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Better Meat Requires Better Butchers

We need a new generation of young, local butchers to take up the cleavers and get to work. By now, you're probably tired of...

We need a new generation of young, local butchers to take up the cleavers and get to work.
By now, you're probably tired of hearing about bacon explosions, bacon cocktails, and the big bad bacon backlash that's been launched against overly pious eaters everywhere. It's time to get down to the belly of the matter: If we want to eat meat, we need better butchers in our neighborhoods, so we're not buying meat from distant, unknown sources.

The single most expensive factor in starting a new farm tends to be land, but young farmers raising pigs and cows have another problem: the lack of slaughterhouses and butchers. Unlike fruits and vegetables and grains, which you can take off the farm and sell directly, meat for sale (legally) has to be taken to a licensed and inspected slaughterhouse facility. Then, it has to be broken down into cuts.

Forty years ago, smaller, family-owned slaughterhouses existed throughout the United States. The number of these "very small plants" has declined over the last 10 years, according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the industry consolidated into a very, very efficient system. In her book Raising Steaks, Betty Fussell writes that all but a very small percentage of the 30 millions cows harvested annually in United States are turned into meat by one of three major packers. And industry beef producers don't make money on rib eye steaks. They make money on the parts no one wants-value-added offals like pink slime.

More and more people want to know about where their meat comes from, how it's produced, and how it's processed. If you don't want to get food from a huge pork producer who makes more waste than a small city, enhances their pork bellies with sodium nitrite, and trucks the bacon from Iowa to the supermarket, finding someone raising pigs near you isn't enough. You also need to find a farmer whose pigs are slaughtered near you.

Which brings us to the importance of butchery. Not only are butchers disappearing, but the ones who remain are often aging. At last month's Young Farmers Conference at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Arion Thiboumery, 28, who works at the Iowa State Extension, speaks about the needs for serious change to the country's meat distribution network. He has produced a visual guide to buying whole animals and says there's a real value to the new generation of butchers. "Whether it's cutting really nice steaks, making really nice sausages, or curing really nice hams, there's a real craft to it," he told me. "I'm really encouraged by more young people in farming and butchering."

The connection between the way you treat an animal's flesh to the taste and quality of its meat may seem obvious. But it hasn't been acknowledged in the modern meat industry's standard operating procedure. It's time to start caring about the corner butcher-or time to learn to do it yourself.

Photo by Flickr user Mark Coggins under a (cc) license.

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