After nearly two years working with MEAT+POULTRY, I set foot for the first time into a USDA-inspected slaughtering facility. I was welcomed in as part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s inaugural class for the Harvest & Fabrication School, a three-day course offering a comprehensive education of meat slaughtering across a variety of species. All 20 students — myself included — learned the ins and outs of meat processing through a mix of lectures, demonstrations and hands-on learning experiences.

Coming into the industry with little animal agriculture background or knowledge, I was unsure how well my brief two years of experience in the industry had equipped me for what lay ahead. I was thankful to find that the program was prepared for students like me as well as those with years of experience under their belt.

Class in session

Just like grade school, we rode together on a bus to the university for the first of our early morning lectures, where UW-Madison Professor and Meat Extension Specialist Jeff Sindelar, PhD, met us with a warm Wisconsin welcome. That first day, before Sindelar led the class through live demonstrations, two representatives from UltraSource LLC, Ethan Bubeck and Lane Egger, talked through the design of a kill floor.

“Obviously our goal is to make high quality, safe food products,” Egger said, referring to the big picture around which the entire layout of a meat plant is designed. Equally important to the design are the unique customizations necessary to meet each individual processor’s workload.

“Ideally when we start with our kill floor design, this is something that we want to have — which is everything you’d be wanting to do — in front of us and so that way we can hammer it out and have that planned for you to last for decades and your entire business cycle,” Egger said.

Walking into the UW-Madison’s facility, it was clear Sindelar and his team had thought through the many intricacies of the slaughter and fabrication process that often get overlooked. Sindelar noted to the class that, while his team had spent about a decade planning the facility, there were still details that later had to be adjusted to improve the process. For example, the structure of the holding pens was modified following the original design to accommodate for a smoother flow of the animals without sharp edges for them to get cornered into.

As our class prepared to transition into the USDA-inspected facility, we followed the site’s sanitation protocols, donning red frocks on entry, which we traded for white disposable frocks and yellow hard hats as we entered the kill floor. Sindelar pointed out that as part of the facility’s standard operating procedures, all persons who enter the grounds wear certain colors to coordinate with the different area functions, like how the harvest area featuring yellow floors requires personnel to wear yellow hard hats and yellow water-proof overalls, while the packaging area with blue floors requires a blue frock and blue gloves. Every floor color also corresponds to its own drain.

But first, beef

By the time our class toured the 25,000-square-foot facility, which was stocked with the latest equipment from suppliers such as All Power Inc. and Marel, the barely three-year-old facility still had the sparkle and shine of a new car.

The live demonstrations began with two beef cattle. This first day, as students, we stood back while many of the guest speakers and university students and staff did the heavy lifting. We simply tried to take in the many moving parts of the harvest process while keeping out of the way — a task that got more difficult as more animals were brought onto the scene.

Soon after the first of the cattle was stunned, bled and moved onto a cradle for skinning, another was led from the holding pen into the knocking pen. The university uses a series of dimmed lights to calmly transition the animal onto the kill floor. Once the cattle are securely restrained and still, a pneumatic captive bolt stunner is placed on the animal’s forehead and triggered to render it insensible prior to shackling and bleeding.

If for any reason, the animal is not knocked out by a single blow, it is considered an egregious offense by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). To avoid potential penalties, the university has created a backup plan: a firearm to be used only as needed.

Strategies to avoid this kind of scenario are important, pointed out Ryan Malone with KOCH Supplies.

“I’m sure all of you are aware what happens if something goes wrong in the knocking chute,” he said. “It’s the second-fastest way to get shut down. The fastest is punching an inspector.”

Malone recommended minimizing the stress placed on workers doing the knocking as well as exercising patience with an animal that is stressed and moving around by taking a step back until the situation deescalates.

The UW-Madison considered several scenarios for backup plans in case standard operating procedures go awry, but thanks to the thoroughness of the university’s HACCP plans, no major backup plans were needed during my time there.

After the cattle were harvested, we witnessed the same process but with three lambs. I found it interesting how two very different species could follow such similar slaughter processes due to the same basic anatomy. There were, of course, clear visual differences like how the color of the meat was lighter for lamb and the size of the animals, but on the whole the cattle and lambs were both stunned, bled, skinned and eviscerated the same.

One of the biggest takeaways I walked away with that day was a greater appreciation for the labor that goes into harvesting an animal. Working for a news outlet, I often see the latest automation and technology designed to simplify manual labor. For that reason, seeing the amount of work — the literal sweat and blood — that is required to slaughter an animal was very impressive. Like I said, the UW-Madison was not lacking in modern equipment, but even when leveraging the pulley systems and hydraulics, human hands did the hard work of removing the hide, pushing the animal to the next station and splitting the massive carcass.

Pork carcassOnce the USDA inspector checks over the carcass, it is sprayed down to remove any remaining contaminants before moving into the freezer. Source: Sosland Publishing Co./Rachael Oatman

Down and dirty

Day two of the course, UW-Madison amped up the demonstrations by opening them up to participation. On top of the scheduled lectures, we had a full day slaughtering eight hogs.

Sindelar walked us through two alternate stunning methods for hogs: captive bolt and controlled atmosphere stunning. The former followed the same procedure used on the cattle and lambs, while the latter allowed for several pigs to be stunned at once. The pigs enter a chamber that drops into a 15-foot pit filled with carbon dioxide.

Sindelar pointed out several benefits to controlled atmosphere stunning. It can lead to improved meat quality, as the animal is often less stressed through this method.

“It’s a very calm, very relaxing, very humane process,” he said, later adding. “Not only is it more relaxing for the animals; it’s more relaxing for the workers.”

Catherine Pierce, frontline supervisor for FSIS, noted that CO2 stunning is most common with swine even though it has been approved for sheep and calves as well.

The university demonstrated two ways to remove hair from the pigs. The first was simply dehiding it like seen with the cattle and lambs. The other method involved a scalder, where a hog was placed into a machine with rubber paddles and water between 150°F and 155°F. As the hog rolls around in the machine, the hot water loosens the hair follicles while the rubber paddles brush them away. Sindelar noted that one con to this method is hair will often still be left in crevices.

“If the water temperature is too high, it could melt the collagen, and it could create chunks of skin that actually get pulled off,” he said. “If the water temperature is too cold — not warm enough — the hair follicles won’t release very well, and you’ll have a whole hairy hog coming out.”

What I enjoyed most about our time on the kill floor this day was seeing seasoned line workers from our class jumping in right next to newcomers like me, getting a piece of the meat, so to say. Some started small with shackling pigs straight out of the gas stunning chamber, while others dove straight into the evisceration station.

A cut above the rest

On our third and final day, we tested out the fabrication room. Considerably colder than the kill floor, the fabrication room temperature was set at 40°F while we completed group activities using the hogs we slaughtered the day before.

Jake Sailer from Elmwood, Wis.-based Sailer’s Meats led us through a tutorial on the various cuts of meat — ribs, picnic shoulders, slab bacon, bone-in ham and other major cuts.

Later, given our own individual cutting board and whole chicken, we followed Jessica Brown, graduate research assistant with the UW-Madison, as she separated the breasts, tenderloins, wings, thighs and legs.

I walked away feeling more knowledgeable about the food I eat and confident in where it comes from. Plus, now I can say I survived the kill floor.