Meatpaper TWO

Leading Lambs to Slaughter
In search of a kinder, gentler abbatoir
by Marissa Guggiana

AS I AM USHERED through the kill floor of Superior Farms, a lamb slaughterhouse in Dixon, California, I am shocked by how normal the whole process seems after only a few minutes. Lamb after lamb glides by, dangling from a conveyor as it is separated from its pelt in a single, almost graceful movement. The journey from lamb to rib chop is swift, mechanical and hypnotic in its uniformity and rhythm.

I sell meat. I buy animals from ranchers and then send them to the slaughterhouse. At my plant, we cut the carcasses into the pieces customers recognize as dinner options: a lamb rack frenched down to the tender eye, some hearty veal osso buco slices. Then, I market the product and deliver it to grocery stores and restaurants. I am a middle-woman. To get to your meat, you have to go through me, or someone like me.

Next lamb season, the ranchers who sell to me will be experimenting with ways to respond to a new kind of customer, one who wants to know that the animal he or she eats was treated humanely during its short life. Traditionally, ranchers “dock” or remove lambs’ tails, often by applying a rubber ring that cuts circulation until the tail falls off. This year, they’ll leave the tails alone. They’ll also stop castrating their animals. These practices are considered stressful to the animals and over the past few years, they’ve come under scrutiny. So the ranchers change their practices.

MPU stands for mobile processing unit, a euphemism for a kill floor on wheels

I sell meat raised as close to the customer as I can, often buying from lamb ranches only a few miles from my plant. I do this because transporting and storing animals as little as possible makes good sense for the environment. It also makes good business sense. Because I spend less on transportation than most other distributors, I can afford to pay the ranchers as much as 25 percent above market price. But the closest slaughterhouse, Superior Farms, is 90 miles away, which means the animals take a 90-mile ride to the slaughterhouse and then the carcasses take a 90-mile ride back to my plant. That’s a 180-mile trip for animals that may have been born only ten miles away from my plant. There is no other option. The only other lamb slaughterhouse in the area is a small family operation that isn’t equipped to manage our volume. And so the animals travel hundreds of miles by trailer. They have room to turn around and a comfortable surface, but from the way they quiver as they are ushered into the slaughterhouse, it’s clear this is a high-stress journey for them.

Everyone agrees that it would make most sense to slaughter animals on the ranch where they are raised. Indeed, doing this would earn us a top-tier spot in the Whole Foods ranking for sustainable, humane meat practices. The lambs would suffer far less stress and our carbon footprint would shrink from a size 10 to a size 5. But current federal law prohibits us from doing this. Ranch kill is not legal for resale. You can shoot a cow on your property and fill up that freezer in your garage but try selling one of those burgers to a friend, and you run into trouble. Anything slaughtered for resale must be killed under the inspection of the USDA, with all the three-ring binders full of rules that go with that designation.

Over the last two years, since I began working directly with local ranchers, the slaughterhouse dilemma has really begun to eat at me. The slaughter defines my relationship to the lamb as I take it through its final moments. It also defines, to some extent, the product that bears my company’s name. I can determine so many aspects of the lives of the animals we sell, but this final moment, frustratingly, remains beyond my control.

To harvest lambs (the contemporary, gentler term for “kill”) without moving them, you have to move the slaughterhouse. If that sounds farfetched, meet the MPU. MPU stands for mobile processing unit, a euphemism for a kill floor on wheels. Most are of a straightforward design: a trailer with a ramp outside for the animals to climb and inside, the basic necessities of slaughter. There are hooks and a rail for hanging the carcasses and a sink. Pretty straightforward, but they hold some mystique for those of us in the sustainable meat industry. From the moment I learned about MPUs, I was intrigued: They seem such an elegant solution.

Right now there are seven operating MPUs in the U.S., but none of them are in California. California’s lone MPU sits gathering dust in Monterey County. The MPU is operated by George Work, of Work Family Ranch. Work’s enthusiasm for the practicality of the MPU got it built, but it hasn’t been enough to overcome state and county bureaucracy, and a federal regulatory system that seems reluctant to change.

Bruce Dunlop is the MPU movement’s Johnny Appleseed. Dunlop is a member of Washington State’s Island Grown Farmers Cooperative, an organization of cattle ranchers who raise, slaughter, and market their beef. Once upon a time, Dunlop and other ranchers in his area had to truck their lambs 16 hours to the slaughterhouse in Dixon. A few years back, the cooperative raised $150,000 in government grants and private donations to build an MPU. Now, Dunlop operates a sideline of building and selling MPUs — he’s had a hand in five of the seven currently in circulation across the country.

The general response from other meat processors, government workers, and members of the sustainability community to the MPU is a list of reasons why it does not work, has not worked, and will not work. Most of these focus on county regulations. For instance, in Washington, where Dunlop operates, he’s able to compost the non-edible remainders and return them to the pasture as fertilizer. In California this wouldn’t be tolerated. While each county has its legal peculiarities, there seems to be an overarching resistance rooted in a fear of decentralization, a fear that if we move outside the model of faster, cheaper, and more, we lose.

But there’s good reason to believe that MPUs might be not just more humane, but cheaper and simpler, too. In Marin County — where the Bay Area’s last remaining slaughterhouse is on the verge of closing — a Tiburon-based company called North Coast Meats wants to build a new, permanent slaughter facility at an estimated cost of between $3 million and $15 million, according to a spokesman. Compare that to the $200,000 price tag on an MPU. And if you think there is red tape to wade through before getting a mobile slaughter unit, try convincing a neighborhood to allow a slaughterhouse to move in next door.

If you want to get good meat, you have to get it from a good source. But there’s more to sustainability than how the animal is raised and what it eats. In order to truly shape a food chain into something sustainable and progressive, we have to create new models for the distribution chain. We middlemen may not have the sexiness of dirt-caked cowboy boots on a rolling hill, but we provide the drumbeat for the industry and we need to be as sustainable as the products we carry. Bringing the slaughter to the animals is a funny sort of olive branch but it could be the beginning of a revolution.


This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Two.


photos: top, Malena Blease; center and bottom, Mobile processing unit photos courtesy of Bruce Dunlop, Lopez Island Farm