“Farm to table” is the latest buzzword in the restaurant world, but technically, any meat you eat at some point went from a farm onto your table. How did it get there? Here are the six stages that meat goes through to make it onto your dinner plate:
1. RAISING THE ANIMAL
Depending on the type of animal and the farm, animals destined for meat production can live pretty different existences. Some lucky cows and pigs are set loose on grass pastures, while others are crowded into cramped feedlots for much of their short lives. Want to be sure the meat you’re buying is from humanely-raised animals (which is better for you and the environment)? Get to know your food labels.
2. STUNNING AND SLAUGHTER
Animals are typically stunned before they’re killed to prevent them from feeling the pain, either with carbon dioxide, an electric current, or a captive bolt pistol. Ideally, the animal remains calm throughout the process, not just for ethical reasons: Adrenaline means that stressed animals make for tougher meat, and bruised meat can’t be sold.
Before you can start butchering, you need to remove the animal’s pelt or, in the case of poultry, the feathers. Workers cut the pelt from sheep and cows, but birds are generally de-feathered by a plucking machine. Once the animal’s fur or feathers have been removed, it’s time to dress the carcass, removing the innards. Workers have to carefully avoid rupturing the innards or getting any contaminants on the carcass for food safety reasons.
Meat is given a grade depending on the animal’s size, muscle mass, and fat deposits. The USDA certifies certain beef cuts as “prime,” “select” or “choice,” based on the marbling and tenderness. Poultry is graded on a letter scale from A to C based on bruising and other defects.
On the factory floor, large racks of meat have to be cut up into the smaller cuts we’re accustomed to seeing at the grocery store. Someone has to debone the chicken that becomes those boneless skinless breasts, after all, and no cow comes off the feedlot in T-bone steak form. Large animals like cows and pigs are usually cut into three large pieces first, before the meat is cut into specific pieces like ribs, bacon, or brisket.
6. PACKAGING AND DISTRIBUTING
After being cut, the meat is put into plastic bags and vacuum sealed. It then gets boxed and sent out to stores and restaurants, at which point you, the consumer, get to eat it.