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Wheezing chickens…

5 Sep


To the folks who asked about assessing whether a bird is OK for slaughter…

You told me that despite treatment with antibiotics, the birds still seem to be wheezing, and “sound  raspy.”  You also know that they cannot be on antibiotics for at least seven days before slaughter. 

Well, if  I had a chicken that was wheezing, I would give it oxygen and make it quit smoking.

But seriously, I certainly wouldn’t eat any animal that was sick or was recently on antibiotics. Even slaughtering facilities quarantine animals that are sick or have a temp until a) they are well or b) are condemned as unfit for consumption.

So my opinion is, don’t slaughter and definitely do not eat.

Toot. Toot.

22 Jan

… tooting my own horn here. So reader warning – the following post is unabashed promotion (after almost two years of work,  hey, why not?)

and here it is!!!

and here it is!!!

My book is finished! Published! Available to all! Three hundred and twelve pages of juicy meat-ness, with chapters covering:

  • The real definition, work, and role of a culinary butcher;
  • The roots of butchery from pre-history to today;
  • Meat: selecting your breed, grading and aging, tenderness, storing, and reheating;
  • The truth behind meat marketing claims of “organic”, “natural”, “free-range”, “grass-fed”, “pasture-raised” and more;
  • How meat gets to the table: farmers, slaughtering methods, stress and animal welfare, the role of meat inspectors, cut sheets, what’s legally allowed/not allowed when purchasing meat for further processing, keeping integrity in the local meat movement;
  • Understanding the commercial meat food chain and what goes on behind the scenes at meat markets large and small;
  • Processing your own meat: what you’ll need, tools, safety, and preparation;
  • Beef: domestication, terminology, how cows work, raising methods (grass, grain, etc.), meat-safety issues, hormone growth implants, antibiotics and feed additives, carcass yield and marbling scores, cutting up a beef forequarter and hindquarter, and a partial list of beef breeds;
  • Pork: domestication, terminology, raising methods, grading and inspection, cutting up a side of pork, and a partial list of pork breeds;
  • Sheep: domestication, terminology, raising methods, cutting up a whole lamb, and a partial list of sheep breeds;
  • Chicken: domestication, terminology, how to cut up a whole chicken;
  • How to make sausages;
  • Value-added products: what they are and how they can help increase your bottom line;
  • Your own butcher shop: size, equipment, display, marketing; and,
  • A better way of thinking about meat: including a holistic overview and some conclusions.



“The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat” comes with a CD with my complete butchery course –  over 800 photos that show you exactly how to cut up a side of beef, side of pork, whole lamb and chicken. Every step described and illustrated.

So how’s them apples? 


And just to prove it’s real, here are a few early reviews:

“Is there a bible of meat? There is one now. Cole Ward’s book demystifies the whole process of how animals are raised, slaughtered, and eventually make it to your plate.  From learning about breeds to cutting up your own side of beef, you will be a more empowered meat eater once you read this book.”
                     Rebecca Thistlethwaite, author, Farms with a Future

“This comprehensive book is far more than a guide to cutting meat – it’s for anyone who want a better understanding of meat (and we all should). Engaging, informative, and yes, fun!”
                     Nicolette Hahn Niman, rancher and author, Righteous Porkchop

“Cole Ward has done an extraordinary job of balancing the widely diverse components of meat production, marketing, and quality in this comprehensive and uniquely informative book. The author has taken every effort to present even the most contentious issues surrounding meat production from a balanced and accurate perspective. His through treatment of thse issues provides the reader the opportunity to make a well-informed decision as a matter of personal choice, unencumbered by emotion or innuendo.  However, the real value of the book is in the articulate way Ward connects the reader to both the science and the artisanship of gourmet butchering.  His comfortable style and incomparable knowledge of gourmet butchering make this a valuable resource for quality meat aficionados and a must read for chefs, butchers, and meat lovers everywhere.”
                       Mark Boggess, PhD, animal scientist and meat-industry expert

How Supermarkets Market Meat

3 Dec

An excerpt from my upcoming book “The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat”…

Supermarkets sell products at low prices by cutting margins and relying on volume to deliver profit. How do they do this? A number of ways:

• Selling certain products—normally staple foods—at a loss (loss leaders), counting on the attractiveness of the deal to bring customers into the store. Once the customers are there, they’re sure to buy something else.

• Reducing labor costs through a self-service approach—you do the work yourself (including, these days, often checking yourself out). 

• Taking advantage of economies of scale by owning their own warehouses and distribution centers, which are generally located in the largest city in the area.

meat case


To give you some context, it’s helpful to understand how the meat business works. And believe you me, it’s big business.

There are four major meat processor/distributors in the United States (as well as a number of minor players). In 2013, the top four were:

• Tyson, with about 25 percent of the market share.

• Cargill, with about 21 percent.

• JBS, with 18.5 percent.

• National Beef Packing, with about 10.5 percent.

Each week, these companies slaughter and process hundreds of thousands of pounds of beef and other meats, shipping them out to big redistributors and supermarket chain warehouses. Shipments go out in refrigerated trucks holding 40,000 pounds of meat at a time. Supermarket chain warehouses send the meat on to individual stores in the chain. Redistributors send it on to multiple end users, which could be smaller meat markets, restaurants, hotels, and so on.

Now let’s consider what this means for consumers, in terms of the quality of meat products offered by supermarkets, meat markets, and many restaurants.

There are two primary factors that determine beef quality are fat marbling and aging. Aging is measured from the date of slaughter, because as soon as an animal is killed the aging process begins. In the old days (not really that long ago), the aging norm was 21 days, measured as follows:

• Two days aging in a chilling room at the processing plant.

• Two days aging in a chilled truck during transportation to the distributor.

• Approximately 17 days aging in the distributor/supermarket’s central chilling facility before shipping to ultimate customers.

But then market realities stepped into the picture, as they so often do, and the aging period was reduced to about 14 days. Why? Economics. Meat processors demand their money COD or within seven days. This means that when a redistributor or store chain receives one of those 40,000-pound truckloads of meat from a processor, they have to write a big check on (or almost on) the spot. But since these “middlemen” have to further age the meat for another 17 days while making weekly shipments out to their end users, they need to stock three weeks’ worth of meat in their chill rooms—a total of 100,000 pounds of beef. It’s a huge investment.

Are you getting a hint of where I’m going with this? Why not reduce the cost of sitting inventory by cutting a week off the aging process? Who’ll notice?

And there, gentle readers, is the answer to your oft-asked question, “How come I can’t get a good steak at a supermarket?” It’s not just the quality grade, it’s the aging. The difference in tenderness between meat aged 14 days and meat aged 21 days is almost 25 percent. Ponder on that.



Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

23 Nov
Well, why?

Well, why?

To get into your backyard. And now what???

OK, chickens are becoming popular. No secret there. You probably know this because of the guy across the street who keeps four chickens in a shed. Or… you live in a rural area and have your own small flock. If you’re not into this groovy new hobby for eggs or avian companionship, it’s probably for meat. Chicken whose quality you trust, ’cause you raised it yourself. 

I often get asked about the legality of slaughtering one’s own chickens. (Pathetic, really. There I am, nicely dressed, holding a glass of wine at a party, and nobody wants to know if I’m free later… they only want to talk about meat provenance.) 

Anyway, IS it legal? Can you kill and eat chickens without the weight of the law falling upon you? What about selling your own chickens to friends? Do they have to be inspected? (the chickens, not the friends) 

The following is a summary of the USDA regulations regarding this thorny issue… but (reader beware) it gets kinda complicated. And may also have changed in the last ten minutes. 

Short answer? Yes, there are conditions under which poultry slaughter and processing are excempt from inspection. In fact, there are many. Keep in mind that by “inspection”, the USDA means continuous bird-by-bird checking-out by inspectors who are onsite during both slaughter and processing. Obviously, this isn’t possible for small operations, nor was it ever intended to be. 

First, a definition: the terms “processed” or “processing” are specific terms which refer to the defeathering, gutting, skinning, cutting, boning of poultry, including things like canning, salting, stuffing, etc. 

There is one absolute requirement: anyone who kills and processes birds for use as human food must produce a product that is neither adulterated or misbranded

An adulterated product is one that either contains substances that make it unsafe to eat (remember the melamine in Chinese baby formula?)… or one processed under unsanitary conditions. To learn more about proper sanitary conditions for processing, browse the USDA website or try this link (which worked when I tried it, but no guarantee!!!) 

A misbranded product is just what it sounds like. Thus, claiming that your chicken has been inspected if it isn’t is misbranding it. Exempt poultry cannot bear any official mark of inspection. In addition, there are specific labeling or identification requirements for exempt product. 

Now let’s take a gander at a few of the more relevant exemption categories. 


If you’re going to slaughter your own chicken and eat it yourself, inspection is not required. To paraphrase the USDA regulations: 

The slaughtered and processed poultry must be for the private use of:

  • the grower, producer or owner (who are not necessarily the same person)
  • members of his or her household, and
  • his or her nonpaying guests and employees (notice the word “nonpaying”?) 

Slaughter and processing must be performed by the grower, producer or owner (that’s you). 

The poultry must be healthy when slaughtered. 

The poultry must be slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions that result in products that are fit for human food. 

The exempt poultry can not be sold or donated for use as human food. 


  • There’s no limit on the amount of birds you can slaughter and process for your own private use.



A custom slaughter facility kills and processes birds that belong to other people; in other words, it provides a service. If you’re a little squeamish about killing your own birds, you can bring them to a custom slaughterer, who’ll do it for you. 

Again, back to the USDA: 

A custom slaughterer cannot engage in buying or selling poultry products capable for use as human food (remember, this is a service); 

The poultry must be healthy when slaughtered; 

Slaughter and processing must be conducted in accordance with sanitary standards, practices, and procedures that produce products that are fit for human consumption (not adulterated); 

The poultry must be for the personal use of the grower or owner. In addition, the grower/owner of the poultry may not sell or donate the custom slaughtered poultry to another person or institution. 


  • A custom slaughterer who is also a poultry grower may raise and sell his or her live poultry to businesses not associated with his or her custom slaughter business.
  • Selling live poultry to a customer does not necessarily disqualify a business from the Custom Slaughter Exemption. For example, a custom slaughter facility may sell live poultry to a person and then custom slaughter the bird for them. However, a person who custom slaughters poultry may not buy or sell poultry products. (You may need to read this paragraph again; note the distinction between selling a live bird to someone and then slaughtering it, compared to selling an already slaughtered bird.)
  • A custom slaughter business is allowed to use a mobile slaughter/processing unit.

red chicken  


Poultry raisers who slaughter no more than 1,000 poultry in a calendar year can distribute the poultry without mandatory inspection under the following criteria: 

The poultry grower can only sell poultry products produced on his or her own farm;

Slaughter and processing must be conducted under sanitary standards that produce products that are fit for human consumption (not adulterated); 

The producer must keep records necessary for the effective enforcement of the Act [Title 9 CFR 381.175]; and 

The poultry products cannot be transported across state lines. 


Records necessary for the enforcement of the Act will include slaughter records as well as records that list sales of poultry products to customers. 

USDA/FSIS or State employees will review the records to determine compliance with the requirement of the sale of no more than 1,000 poultry in a calendar year.



If you raise more than 1,000 birds and are considering getting into chickens in a bigger way, you may be eligible for this exemption, providing you meet the following criteria: 

You slaughter and process no more than 20,000 poultry in a calendar year on your own premises. You cannot use your slaughtering facility to kill or process anyone else’s poultry (unless you’re granted a special exemption by FSIS.) 

Your poultry can only be sold/distributed within your own state. 

Your poultry must be healthy when slaughtered.

Slaughter and processing are conducted using sanitary standards that produce products that are fit for use as human food (not adulterated); 

You can only distribute poultry you have produced under the Producer/Grower Exemption.


OTHER EXEMPTIONS (which I won’t go into in detail) 


If you slaughter/process no more than 20,000 birds per calendar year for sale only to private homes, restaurants, or hotels for use in meals they serve to customers, then you’re eligible for what the USDA terms the “Producer/Grower or Other Person (PGOP) Exemption”. Under this exemption only you can distribute your products, and only within your own state. You cannot sell your products to a retail store or to another producer/grower. 



You may qualify if a) you’re a producer whose processing of exempt poultry is limited to cutting up; b) you buy live poultry for slaughter and limit processing to cutting up; or c) you buy poultry and distribute it as carcasses.

 This exemption gets complicated, and is probably outside the interest of most of my readers, right? So I won’t get into it, since I doubt that you’re keen to go into business cutting up poultry carcasses.

… and as for the initial question (Why did the chicken cross the road?), here are some answers from a few famous people:

The Sphinx:  You tell me.

Ernest Hemingway:  To die. In the rain.

Buddha:  If you ask this question, you deny your own  chicken nature.

Capt. James T. Kirk: To boldly go where no chicken has ever gone.


Where did that supermarket chicken come from?

2 Nov

Ever wonder where that supermarket chicken came from? As in, how it was raised? The answer may surprise you.

In the US (and many other countries), meat chicken production is vertically integrated; all production steps are handled by different subsidiary firms owned by one company. 

What this means is that the majority of commercial broiler chickens are produced by only three  companies: Cobb-Vantress, Aviagen, and Hubbard. Each sells a variety of different branded crosses in the form of chicks, which are distributed worldwide via their own specialized fleet of environmentally controlled chick trucks or by commercial airline carriers. 

Courtesy Tim Daniels,

Courtesy Tim Daniels,

Each company owns breeder farms that produce hatching eggs, a hatchery where chicks are born, a broiler grow-out facility where they’re raised, a feed mill to produce the chicks’ food, a processing plant where they’re slaughtered, a rendering plant and a distribution system that delivers products to store warehouses or individual stores.

With this degree of control, you’d guess right in assuming that the elements of a commercial meat chicken don’t just happen, but are carefully designed. Each company produces millions of pedigreed chickens a year. As the birds are grown, they are assessed for “best traits”; only the top three percent are kept for use as pedigree breeders.

In general, poultry breeders select for growth rate, feed efficiency, health and disease resistance, feather development, carcass confirmation, and meat characteristics. Modern poultry breeders work with molecular biological (genetic) markers associated with economic and consumer-important traits. But no genetic splicing, modification, or cloning takes place. In other words, there’s no such thing as a GMO chicken. All strains are developed through genetic selection and crossbreeding.

The birds are raised in what are called free-run systems. They live in barns that vary in size according to the size of the flock. The chickens are not de-beaked (a practice that relates to egg production), or caged. Instead, they roam around on a floor covered with wood shavings or straw (termed a deep-litter system). Water and feed are always available, there’s good airflow, and the temperature is carefully controlled, ’cause chickens don’t like being too cold or too hot. Space per bird is determined by the size of the bird being grown and ranges from about half a square foot per bird for small birds to 1 square foot or more for large birds. The chickens are free to roam throughout the litter floor house, take a dust bath, and find a comfortable spot. Nest boxes or perches are not needed for broilers. 

Their lives aren’t long. Birds are slaughtered when they reach the appropriate size for the product being produced. This ranges from about 28 days for “Cornish” chickens (2.2 pounds) to about 62 days for the largest broilers used for deboning (8 pounds) Broilers between these weight ranges are used for eight-piece cuts, portion-controlled operations, or for sale as roasters. 

As soon as the chickens are slaughtered, they’re chilled to take the carcass from its live temperature to the proper “meat temperature” of about 32°F (0°C). Chilling is done either via a cold-water bath or an air-chilling procedure. Most chickens in the United States are water-chilled—placed into a vat of ice water. In air chilling, carcasses are blown upon with cold air as they travel slowly along a track, a process that takes longer than water chilling. Many people prefer air-chilled chicken, claiming that the taste is better or that the chicken loses less water during the cooking process. You’ll have judge for yourself.

Generally, chicken is shipped from the slaughtering facility to its various destinations (restaurants, supermarket distribution centers, et cetera), on the same day it’s slaughtered. As for the recommended time to consumption, this, too, like everything in meat and life, varies.  

So – you ask – are there any other options?  Sure there are.  You can buy your chickens from an individual farmer, in which case it is very unlikely to be a commercially developed and distributed bird.  Instead, the chicken will be one of several meat breeds commonly used for small operations.

Or you might decide to raise your own birds by purchasing eggs or chicks from a hatchery that deals directly with individuals and small farmers, like the Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa.

Please get Fresh with me!

22 Oct

Here’s something you might not know. When you’re buying pork, “fresh” has a particular meaning when applied to cuts like bacon, shoulder or ham. It means that the meat is not smoked. Thus, if that piece of pork it’s called “ham”, it’s smoked. If it’s called “fresh ham”, it’s not. Other examples are pork steak versus fresh pork steak, picnic shoulder versus fresh picnic shoulder, bacon versus fresh bacon. You get my gist. And keep in mind that if the pork is smoked, it may not be fully cooked. Read the label or ask to find out whether it’s “partially cooked” or “fully cooked”.

... from my lips to yours ...

… from my lips to yours …

Lots of folks ask me about fresh bacon – as in, isn’t it just bacon with an adjective? Nope. Fresh bacon is not smoked (it’s often called side-pork in supermarkets). If you get it from a butcher, it’ll be called fresh bacon or sliced pork belly. And it’s delicious. You bacon lovers – as in all of humanity – ought to try it sometime.


And more information you probably won’t care about… what does “Excellent” or “Good” mean nutritionally?

When dieticians use the word “excellent” when they talk about a nutrient, it’s not a matter of opinion; it means something specific. A meat is termed “excellent” if it contains 20% or more of your Daily Value (DV) of nutrients like vitamins or minerals.  It’s called “good” if it contains 10-19% of your DV. So what’s a Daily Value, you ask? (I can hear you.) Estimates are based on an average diet of 2,000 calories per day.




Where Did All the Butchers Go?

17 Aug

Up to the early 20th century, a butcher was a butcher in the true sense of the word. Butchers would buy a live animal at auction, take it home or to their place of business, slaughter, skin, and gut it, break it down, and try—in the short time available (no fridge, just melting ice!)—to sell it directly to customers.

With the advent of refrigeration and the ability to keep meat products longer, the trade divided into two separate crafts: the butcher working at the wholesale level in the slaughterhouse and the meat-cutter working at the retail meat market.

The butcher handled the initial steps of killing, skinning, and gutting the animal, then breaking the carcass down into the largest chunks: typically, beef quarters, pork sides, or—in the case of lamb—a cleaned whole carcass. The butcher would then sell these to a retail meat market. At the retail level, other people would further break down these large pieces into primal cuts (large sections of a carcass such as a whole loin of beef), subprimals, and table-ready cuts, displaying them in refrigerated cases. These people became known as meat-cutters . . . and a new trade was born.

The name butcher stuck around, but it’s important to understand the difference.

I am a butcher because I can slaughter, skin, gut, break, and process meat in every stage: from large primals to ready-to-eat table cuts. The people in most supermarket meat departments and a surprising number of butcher shops are meat-cutters. Please understand that I do not mean to discredit meat-cutters. In fact, these days that’s what I call myself, although I’m technically a butcher. My point is that you can’t assume that the “butcher” in your supermarket knows much about the meat he or she is selling you.

Why is it so hard to find a good butcher nowadays? The reasons are many, but one important one is a lack of thorough, top-level professional training. Because there are fewer and fewer master butchers, the knowledge of their craft is disappearing. So naturally, we’re seeing less-than-thorough training given by instructors who have had less-than-thorough training themselves.


What Grade of Beef is Best?

11 Aug

Frankly, I’m not sure that grade matters much. This somewhat surprises me. I used to be a firm believer in premium or choice beef. However, long involvement with the local movement has given me the opportunity to sample a lot of local meats (often as the farmer was cooking it to serve for lunch as I cut his carcass up). I’ve done some rethinking about the importance of grading, particularly in beef.


I’m now more convinced that – where beef is concerned – quality has more to do with the breed, the type and quality of its feed, the soil it was pastured on, how humanely it was raised, how it was slaughtered, how it was aged and how it was cut and processed. I have had very lean meat that was surprisingly tender and I have had extremely marbled meat that was chewy.

Keep in mind that different breeds of animals have different attributes. Some are more efficient at converting feeds like grass to meat and fat than other breeds. Some breeds do better in harsher climates than others. There are just too many variables so it is important that you do your research. 

Hmmm, Not Feeling Well… was it possibly those chicken wings?

26 Jul


How can you tell when meat is going “off”? It’ll start losing its color. Red meat will start turning brown. It’ll have a sour smell. If it’s really bad, it’ll get a glossy golden-colored film on it. Pork tends to turn more towards the green side (ick). It’ll get grayish first, then have a really rancid smell. Chicken will get a sheen. Starting to feel queasy?

Chicken  – in fact, all poultry, like turkeys and the ilk – very often carries salmonella and must be carefully handled. We had a saying in olde-time butcherdom: “You gotta watch out for Sam and Ella” (Yes, it’s lame, but times were simply then and our jokes were dumber.) So whenever I work with raw poultry, I sanitize everything it touches – surfaces, faucets, and so on.

Why are these on sale?

Why are these on sale?

I always cook poultry the day I buy it—I don’t store it in the refrigerator (even overnight). I always wash chicken in cold water, because using warm water will tend to activate any bacteria on the bird, and may even start the cooking process. 

Poultry’s tendency to carry bacteria is one reason that responsible butchers don’t cut chicken on the same bench where other meats are cut (unless the bench has been thoroughly sanitized between meats). If you cut beef on a surface where raw chicken has been, that beef could end up contaminated with bacteria. And if that beef were then cooked only to “rare”, some bacteria (such as salmonella) might survive the cooking process, and you could end up with stomach upset, diarrhea…you get the picture.

So sanitization is extremely important, and today, any good butcher will understand this. Wasn’t always so… I’ve heard older butchers say, “I wonder how many people we made sick in the old days…” when it was common to cut chicken on the same bench as meat.