In two words that’s how the rise of meat handlers in the state would be described. The number has gone from one meat handler in 2002, to 876 currently registered with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Meat and Poultry Inspection Division.
A meat handler is a farmer who raises his own animals and then takes them to a facility to be slaughtered and processed under inspection. The meat is then returned to the farmer to sell to restaurants, retailers and directly to customers. The Meat and Poultry Inspection Division registers meat handlers and makes sure they are in compliance with state regulations.
Inspectors also inspect each animal that goes to slaughter and the businesses that provide these services. Piedmont Custom Meats in Gibsonville is one of the places farmers can take their animals. It is one of about two dozen facilities in the state that slaughter and process meat for farmers. “Most of the customers we have are farmers that are raising their own animals,” said Piedmont Custom Meats owner Donna Moore. “We serve more than 300 of these farmers and find that as this industry continues to grow, the more services farmers want. They want the extra value-added products, like bacon, sausage, country ham, lard and hot dogs.”
Farmers must use a processing facility for their animals. It is against the law to slaughter or process an animal on a farm and then sell the meat. “We take custody of the animal as soon as the trailer enters the property,” Moore said. Each animal is closely monitored throughout its time at the facility. An NCDA&CS inspector must inspect each animal before, during and after slaughter. After dropping off their animals at the slaughter facility, meat handlers are not allowed to further touch the meat products. All products coming from the processor must be packaged and labeled for sale.
The relationship between a processor and their customers is an important one, one that requires working together and trust. “Our customers are bringing in animals that they raised and that have been well cared for,” Moore said. “We work with farmers to help with choosing how long to age the meat, choosing cuts and discussing processing options.”
After slaughter, beef is placed in a cooler for seven to 14 days. This gives the connective tissues in the meat time to break down and make the meat more tender. Pork is not aged. After hanging the meat, the facility provides the cuts of meat requested by the farmer and then, if requested, processes the meat into bacon, country ham, sausage or hot dogs. Farmers can expect about 650 to 700 pounds of meat from a 2,000-pound cow.
“Hanging weight, or the weight of the carcasses that are put in the cooler, is about 60 percent of the weight of the cow before slaughter,” Moore said. “Processed weight is about 50 to 60 percent of the hanging weight, depending on the type of cuts requested.”
There’s a demand for custom slaughter plants
Only a handful of facilities in North Carolina offer farmers the services that Piedmont Custom Meats can. The additional processing adds even more inspections and regulations that the plant must follow. These services make Piedmont Custom Meats valuable to meat handlers. “Local regulations, water requirements and the up-front money needed makes opening a new facility extremely difficult,” said Moore. This difficulty leads to a great need for slaughter plants like Piedmont Custom Meats for the continually rising number of meat handlers.
“We keep thinking that we are going to see a drop in the number of farmers registering to be meat handlers,” said Alan Wade, director of the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division. “But we are still receiving about two or three requests every week.” This demand keeps inspectors busy at the plants and with educating farmers on ways to be in compliance with state and federal laws. The division keeps an updated list of meat handlers and slaughter plants on its website.
Next week we will follow NCDA&CS Meat and Poultry Division inspector Codi Brandon through the slaughtering and inspection process.