and safety standards more rigorous to assure that the consumer gets healthy meat.” One important thing to note is that since Rancho processes cattle, it is also integral to our local dairy industry, buying up bull calves.

As stated by Larry Martin, Sonoma County resident and Regional Governor for Slow Food USA, “We will not be able to maintain the beautiful, open landscape of West Marin and Sonoma counties if ranchers aren’t able to process and market their meat locally. Local meat-processing is as much about preserving the environment and beauty of our home as it is about supporting local ranches and bringing higher quality food to consumers.” Slow Food Russian River has formed a committee to help our local ranchers with this critical issue.

To find out more about their work on legislation and projects to increase processing options, contact them at info@slowfoodrr.

Org. You may also contact Samuel Goldberger of North Coast Meats at smg@northcoastmeats.com. The pulsating heart of it all is that we live in a system, whether we know it or not. We must respect and support the whole system so that we can get the parts we like—parts like bacon and farmers markets and lusty, golden egg yolks.