Email today from someone I’ve been corresponding with for a couple years now, someone who cares about who we grow and raise the food we eat.  Thanks, Heath.

Michael,

Wooly Pigs is getting ready to do our first slaughter. Three of the pigs will go The French Laundry.

We are very nervous about this. As you surely know, getting animals slaughtered at a USDA plant is a lot tougher than doing them on farm. We might ruin the meat with pre-slaughter stress, wasting an animal’s entire life and costing us a lot of money. I’ve written about it here: 

http://woolypigs.blogspot.com/

If you could help to promote custom meat, that would be great. That’s the only way to get really great meat. Most foodies don’t know enough about this.

Heath

See also woolypigs.com.

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29 Wonderful responses to “Individuals who make a difference”

  • jim miscedra

    michael,

    Thank you for another great “heads-up”. A very thought provoking and thoughtful piece of writing by your friend Heath. If I have learned anything from your writing, it is that it pains me truly to waste anything. I do all in my limited power to not waste a damn thing in the kitchen. The thought of wasted meat; a wasted animal is more repulsive than any mention of slaughter.

  • Mathias Eichler

    Thanks!
    That was perfect timing. I’m just in the process of loosly assembling a dinner club here in Olympia, WA – Pork, that’s what’s for dinner, and what kind of pork… delicious!!

  • Trent Hendricks

    To all the conscientious producers and chefs; I salute your efforts. It is not a simple or easy thing you do. We have produced meat animals and had them slaughtered under inspection for 20+ years now, and there are a few things that can be done to limit the stress on the animals. Always schedule the slaughter time in advance and show up as close to that time as possible, always haul animals in pairs or more, never alone. If you really want to go all out, the animals can be trained to load and travel periodically to minimize the terror of the final trip, etc. There are volumes written in various publications such as the Stockman Grass Farmer periodical (THE magazine of the grass based livestock community http://www.stockmangrassfarmer.com ) about methodology of production through food prep. The carcass cooling temperatures and cooling time’s are very important, as well as proper fat cover, bleed out, docility of the animal, etc have great impact on meat quality. Cooling the carcass too fast is a big problem that is often misunderstood. Anyway, for all those who strive for excellence, keep on keeping on. Oh by the way, after all this time and experience with having our animals commercially processed, we are aggressively looking into bringing the work back onto the farm, where we can do it “our” way. Yes, we know what we’re getting into (we think) but if it was easy, everybody would do it!

  • Todd

    Very interesting. Are there any studies done to show how and to what degree stress actually affects meat? (And I’m not saying that as a challenge, I’m honestly curious.)

    Grammar is so funny, though… I got a kick out of this line: “A farmer who slaughters himself can waste fewer pigs …” I would say that’s a true statement on a number of different reads.

  • CaptainK

    Back in the day, I fancied myself as a homesteader and Mother Earth news was my bible (though I kept my day job, lol!) I raised rabbits, chickens and pigs. The rabbits and chickens I slaughtered myself, but after reading how it was done (sticking, scalding, etc.) I never had the balls to try butchering my pigs. It seemed like WAY more work than my wife and I and our two young sons could accomplish.

    So, I’d round them up (I always raised two at a time) and trucked them to the nearest meat processor. But their stress level was palpable (beginning with just getting them to get in the truck). And, I did always wonder if it affected the taste of the meat…

    And now I know.

  • diane

    This is absolutely right on and kudos to the French Laundry for sourcing this meat.
    Small farmers in VT have been pushing for changes in the slaughter/ processing rules for quite a while. It is much more humane for the animal, and, consequently, produces a much better product, for it to be quickly killed on farm ( rather than trucked to, and held at the slaughter house) and then butchered–you will probably get better cuts of meat too because slaughter houses tend to botch the butchering.
    This year VT loosened the rules on chicken slaughter to allow up to 1,000 birds to be slaughtered on farm. They will not allow this for pigs and cattle, the argument being that large animals are too hard to get down quickly to safe temps after killing (unlike chickens). Other states have made changes in this legislation, and I think a move is afoot to try and change this in VT.
    Foodies should unite with small farmers to work for these changes at a local level. It helps small farmers find a market for bull calves, pigs, etc , is much better for the quality of life of the animal and produces meat that is of higher quality because the animal was not stressed before killing.It is also a chance for consumers to “meet their meat” if they care to, or at least see where it lived and died.

  • Shelley

    I read Heath’s post on his Wooly Pigs blog, and I too wondered about the flavor of all the pork products I’ve ever eaten. Can someone really tell the difference between stressed and unstressed? What does “stress” taste like? Am I doomed to dine on this stress since I don’t have a personal relationship with a pig farmer or a butcher? What’s a simple grocery store customer to do?

    Todd, your grammar observation is TOO funny, I must add.

  • Susan

    Interesting article. I have a question – if farms were allowed to slaughter their own pigs, how would we know it was done humanely and in a sanitary manner? I agree that it would be less stressful to do it that way (unless the pigs are at a factory farm and are already stressed). I’d just be concerned that some farmers wouldn’t do things the right way, or may even be careless or sadistic and hurt the animals even more. I guess some sort of supervision over the process at the farm would make me rest easier. Why can’t the USDA just send a guy out to watch over the slaughters? (Ugh…who’d want that job?)

  • Trent Hendricks

    Susan, good points. My farm’s (I’m not the dude in the story, just another guy trying to make a difference) motto is “Changing Lives One Bite at a Time”. The principle being that as we get folks more involved with their food, eating better, feeling better, thinking straight and taking time to build memories and restore mind, body and spirit, they will inherently choose to get more involved with their own lives and partake in a community of farmers, tradesmen, artisans, and so forth, where reputation and integrity rule. Rather then a societal approach that enforces minimum standards with penalties, we prefer a system that encourages innovation and excellence, with customer accountability and peer review. Much like the diseased creature that is often called organic, good intentions lead to unintended consequences. Quality of life is the responsibility of the citizens not the government. I encourage you to embrace the freedoms and choices you have, understanding that they bring with them a responsibility to be involved. Support your local farmers BUT make them accountable. There are no free lunches. Please do no see this as an attack, but rather as an impassioned entreaty.

  • Vanessa

    I grew up on a pig farm and I’ve helped out with an “on the farm” slaughter. It seems to me that much of what Heath talks about is just good common sense and good moral sense.

    The Mangalitsa pigs are extraordinary looking…I bet they are delicious.

  • Aron

    Yes, they are. The best meal I had this year was the Mangalica short ribs I had at my favorite restaurant in Hungary.

  • bob

    Sounds like the beginning of something great in the Northwest for the uninproved hogs! best wishes.

  • Lester Hunt

    What perfect timing. I was just discussing the ethics of eating animal products with my students and on my blog. It is good to know another way things can be done more humanely — sad to think that our regulatory system prevents it from happening!

  • truenorthern

    In response to Trent Hendriks on whether or not an animals stress level effects the quality of meat, it sure does.

    Part of what make meat juicy is its ability to bind water. That ability is a function of the muscle’s postmortem pH. For example, let’s take a hog. Typically the muscles of a relaxed hog will have a postmortem pH in the 6 range, just the acid side of a neutral 7. A hog under stress will produce lactic acid in its muscles that’ll drop that postmortem pH into 5 range. The pork industry calls this ‘pink, soft and exudative’ meat, PSE for short. It’s a quality fault. To reduce the incidence of PSE many slaughterhouses like to receive their slaughter hogs at least 4 hours prior to slaughter. In that interim most of the lactic acid that’s been built up from the stress of the transportation is used up.

    Here’s the underlying chemistry. It’s electric (sorry, lab joke).

    Water is a polar molecule. One side has a negative electrical charge on it and the other a positive electrical charge. Muscle has a very high protein content and proteins are composed of amino acid “residues”. Amino acids are also polar molecules. At neutral pH values the amino acids and water molecules are attracted to one another via their positive and negative charges. Think lots of itty bitty magnets.

    When Lactic Acid is introduced some of it breaks up into positively charged protons and negatively charged Lactate ions. The net effect is that the protons and lactate ions react with the amino acids, displacing water. Drop the pH low enough (4.3 to 4.5) and the protein reaches its isoelectric point, the point at which in has no net electrical charge. Without an electrical charge the water is not attracted to the protein and it just sloughs away as free water. Leaving you with dry pork.

    Those producing fermented and/or dried sausages like PSE pork because the tendency for water to slough away quickly helps in reducing the water activity in their products to safe levels more quickly. But that another story.

  • DrBehavior

    In addition to wanting to thank you for the obvious and considerable effort that you put into all of your writings, there are several additional points I’d like to make for your consideration and feedback as well as for benefit and feedback of your other readers. If anyone followed the link that you posted to your interview with a Tampa Radio – NPR sound alike announcer, they know how, in a very understated manner and using mellifluous tones you are all about sharing your knowledge and edifying your readers and listeners alike in an extremely palatable manner. Your generous contribution is not only notable, it is also noted, relied upon, and appreciated by likely more folks than even you’re aware of (me included).
    Next, I’ve enclosed a link from an associate professor who’s position is at Colorado State University. She’s written well over three hundred essentially journal articles on humane slaughtering of domesticated animals amongst a plethora of articles on related subjects. In my considered opinion, it’s all good and well to talk about cooking in terms of preparation, technique, food product, flavorings, utensils, etc., etc., however, it is equally important if not imperative to be informed on such subjects as animal rearing, feed, and slaughter. For that reason I’ve enclosed a link to Professor Temple Grandin’s Site so that, hopefully, a viable and civilized discussion might be commenced with a very specific focus on animal slaughter.
    http://www.grandin.com/index.html

  • Nic Heckett

    Hi Heath – congratulations. Woodlands also have hogs on the rail, and on their way to NYC. We feel you, on the subject of on-farm slaughter, but it will never happen IMHO. You will make yourself crazy working against the USDA. Use small, family owned processors, and work closely with them. That way you can minimize the stress and unpleasantness of the transport and kill.

  • Bob delGrosso

    truenorthern

    Is it true that when you bring the pH of the environment of any molecule to its isoelectric point it loses it’s attraction for its medium? Or is that going too far?

  • latenac

    I’m in VT. We’ve bought a lamb 2 years in a row now that has been raised for us and been slaughtered on the farm before going to the butcher. I think you can do the run around of the farm keeping the animal for you but you own it in VT. And while I know my cooking has improved, I doubt it’s improved enough to be the sole reason why for 2 years in a row it’s been the best lamb our family has ever had. I’ll have to find out if they do the same thing for their pigs now…

  • truenorthern

    Bob delGrosso

    At the risk of a non-answer, it depends. It’s true in strictly aqueous systems. Add oil to the mix and things get a little more complex.

    Think about it this way. At pH values > the isoelectric point (pI) a molecule exists with a negative charge, an anion. At pH < pI it's the opposite. It's a positively charged cation. Like I said before, at pI there's no net charge, a zwitterion. (Isn't that a great word? Say it with me one time.) In aqueous systems a molecule at pI has no attraction for water and becomes virtually insoluble. Add oil to the mix and it's the opposite. Oil is apolar, it has no electrical properties to speak of. A molecule at its isoelectric point in an aliphatic (oil based) system will actually be attracted oil. Truth be known they're not so much attracted to the oil as repelled by water. Clear as mud? This property is actually part of why emulsifiers work. Be they peptides or fatty acid residues each type of molecule has both polar and apolar properties. In a vinegarette, for example, without an emulsifier the two components won't mix. Shake the bejesus out of it and, in time, it'll seperate back into oil and vinegar. Add a bit of egg yolk, which is rich in the emulsifier Lethicin, and the mix will be much more stable. To sum up, a molecule at pI in a watery system will lose it's attraction to water. A molecule at pI in an oil based system will be attracted to the oil. Whew, that was a brain stretcher for 1st thing in the morning. Is this type of information useful to you? If it is I'll set up a food science forum on eGullet. I don't want to take up too much space here on our Ruhlman's turf.

  • Hank

    Another taste aspect beyond moisture retention is adrenaline: I have eaten game animals that were poorly shot (mercifully none of mine!) and who spent several minutes running around, flooded with adrenaline. This meat is typically dry (as y’all discussed), mushy AND acrid. There is a metallic, unpleasant tang present that I am guessing comes from the adrenaline. I bet this happens in domestic cases as well, although probably less often.

  • truenorthern

    Hank, you’re exactly right. An animal under stress will be producing hormones that promote the quick utilization of the muscle’s glycogen reserves. If the animal is winded it cannot ingest enough oxygen to completely burn the glycogen and that leads to the production of lactic acid.

    It’s odd but there should be a little lactic acid present for good quality meat. It’s presence retards the growth of microorganisms. If there’s too little lactic acid you might get DFD meat (Dark, Firm and Dry). The postmortem pH of this type of meat is in the high 6s. DFD meat is not only unappealingly dark but tasteless too.

  • redman

    I remember a term from way back when that I never hear anymore, I believe it was PSE, something like pale, soft and exudiated pork, which referred to pork that had become inedible due to stress at time of slaughter. I have no idea if this term is still in use?

  • Ms.Anthrope

    DrBehavior,
    Thank you for pointing us to Temple Grandin’s site. Her studies have fascinated me for a number of years and has helped me considerably in figuring out seemingly strange animal behavior…which turns out to be perfecly simple and logical when she explains it.
    I encourage anyone who is interested in these issues to give her site a look.

  • StewartFip

    Straight talk about how people get food to our tables. This is great stuff! I’ve learned a great deal today thanks to all these resources.

  • Laureen

    “I have a question – if farms were allowed to slaughter their own pigs, how would we know it was done humanely and in a sanitary manner?”

    My own question – how do we know that slaughters conducted in USDA approved large processing plants are done humanely in a sanitary manner?

    I was flipping through a diet book over the weekend with a chapter entitled, “You are what you eat.” The chapter went on to give quotes from workers at large, USDA approved slaughter houses detailing how they (and their fellow workers) routinely and sadistically abused animals before and during slaughter. It was enough to make my stomach turn for the rest of the afternoon.

    Does anyone have any recommendations for buying pork raised and slaughtered with care in NYC?

  • truenorthern

    @Laureen

    There are abuses in either system. The bottom line is you do not know unless you do your research. If you cannot visit the farms yourself develop relationships with purveyors that that have and that you trust.

    I live in Canada so I confess I’m not wholly conversant with U.S.D.A. regulations. However I suspect the Canadian experience is similar to the U.S. experience.

    In the case of larger animals most smallholdings don’t have the stress of transport and that’s a big advantage in terms of treating food animals well. They can acheive a quick stun with the use of a small caliber firearm and a shot through the brain. The challenge for many smallholdings is in chilling the dressed carcass and the offals quickly. Spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms grow optimally between 40F and 140F. There are also many degratory enzymatic reactions that are retarded at lower temperatures.

    On the other hand, slaughtering at a HACCP certified, federally inspected facility should address those issues as they have the systems and infrastructure for handling carcasses in a more sanitary way. However, the transportation to the facility does stress the animal, especially if it’s done improperly. Ideally the gap should be as long as it takes to use up any residual lactic acid in the animals systems but not as long as it would take for their glycogen reserves to be depleted. That’s be where fasting meets starvation, in the clinical sense. Rule of thunb, slaughtering should occur within 24 hours of being received at the processing facility. If you want to assure yourself, contact the slaughtering facility and ask them how long they hold their animals prior to slaughter, what provisions they make for their keeping while on site and whether or not they’re vertically integrated with regard to transportation of animals from the farm to the plant. On any retail package of meat you by there should be a mark indicating the processing establishments U.S.D.A. registration number. The U.S.D.A. should be able to give you the name of the processing establishment from that.

    I’d encouage you to look at the work of Dr Temple Grandin who’s done a lot of work on the ethical treatment of food animals. DrBehavior posted a link to her website in this stream

    On balance I beleive you would be better served both ethically and in terms of meat quality by dealing with a local producer whose systems are up to scratch. If you cannot buy at least half the animal then deal with a like-minded butcher you trust who has those relationships.