Articles in Livestock
Forgive me if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent announcement to control antibiotic use in food animals didn’t have me reaching for the Champagne.
For while the FDA’s recommendations to phase out the use of antibiotics as growth promoters and proposal to require veterinary approval of all antibiotic use on farms sound like a good idea, their voluntary nature will result in nothing more than business as usual when it comes to farm antibiotic abuse. Call me a cynic, but leopards don’t readily change their spots. For years, food animal industry lobby groups and drug companies have aggressively denied any link between antibiotic use in farming and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Yet the very same groups have all publicly welcomed the FDA’s recommendations. Why? Because they know they are wholly inadequate.
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I won’t go into the limitations of the FDA’s proposals here, as several respected commentators have already done a very good job of that. But suffice to say that despite decades of mounting scientific evidence that the routine non-therapeutic use of antibiotics on industrial farms is leading to the development of life-threatening multiple antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the end result is nothing more than a strongly worded FDA “recommendation” for action, without any mandatory requirements or enforcement measures to stop the intensive farming industry from putting profit ahead of human health. The same old abuse of these life-saving medicines will continue on industrial farms across the U.S., just under a slightly different guise.
So why should you care? Here are 10 things we all need to think about before we allow Big Ag to continue squandering antibiotics in food animal production.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 will die as a result.
1. There are two major factors driving the dramatic rise of antimicrobial resistant diseases. First, we’ve become too complacent about eating food from animals routinely given antibiotics. Second, we take far too many antibiotics when they are not actually needed.
2. We’re embroiled in an apparent “war” against bacteria, with antibiotics routinely given to livestock, the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics in humans, and the widespread inclusion of antibacterials in toothpaste, soap and even clothing. But all we’re doing is encouraging antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
3. It might surprise you to know that we each carry more than 4 pounds of friendly bacteria in our gut. The number of bacterial cells in and on our bodies (about 100 trillion) outnumbers the number of human cells by a whopping 10 to 1. These organisms play a vital role in maintaining our health and without them we’d be dead.
4. We need to trust our natural immune systems to protect us from disease, resorting to antibiotics only when absolutely necessary.
5. When it comes to antibiotics in farming, we use more antibiotics per pound of meat produced than any other nation in the world. A staggering 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used on food animals.
6. It is widely accepted that disease outbreaks are inevitable in the cramped and stressful conditions found on most factory farms. But instead of improving conditions, the animals are given low or “subtherapeutic” doses of antibiotics in their feed or water, whether they need them or not, to prevent disease and maximize productivity. For example, most chicks receive two antibiotics, lincomycin and spectinomycin, for the first few days of their lives because they are forced to live in environments where respiratory diseases would otherwise be inevitable. In other words, intensive livestock systems are actually designed around the routine use of antibiotics. It’s the only way to keep the animals alive and growing.
7. In June 2013, Consumer Reports found potential disease-causing organisms in 90% of ground turkey samples purchased from stores nationwide. Many of the bacteria species identified were resistant to three or more antibiotic drug classes.
8. While good food-hygiene practices are essential when handling and cooking raw meat, an accidental spill in the refrigerator can now result in potentially untreatable, yet entirely preventable, life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases. Safe handling instructions must never be used to justify farming systems which actively encourage antibiotic-resistance or to absolve companies of any responsibility for the illnesses or deaths that result.
9. The major meat industry bodies claim there is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotic use in farming contributes significantly to an increase in antibiotic resistance in humans. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t agree and is calling for the responsible use of antibiotics, where “These drugs should only be used to treat infections,” whether that’s in humans or animals.
10. When it comes to the responsible use of antibiotics in farming, the U.S. livestock industry is already years behind the European Union, where antibiotic use on farms is strictly controlled. Europe’s livestock industry survived this change without any dramatic reduction in efficiency of meat production and the cost of food in Europe didn’t skyrocket as a result. So why not here? New legislation — The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2013 (PAMTA) — would end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming in the U.S. Are your representatives supporting it?
This isn’t about blaming farmers and vets: They’re simply responding to the contractual demands of Cargill, Purdue, Tyson and others that dominate our food supply. No, this is about waking up to the real costs of so-called cheap meat. We’re talking about farming systems that are not only designed around the routine use of antibiotics to keep billions of animals in such abysmal conditions alive and growing, but which knowingly encourage the development of life-threatening antibiotic-resistant diseases.
I somehow doubt that any sane American would willingly allow the squandering of these potentially life-saving antibiotics simply for cheap meat. Because when you sit down and really think about a future where antibiotics will no longer be effective — and where common diseases such as strep throat may kill our loved ones unabated — there really is no such thing as cheap meat, is there?
Got you thinking? Animal Welfare Approved farmers only use antibiotics to treat sick animals, just as in humans. We also know that if farmers use antibiotics responsibly the risk of antibiotic resistance is absolutely minimal. The result? Pain and suffering in farm animals is minimized, the risk of disease is reduced, and the efficacy of antibiotics — for humans and livestock — is protected. You can find your nearest supplier at www.AnimalWelfareApproved.org.
Top photo: Cattle grazing. Credit: Stephen Ausmus / USDA
The global importance of Slow Food — the food activism movement that was born in Italy in 1986 — continues to spread. Its South Korean chapter — in collaboration with the city of Namyangju and Slow Food International — recently staged an ambitious and highly successful event, AsiO Gusto, the first of its kind to be held in Asia. The impressively organized festival hosted 500,000 visitors over six days.
“Our goal was to gather over 400 artisan food producers and cooks from 40 countries within Asia and Oceania under one roof, to celebrate their diversity and to spread the word about the many unique foods we have in Korea,” says Kim Byung-soo, a member of Slow Food’s International Council and one of AsiO Gusto’s main organizers.
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AsiO Gusto (the capital “O” stands for Oceania) took over a large, modern youth sports center on the outskirts of Namyangju, a city southwest of Seoul that is home to the world’s first organic agriculture museum. Three vast tents pitched on pristine artificial turf pitches formed the nucleus of the show. Each pavilion had a subject: South Korea’s featured more than 100 Korean products, including fermented, eco-friendly and local foods. The International Pavilion focused on foods from 32 Asian and Oceanic countries, including marvelous dried fruits from Afghanistan; Rimbàs black pepper from Malaysia; Palestinian olive oil; Nagasaki yuko vinegar from Japan; Indonesian coconut sugar; Tibetan plateau cheese; heirloom rice from the Philippines; raisins from Iran; Georgian wine and taro and yam from New Caledonia. It also housed six international restaurants and a taste workshop. The “Theme” Pavilion showcased some of Slow Food’s most important projects — the Ark of Taste, Presidium seeds and A 1,000 Gardens in Africa — as well as South Korean temple food and local Slow Food educational activities.
Outside, a large, lively area was given over to street-food stalls from South Korea and beyond: vendors cooked everything from barbecued pork and griddled mung-bean pancakes — made from freshly stone-ground soaked beans — to ash-roasted soya beans and Indian naan breads baked on the spot for thousands of visitors exploring the festival’s “streets.”
An organic vegetable garden was grown on the site, with neat rows of rice, amaranth, squashes and beans on display for the thousands of schoolchildren who visited the fair to learn from. They were also encouraged to enter a walk-in beehive — though not before they’d been covered from head to toe in protective netting; their anxious mothers waited outside until they re-emerged, sting-free. A jovial South Korean farmer made narrow baskets for holding hen’s eggs from rice straw, and used his docile brown cow to give children rides on a converted plow.
Elsewhere, in a gym-turned-hall, visitors attended authoritative conferences on the culture of fermented food, animal welfare and food justice; or witnessed the Korean tea ceremony enacted like a synchronized dance by seven beautifully groomed women in long, traditional dresses, accompanied by their distinctive songs. Music is ever-present in South Korea, from the national passion for karaoke to the lively displays put on during the festival by entertainers from the South Korean armed forces who sang everything from pop to opera and even performed magic tricks on the baseball field where families picnicked and rested in the shade of gazebos.
Buddhist monks’ temple cuisine
One of the most fascinating Korean stands was dedicated to the temple cuisine of the country’s Buddhist monks. Under the discerning eye of the Venerable Dae Ahn, this display showed the remarkable diversity of natural foods — cultivated and wild — the monks eat during the year. Their diet is meat, fish and dairy free, and also avoids foods from the onion family (they’re considered too “hot”). Yet the range of fresh and fermented foods the monks enjoy is impressive.
“In our Buddhist practice, we learn how to cultivate and cook our food,” says Dae Ahn, who also runs the Balwoo temple food restaurant in Seoul. “It’s a central part of our daily lives and is connected to our philosophy of harmony and patience. After all, nothing could be slower than the fermented foods — some of them aged for up to 20 years — that we use to complement our fresh, seasonal ingredients.” The monks also make use of hundreds of wild foods, including pine needles, lotus root, burdock, mushrooms, ginko nuts and acorn jelly. “Our lives, livelihoods and the entire universe change according to what we eat,” she says.
Fermented foods still integral to Korean cuisine
Fermented food is a staple of Korean cuisine and was at the festival in all its guises. Fermented ingredients range from soy sauces to bean and chili pastes (doenjang and gochujang) and kimchi. Best-known as a fermented cabbage dish enlivened with ginger, chili and garlic, kimchi can be made from dozens of vegetables and plants. Traditionally, each farm or household stored its fermenting foods outdoors in large, dark brown ceramic jars. Many still do. Kimchi is served at every Korean meal as a side dish and digestive aid. Fermentation was an important way to preserve perishable ingredients in pre-refrigeration times. These foods are still key elements of the country’s rich food culture.
As with all Slow Food events, the message goes well beyond the simple enjoyment of food to learning about its myriad cultures and sources, and to defending our right to food that is good, clean and fair, as Carlo Petrini, the movement’s founder, maintains. For a first-time visitor to South Korea, AsiO Gusto offered a stimulating chance to experience Korea’s complex, delicious foods and to feel closer to the many heroic artisan food producers from Asia and Oceania who attended it. For anyone interested in attending, the next AsiO Gusto is already being planned for 2015.
Top photo: A young girl studies the Buddhist temple food display at AsiO Gusto. Credit: Carla Capalbo
I couldn’t believe what I was reading in the New York Times this summer about the controversial Polish ban on ritual kosher animal slaughter. I was just arriving in London, en route to Paris, and thought to myself, “Isn’t this what happened in the 1930s when Hitler came to power and began dismantling Jewish culture in Europe?”
As described in Dan Bilefsky’s article, “Polish Jews Fight Ban on Religious Slaughter of Animals,” the warring factions in the dispute compose the oddest collection of bedfellows one can imagine. At least in the 1930s you had relatively clear-cut sides in Poland: fascists vs. Jews.
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Defending religious ritual slaughter that uses a special razor-sharp knife for the task, you have, according to Bilefsky’s article, Polish Jews and Muslims (halal slaughter is similar to kosher) teamed up with the Catholic church — in fact, Pope Francis himself is involved. Hard to imagine the West’s three major, and often feuding, religions getting together on the same side of anything.
Supporting the ban on kosher and halal slaughter in the name of so-called “humane slaughter” — using a special “captive bolt” gun that stuns the animal into unconsciousness before slaughter — you have Polish animal welfare advocates, assorted leftists and right-wing nationalists (read neo-fascists). This latter group is, of course, happy to see Jews and other minorities in Poland lose out again.
Here’s the wrinkle: Ritual slaughter in Europe is legally exempt from the requirement of pre-slaughter stunning. The exemption, agreed to by the European Union in 1979, acknowledges the human right of religious minorities to carry out animal slaughter according to ancient traditions.
So the ban in Poland actually violates a legal exemption that appears to trump Poland’s ban. A pending ruling from Poland’s highest constitutional court will seek to resolve this dispute. In the meantime, the two sides are fighting it out in the court of public opinion, if not in the streets of Warsaw.
Déjà vu all over again
After reading the Times’ piece and an update on the ban in the Wall Street Journal, I began looking more deeply into the question of humane animal slaughter and its complex and eerie history.
In the early 1930s, efforts were made in Europe, especially in Germany to restrict ritual slaughter, at least ostensibly, in the name of animal welfare. In Great Britain, The Slaughter of Animals Act of 1933 required the electrical stunning of animals before slaughter. The exemption for religious slaughter that existed at that time was challenged by fascists, including British veterinarian Arnold S. Leese. In his 1938 paper “The Legalised Cruelty of Shechita: The Jewish Method of Cattle-Slaughter,” Leese states:
The Aryan or Christian has decided that his cattle shall be stunned first so that they will not feel the anguish of the cut and the awful struggle against death which follows it. The Jew and the Mahomedan claim and receive exemption by British law from following the Briton’s example.
Leese goes on to say that in a future fascist Britain, the exemption would be overturned.
The anguish of the cut
Going further back in history, one is reminded that the invention of the guillotine was considered humane in its day, a revolutionary technology designed to limit suffering in beheadings. The French Revolution’s bloody Terror was “revolutionary” in more ways than one.
And a razor-sharp metal knife must have been considered revolutionary (and humane) in ancient times. In Jewish dietary code, it is required that the blade of the shochet’s knife (the chalef) be extremely sharp and long enough to sever both carotid arteries with one smooth and decisive cut, thus causing near instantaneous unconsciousness, or “insensibility” as science likes to describe the loss of awareness (and pain) of animals being slaughtered.
Temple Grandin to the rescue
In all the recent coverage of the Polish ban on ritual slaughter, the one perspective curiously missing is that of science. Science is not my usual default position, but in this case, it’s the essential “objective” dimension in the debate over animal welfare and pain-free slaughter.
Who better, then, to provide the science than Temple Grandin, the world’s leading authority on humane slaughter and, it must be noted, an unrepentant meat eater. Her personal story, including her triumph over autism, is well-known by now, following the recent release of the film “Temple Grandin.”
Grandin’s disability seems to be her virtue: objectivity. Typical of autism, Grandin has had difficulties with social interaction with humans, but her empathy for animals is uncanny and poignant. For much of her life, she hugged cows, not humans.
While her idiosyncratic personality may raise some eyebrows, no one can challenge Grandin’s credentials as a scientist — she has revolutionized the meat processing industry with her cattle management systems that keep the animals as comfortable as possible as they approach the inevitable. Her innovations are based on the insight that happy (stress-free) animals and pain-free slaughter guarantees better tasting meat for the consumer and more profits for the meat industry.
So when Grandin studied properly managed traditional ritual slaughter and compared it to modern technological slaughter she came to the following conclusion in a 1994 paper, “Religious slaughter and animal welfare: a discussion for meat scientists”:
Kosher slaughter performed with the long, straight, razor-sharp knife does not appear to be painful … One can conclude that it is probably less distressful than poorly performed captive-bolt or electrical stunning methods, which release large amounts of epinephrine …
Elsewhere she has noted that properly handled cattle appear not to be aware during ritual slaughter that their throats have been cut. Grandin appears to be constitutionally incapable of anthropomorphism.
It’s still unclear how the Polish brouhaha (moohaha?) will be resolved in the courts, though a decision is expected soon. The forces arrayed in this story are ideological and emotional and tied to very old prejudices. But I’d like to think that Grandin’s approach, call it scientific empathy, will contribute once and for all to an end to these provocative bans on ritual slaughter and, at the same time, lead to increasingly well-managed ritual slaughter practices that guarantee animals the best of both worlds, here and in transition to the other.
Top illustration: Ancient vs. Modern Slaughter. Credit: L. John Harris
In late summer, it’s common for people in the Southwest to spray herbicides on their noxious weeds.
These weeds are, according to the Colorado Weed Management Association, “non-native plant species that have been introduced into an environment with few, if any, natural biological controls, thus giving them a distinct competitive advantage in dominating and crowding out native plant species. Noxious weeds are aggressive, spread rapidly, possess a unique ability to reproduce profusely, and resist control.” The Cardus family of weeds — including the musk thistle, plumeless thistle, Canada thistle and bull thistle — are those most frequently targeted.
The Soul of the Soil
Second in a three-part series on soil used to grow food crops.
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I have an artist friend who clips the blooms, saving the seeds from spreading during high winds. She puts the bright blooms in a Navajo basket, which is beautiful. Another friend uses the thistle greens to blend with lemonade berries and apples. She then strains the liquid from the pulp into a glass for her morning juice. These plants are edible. Some say they can be used as a medicinal tea to strengthen the stomach, reduce fever, kill intestinal worms or stave off constipation.
A legacy of herbicides
For years, thistles were sprayed with Roundup. Now they have become immune to Roundup and the herbicide that is now commonly used is a strong agent called aminopyralid, one of a class of herbicides known as pyridine carboxylic acids. This group includes clopyralid, picloram, triclopyr and several less common herbicides. It is specifically used for broad-leafed plants, and it can be broadcast over pastures without harming the grass.
Aminopyralids are of real concern to vegetable growers because they enter the food chain via manure from animals that eat sprayed pasture greens or hay. When manure containing these herbicides is applied to gardens, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, peas and beans are deformed and the plants produce poor, often nonexistent yields. My concern is that this will have the effect of ending the 10,000-year-old process humans have used to increase soil fertility by applying the animal waste back into soils for vegetable production.
Aminopyralid is made to be applied to pastures, grain crops, residential lawns, commercial turf, certain vegetables and fruits, and roadsides. And Dow, the company that manufactures these herbicides, claims in its warning pages that the forage can be safely eaten by horses and livestock, including livestock produced for human consumption.
But Dow’s website posting concerning aminopyralid stewardship also explains the herbicide does not degrade in plants and takes three days to pass through a grazing animal’s digestive system once treated forage is ingested. My concern is that manure may contain enough of the herbicide to cause injury to broadleaf plants including vegetables and ornamentals for years to come. Dow warns that forage growers should inform the recipient of hay or manure from animals grazing pastures or feeding on grass or hay from areas treated with aminopyralid.
Dow goes on to say the company has been trying to work with farmers and gardeners when carryover has occurred. Dow recommends farmers test manure on a few plants before spreading it across an entire garden or field, particularly if farmers don’t know the manure’s origin. The trade names of this herbicide are Chaparral, CleanWave, ForeFront, GrazonNext, Opensight, Pasturall and Milestone.
In February of 2008 Grab N’Grow, a California soil products company, petitioned the Sonoma County, Calif., agriculture commissioner to create rules limiting clopyralid’s use on plants that feed animals that produce compost.
A drifting problem
For the last 18 years I have had an herbicide/pesticide-free property. I have posted signs so that, should I be out of town, the herbicide man and/or the county that sprays the edges of all county roads will not spray my property under any conditions.
The problem is the property owners around my house spray and the “drift” from the pesticide and/or herbicide runs off in the rain, downhill into my pond and my soil. I am concerned that pesticides can damage hay, vegetables, flowers and livestock.
There are real questions about long-term health effects of chemicals in our soil. At a time when we are more aware of what goes into our bodies and more reluctant to ingest the residues from herbicides, it seems vital to question the use of anything that contaminates our soil.
Top photo: Thistle growing wild in Colorado. Credit: Katherine Leiner
It takes guts to pitch a blood-red circus tent on the fringe of Copenhagen for the MAD Symposium and fill it with 600 food professionals — including cutting-edge chefs, food activists, farmers, foragers and butchers. But then, pioneering chef René Redzepi could never be accused of lacking guts. His radical restaurant, Noma, topped global charts for daring to break with French colonisation, and for establishing in its stead a self-reliance on Nordic ingredients and fresh cooking methods that triggered the so-called Nordic food revolution.
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In Danish, “mad” means food. For the third MAD Symposium, Redzepi was host to a colorful cast of culinary characters with guest curators David Chang of Momofuku and Chris Ying — editor of Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine — and with the help of Ali Kurshat Altinsoy and Peter Kreiner. Speakers came from as far away as Australia, Brazil and California to inspire, inform, provoke and entertain the mostly young, international audience.
“We want to create a forum for the kinds of actions and ideas in food that no one else dares to tell or do,” Redzepi says. “The theme of the symposium this year was guts, in all its forms, and our speakers approached the subject from every angle: the natural, the social, the environmental, the emotional, the culinary and the slightly insane.”
“Having guts is a moral currency encompassing courage, ambition, fearlessness and, sometimes, stupidity,” Chang said in his emotional introduction to the event. “In my case, it meant taking a leap of faith to start a restaurant — without leaving anything for the swim back home.” Chang is now one of the most successful chefs in the U.S.
The tone was set by the first speaker, Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini, who stepped into the ring beside a just-slaughtered pig that had been strung up at centerstage, its head still dripping ruby blood. With the precision of a surgeon, Cecchini delicately sliced open the animal’s belly and pulled out its still-warm, glistening guts. “I’m proud to be from a family of village butchers,” he said as he worked. “We’re the ones who resolve the terrible dilemma of killing animals to feed our communities. In ancient times, it was priests who practised this art. We must be conscientious, responsible carnivores by giving our animals good, long lives and butchering them with respect. Mine is a hard trade, but it’s necessary.” He finished his presentation by giving a passionate recitation of Paola and Francesco’s song of love from Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” He got a standing ovation.
The ever-inspiring Indian food activist Vandana Shiva gave many of the audience’s younger members their first taste of what it means to fight for sustainable agriculture. “In 1987, I had a gut sense I should start saving indigenous seeds in reaction to the spread of sterile, genetically modified seeds produced by the chemical giants who had given us war chemicals,” Dr. Shiva began. “They boasted that by the year 2000 they would control all our seeds and foods. I analyzed that something had to be done.”
Since then her organization, Navdanya, has set up more than 100 community seed banks across India to preserve native varieties and has fought seed patenting and what she calls “the mono-culture of the mind.” “The good, natural bacteria in our guts are being killed off by the saturation of pesticides, weed-killers and antibiotics in our food chain,” she continued. “Only indigenous agriculture can restore the biodiversity and balance we need to survive.”
Roy Choi, the Korean-American chef from Los Angeles, touched a raw nerve with his exciting account — part story, part rap — of fighting the city’s “staggering poverty and hunger crisis.” “L.A.’s rich areas have the country’s most diverse farmers markets, but in the poor areas there’s just nowhere to buy fresh produce and most of the food you can find is discarded, expired, inedible or junk,” he began as he showed photos of desolate convenience stores in South Los Angeles. When Choi started sending out his Kogi food trucks to sell fusion cuisine on random corners, he was surprised by the response. “We’d Twitter our location and within minutes, crowds of hungry people would be standing in line for our Korean-Mexican tacos. I really believe some value has to be placed back in the spiritual currency,” he said. “Do we have the guts to break this cycle of food poverty?”
Over two intense days, the MAD crowd heard from other inspirational chefs too. David Kinch, of Manresa in California, and his farmer, Cynthia Sandberg, showed how a creative chef can team up with a single-source vegetable provider to obtain grown-to-order produce. Pascal Barbot, of L’Astrance in Paris, gave a thrillingly high-energy talk about what it means to be a risk-taker in the kitchen by cooking “spontaneously,” adjusting and changing dishes in real time to suit his customers’ moods, needs and desires.
Christian Puglisi, of Relae in Copenhagen, graphically demonstrated how he established a successful all-organic restaurant with almost no funding, by moving into a cheap space in drug dealers’ territory and paring everything back to focus on the food. The street is now crime-free and thriving. Barbara Lynch, of Boston, told the picaresque story of how she became a chef, against all odds, trying to raise $2 million for a restaurant while living in a housing project, and learning to cook by reading cookbooks. “The only way is to be yourself, be honest and be fearless — you’ll need quenelles of steel!” she said, to delighted applause.
With more than 20 distinguished speakers on the rostrum, there isn’t enough space here to describe them all. But there is more information on the MAD site. And remember: To make a difference to your area’s food scene, all you need is guts.
Top photo: Exterior of the MAD Symposium site in Copenhagen. Credit: Carla Capalbo
There aren’t many occasions in life today when the veil is lifted, when everything that is raw and real is on the forefront. It’s the reason we love weddings and sporting events, because they are often the best/only opportunity to witness human emotion laid bare. I had an opportunity to witness deep human emotion last week when I took the animal processing class hosted by the Laughing Coyote Project in Boulder, Colo. I signed up for the class hoping to improve my butchering skills. I walked away deeply moved at having watched a group of people do something brave and real.
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Nervous tension hung in the air as we gathered on that early summer morning, a mixed group of men and women, a handful of teenagers, and two young boys around 10 years old. As we chatted, two 6-month-old lambs, the ones we were to kill and process that weekend, quietly munched grass under the shade of a cottonwood.
As class began, we sat in a circle in the pen with the sheep. Our instructor, Myron Cretney, clad in buckskin shorts and shirt, led the discussion as to how the day would proceed. Barefooted and with his knife around his neck, Cretney explained that he wasn’t a butcher. Rather he’s a person with years of experience processing his own meat, particularly roadkill. Like most who signed up for the class, Cretney said he harvested his own meat out of desire to take full responsibility for his food.
With kind eyes shining out from above his long white beard, Cretney spent nearly two hours explaining how the class would capture, hold down and cut the throats of each of the sheep. He emphasized how to make the creatures feel most comfortable, saying that their greatest stress seemed to be in separation from the herd. To balance out the fear and sadness that was thick in the air, he instructed us to focus on appreciation and intent. We looked at the lambs, and thought about how thankful we’d be, not only for the meat they’d provide, but also the hides, bones and sinews, all of which would be used by members of the class. He told us that our actions during the slaughter must be deliberate and loving, like the firm hug you’d give a child during an inconsolable fit.
Animal processing with gratitude and respect
The moment finally arrived, and the two people who were to perform the knife plunge were self-selected. One was the mother to the youngest boy in attendance; the other, a 15-year-old. Each student knew his/her role so that the moment of the kill would proceed speedily and calmly. Some would capture the animals, others would hold down the flanks, another would hold down the head and place an ear across the animal’s eye to minimize its fear, one would cut through the jugulars and windpipe, and another would whisk the blood as it drained to prevent clotting.
Each of the people designated to cut the throats had trouble passing through the windpipe. However, no panic seeped into the situation. Cretney swiftly stepped in and helped finalize the cuts. It took several minutes for the blood to drain from the lambs, and their muscles occasionally twitched throughout that time. The students continued to hold them down firmly and with great love. A heavy silence reigned, and fat tears rolled down our cheeks.
Of the whole workshop, the single moment that stood out most in my mind was watching Alexis Neely hold down the shoulder of one of the lambs, quietly crying, but also watching her 11-year-old son, Noah, to make certain he was OK. Afterward, I asked Neely why she felt it was important to bring her young son to the class.
“Noah was born with a love of hunting, fishing and all sorts of primitive skills,” she said. “So while I was a Jewish American Princess from Miami with almost no connection to the outdoors and a deep desire not to harm any living thing, I found my inner nature goddess to support my son. And it turned out that I love it as well. So I look for any and all experiences I can share with Noah that get us in close communion with all aspects of natural living and find as I do that a ‘remembering’ happens for both of us. I experienced the animal processing weekend to support a great respect and appreciation for all life.”
Making use of every part of the animal
The class spent the remainder of the weekend learning to use every part of the animals. Cretney demonstrated techniques — whether stripping the hide from the flesh, or threading a wooden “needle” through the intestines to help turn them inside out for cleaning — on one animal, and let the students complete every part of the work with our own hands.
Despite the lighter mood, Cretney still emphasized respect. At one point, one of the young children threw mock punches at one of the hung animals. Our instructor reminded us that throughout the whole process, we were to recall the same thoughts of gratitude summoned just before slaughter.
(Editor’s note: Some of the photos in the gallery below are a stark depiction of the process.)
At the end of the class, all of the animals’ gifts were laid out on a table, and students took turns choosing which they desired to take home. I went home with some meat, a piece of hide to try my hand at leather tanning, and a lung and blood to make blood pudding.
The skills I learned at the animal processing class will serve me well when handling meat in the future. Ultimately, though, I will remember watching people at their best and the sense of community that the experience created. It usually takes me several meetings to connect names and faces. After the weekend-long animal processing class, I was able to bid farewell to each of my classmates by name.
Blood Pudding in a Lung
1 quart fresh sheep blood, run through a sieve to remove clots
1 teaspoon powdered garlic
1 teaspoon powdered onion
1 teaspoon ground wild oregano
1 sheep lung
cracker crumbs for breading (optional)
sage butter for frying (optional)
1. Whisk the garlic, onion and wild oregano into the blood.
2. Getting the blood into the lung is a two-person job. Have the first person hold the lung steady with a funnel inserted into the trachea. The second person pours the blood into the lung very slowly, until it seems to have reached capacity.
3. Tie off the trachea tightly using twine or a strong rubber band.
4. Using string, tie the blood-filled lung to the center of a stick or long-handled spoon, so that it will be secure when placed into the pot to boil.
5. Fill a pot large enough to contain the lung with water and bring it to a boil. When the water has reached a boil, reduce the heat so that the water is only simmering.
6. Carefully lower the blood-filled lung into the pot of water, allowing the stick to rest on the edges of the pot.
7. Allow the blood pudding to boil gently for 2 hours, turning occasionally.
8. Once it has been cooked and cooled completely, the blood pudding (as instructed by Cretney) can be sliced like bread. I went a step further and breaded my slices with cracker crumbs and quickly fried them in sage butter.
Top photo: A lamb stands nearby, before it is slaughtered as part of an animal processing class at Laughing Coyote Project in Boulder, Colo. Credit: Wendy Petty
“Just let it melt on your tongue,” Jose Martinez-Valero instructed. “It will dissolve into pure flavor.” I placed the tiniest sliver of jamón Ibérico de bellota in my mouth and waited. The finely marbled fat melted like silk, but the finish was remarkably pure, strangely akin to a classic palate cleanser.
As I positioned myself to snare another sample in the elbow-room frenzy of the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor conference at Napa, California, Martinez-Valero hit me with an even bigger surprise. “This fat is just like the very best olive oil, it’s monounsaturated. It comes from a breed of Spanish pig we call the four-legged olive tree,” he said.
And suddenly I understood why the mouthfeel was so familiar. With years of olive oil tasting under my belt, it was easy to recognize the difference between greasy, mouth-coating fat and this high-quality clean finish.
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But like high-quality extra virgin olive oil, purebred Ibérico pork is under siege from unscrupulous distributors who pass off crossbred meats as purebred, elitist pricing and a disappearing ecosystem (needed to support the swine’s unusual eating habits). The species has been on endangered or at-risk lists for years, a dwindling breed supported by a handful of dedicated producers on a lifelong mission to avoid extinction — of the pig, its pastureland and their very livelihoods.
Martinez-Valero represents Ibérico Fresco, one of few Spanish distributors of 100% purebred, acorn-fed fresh Ibérico meat in the United States. Over the din of pork belly- and backfat-crazed chefs at the CIA‘s annual event, he spoke passionately about the plight of this pig and its unique grazing land, the dehesa (forest) of the Iberian peninsula in Spain.
“It is the very definition of sustainable agriculture. The man takes care of the forest, the forest takes care of the pig, and the pig takes care of the man,” explained Martinez-Valero.
Raising Ibérico pigs is an expensive labor of love
Ibérico pigs are not particularly pretty, galloping along with long legs supporting a chunky body. They are best identified by their distinctive black hooves, hence the Spanish name, pata negra. There are many different breeds of Ibérico pigs, ranging from the productive, big Torbiscal to the delicate Entrepelado, but they all have certain traits in common that strain any producer’s pocketbook. Those include litters half the size of crossbreds, production cycles that are three times as long, and particularly expensive eating habits.
In contrast to the ordeals of pigs jammed into cramped pens and pumped full of antibiotics seen in television news reports on the pork industry, the lives of purebred Ibérico pigs seem like a scene straight out of a fairy tale.
Watch a video about Ibérico pigs and the farmers who raise them, below:
By Spanish law, truly purebred (genetically 100%) Ibérico pigs are required to attain at least 40% of their weight grazing exclusively on holm oak acorns during the montanera, or period of fattening between October and January. Each pig is provided 2 hectares (about 5 acres) of personal space to reach its best weight. The high oleic acid content of the acorns and the genetic makeup of the Ibérico help convert the pig’s fat into its distinctive monounsaturated marbling.
“It’s a marvel, a machine for making healthy meat. It’s perfection,” said Lucia Maesso Corral, president of Aeceriber, the Iberian Pig Breeders Association. She represents purebred producers who are fighting an uphill battle against lesser quality, far less expensive crossbred options that are allowed to take the name “Ibérico.” But their passion for truth-in-labeling and authentic, quality production is palpable.
Without question, the better-known cured ham version is amazing. But one taste of the fresh meat they now call “the other red meat” and you will understand the depth of these producers’ dedication. For a dinner party of two, I sautéed a secreto of carne de cerdo ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Iberico pork shoulder skirt) for no more than two minutes per side, classically medium rare with a deep pink in the center, and sliced it like flank steak. Without exaggeration, it may well be the best meat I’ve ever eaten: succulent, sweet, almost nutty. Good enough that we didn’t have the discipline to stop, finishing off the entire cut with no regrets.
Monastrell’s Ibérico Pork with Manchego Cheese and Saffron
I went straight to the best source I know in Spain for a professional’s opinion of the meat. Chef María José San Román of Monastrell in Alicante, Spain, heralds the pig on her Michelin-starred menu with a simple appetizer that showcases the meat by surrounding it with gentle flavors: a foam of Manchego cheese crowned with spring-fresh watercress.
“Many people only know Ibérico ham in its cured form, but fresh cuts of the pig are extraordinary examples of the best pork Spain has to offer,” San Román said. “Like the Manchego cheese it is paired with, Ibérico pork is quintessential Spanish cuisine.”
Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer
8 teaspoons (40 ml) extra virgin olive oil (preferably Picual variety), plus more for frying
1 pound (500 g) piece acorn-fed purebred Ibérico shoulder loin (presa) (see note below)
1.7 ounces (50 g) salt
100 mg saffron powder (see note below)
1½ ounces (40 g) each of capers, small gherkins, and finely chopped spring onions
2 teaspoons (10 ml) sherry vinegar
¼ pound (100 g) watercress
7 ounces (200 g) Manchego cheese
6 ounces (175 g) fresh cream
5 ounces (150 g) fresh milk
1 pound (500 g) potatoes, cut into matchsticks with a mandoline
Olive oil for frying
Foam maker, such as the iSi Gourmet Whip Plus
1. Marinate the pork for 3 hours in 2 cups (500 ml) of water with salt and saffron powder. Pork should be room temperature before cooking. Do not trim excess fat. Pat meat dry to remove excess moisture.
2. Place a frying pan with a little extra virgin olive oil over high heat. Place meat fat side down and sear for three minutes. Turn over and sear for two minutes on the other side until meat is just pink. Let rest for 5 minutes, slice angled strips against the grain and set aside.
3. Prepare vinaigrette by mixing capers, gherkins, spring onions, sherry vinegar and 8 teaspoons of extra virgin olive oil. Add to watercress and toss to coat.
4. Heat cheese, cream and milk until the cheese is melted, but do not boil. Put through a sieve and into the siphon and keep hot.
5. Deep fry the matchstick potatoes in olive oil and drain on tissue paper.
6. Put the potatoes in the center of the plate, layer slices of pork around it and place the dressed watercress salad on top.
7. Surround with the hot cheese foam.
Fresh, acorn-fed 100% Ibérico pork and saffron powder can be found at tienda.com.
Top photo: Ibérico pigs. Credit: Courtesy of Aeceriber
I watched a butchery demonstration by third-generation meat cutter Kari Underly at the annual Chef’s Collaborative conference last year in Seattle. One of the attendees was the editor-in-chief from a national cooking magazine. I asked her what drew her to watch a skilled professional divide muscles from bone and fat. “I just love watching people cut up meat,” she said. “I won’t ever use this stuff, but it’s fascinating.”
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Observing a butcher elegantly wield a knife is a spectacle, one I recommend to anybody tempted by the smells of a burger on the grill. Years ago in cooking school, I was rapt by my first butchery demonstration on a lamb, and I wasn’t even a meat eater then. Since there’s no blood to speak of (slaughter and butchery are two vastly different steps in the process), the butcher’s craft is akin to witnessing a master wood carver create an end table from a stump.
Underly is one of several pro butchers to publish a book on her craft, “The Art of Beef Cutting.” Her step-by-step illustrated guide is geared toward professional meat cutters, but is approachable for motivated home cooks. Other recent books are for the general meat eater eager to learn their striploin from their skirt steak. They include San Francisco 4505 Meats butcher Ryan Farr’s “Whole Beast Butchery” and New York-based Fleisher’s owners Joshua and Jessica Applestone’s “The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat.”
Along with “The Butcher’s Apprentice,” these books aim at the DIY market and the mania for home-cured bacon and assorted salumi. The newest butchery book out this spring is “Butchery & Sausage-Making for Dummies.” Written by San Francisco Chef Tia Harrison, co-founder of The Butcher’s Guild and co-owner of Avedanos Meats, this book brings butchery to the masses.
As I paged through illustrations, photographs and diagrams of animal carcasses and cuts in each of these books, I wondered how many people would find it both fascinating and useful.
Butchery is back, but is it relevant for everyone?
By the time I witnessed Underly in action in Seattle, I had years of informal experience cutting up parts of beef, elk, pork and lamb, whole rabbits, chickens, duck and turkey.
Laying my hands on primals and smaller muscle groups gave me firsthand understanding of how those parts related to the whole. I had an intimate understanding of how the composition of the shoulder differed from the leg, right down to the muscle texture and color.
These experiences handling, cutting, trimming, chopping and grinding my own meat not only improved my knife work, they also enhanced my cooking knowledge and skill with anything meaty.
Even if you don’t aspire to break down a whole hog or side of beef, there are surprisingly many transferable skills to be learned from a bit of butchery. Butchery guidebooks such as these are an accessible starting point for seeking out new opportunities to use your knife.
You can also sign up for a class, watch an online video or enlist a more experienced friend.
Here’s what some hands-on butchery experience can do for you:
- Connect with the meat you eat, its source and quality. Once you get up close and personal with your meat, it’s impossible not to ask questions, including how was this animal raised? What was it fed? How was it slaughtered? You become a more conscious carnivore.
- Learn the location and composition of cuts. Carcasses are like jigsaw puzzles. When you take just one piece at a time, you can more easily grasp the whole. You can then translate what you know about beef to pork to lamb, or chicken to duck to game birds.
- Increase your confidence at the meat counter and in the kitchen. Have you felt shy approaching the butcher counter? Or, do you only buy steaks because you know how to cook them? With a little experience, you become the master your favorite meats.
- Understand the reasons for different cooking methods. The proportion of lean to fat in any cut determines whether it needs slow cooking or can be roasted, grilled and sautéed. Demystify the cooking and your options open wide.
- Waste less and use more of the meat you buy. Whether you purchase a whole tenderloin to trim or a pork shoulder to smoke, you’ll find a good use for every morsel of meat, fat and even bone. Stock and sausage making are natural next steps.
5 Butchery Skills for Beginners
With your knives — a boning knife and chef’s knife are all you need — freshly sharpened, here are some beginning butchery skills anyone can try at home:
- Slice your own steaks from a strip loin (or boneless rib roast or top round roast)
- Bone a whole chicken
- Bone a leg of lamb, roll and tie it
- Butterfly pork loin
- Trim a whole tenderloin
Top photo: A butcher Frenching a rack of lamb. Credit: David L. Reamer