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John Jamison is smiling as he prepares to open the door to his U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified meat slaughter and processing plant in Bradenville, near Latrobe. Our group of 15 is about to enter what's known as the "kill floor," and I'll admit it, I'm kind of unnerved. Images of bloody beef carcasses flash through my head, sending my stomach into somersaults.
The famed lamb purveyor isn't exactly reassuring.
"The smell is not a great thing," Mr. Jamison cautions as we pull on long white butcher coats and tuck hair under baseball caps.
Ugh. Maybe it's a good thing I didn't eat breakfast.
We're at the Westmoreland County plant, one of just a handful of small, independently owned USDA facilities in the area, for a grass-fed beef butchery class sponsored by Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Using hand tools, a team of expert butchers will break down a side of beef into the major cuts, in the process explaining how grass-fed cattle differ from conventional beef, and the benefits of mom-and-pop butchering to commercial. Afterwards, the group will gather at Mr. Jamison's bucolic sheep farm outside of Latrobe for PASA's third-annual grass-fed beef cook-off (medium-rare Delmonico steaks, seasoned only with salt) and picnic.
Previous events were held in the eastern part of the state and focused on farmers' methods and techniques for raising grass-fed cattle. Yet natural beef is still new enough, notes southeast regional director Marilyn Anthony, that many cooks aren't sure what to ask for at the butcher's shop or how to prepare it. So this year, PASA decided to make the Aug. 7 cook-off -- also one of Slow Food Pittsburgh's four meatTHINK classes offered this season to demonstrate why locally pastured meat and humane killing are important -- a regional event with a focus on processing.
For me, the only slaughterhouse newbie among chefs, farmers and other food professionals, it was quite an education.
The smell's not as bad as Mr. Jamison predicted in the concrete-floored kill room, just slightly ... funky. But there are giant hooks hanging on chain hoists attached to the ceiling, as well as a scary-looking "splitter saw" above our heads used to cut the beef in half, butt to neck, after it's been bled out, skinned and eviscerated.
Butcher Bill Marshall, 31, also points out in a far corner a "knock box," or the pen in which the animal is contained while it's stunned. Some things you just don't want to think about, though if you're going to eat beef, it's important to understand how it arrived on your table.
Since the processed beef is sold, an inspector is always on site on kill days, both to verify the animal has been humanly stunned and bled and to make sure the carcass is free of disease and parasites. (If the animal is 30 months or older, its spinal cord must be removed as a precaution against mad cow disease.) The plant also must adhere to strict sanitation.
It's tiring work, what with the endless lifting, sawing and slicing. But Mr. Marshall and fellow meat cutters Jon Hollick, 34, and younger brother Tom Marshall, 29, are hugely enthusiastic. Trained by staff at Ohio and Penn state universities' meat labs and by old-time butchers, they're also extremely skilled. On a good day, the team processes up to eight animals, or roughly one cow/steer every 90 minutes.
When Mr. Hollick opens the walk-in cooler behind the long work table and we're invited inside, a blast of 38-degree air hits our faces. Nearly as chilling -- at least to a city gal who's watched way too many horror movies -- is the sight of more than a dozen sides of beef dangling on stainless steel hooks from the 111/2-foot ceiling. They're massive hunks of raw meat, covered in a thin layer of fat; the animal we'll see get broken down hit the scales at 205 pounds per half.
Aging improves the tenderness and flavor of meat, so our side of beef -- slaughtered on July 22 -- has been hanging for 16 days, during which the temperature in the cooler was slowly lowered from 55 degrees. Chill it too quickly, notes Mr. Jamison, and you chance a phenomenon known as "cold shortening," where the muscles shrink and the meat toughens.
Stocky and obviously strong, Mr. Hollick is the brawn of the operation, holding the beef as Mr. Marshall cuts between the 12th and 13th ribs, separating it into two pieces. Placing the 100-pound forequarter on the poly-top work table, Tom Marshall grabs a curved boning knife from his white plastic holster and, working with the natural seam of the meat, quickly separates the rib from the chuck.
Over the course of the next hour, it's hard to keep up with the Marshalls' knives, wielded with incredible accuracy, or the terminology of the primal, sub-primal and other cuts; to my untrained eye, much of the meat looks alike, even though PASA science adviser/veterinarian Susan Beal does her best to help us visualize the body parts. My head is spinning.
From the forequarter we get chuck eye and blade roasts, brisket, short ribs and flatiron steak, which until a few years ago was thought of as a waste cut of meat because of a thick tendon that runs through the middle. The hindquarter is equally bountiful. The short loin is broken down into porterhouse, T-bone and strip steaks, the sirloin and round sections into various roasts and steaks.
As they work, less desirable pieces are tossed into a large "chop meat" bin for grinding while scraps, fat and bones go into a garbage can destined for Valley Protein in Mifflintown, which specializes in the recycling of animal by-products. Unfortunately, I'm standing close enough to the blood-stained table that when tiny bits of red stuff spray into the air, they land on my coat.
Icky, but not as much as when Mr. Hollick cuts into the beef's patella and it oozes some sort of pale, slick liquid. I must have made a face because Ms. Beal quickly points out slime is "appropriate."
The class ends with a quick tour of the processing room and discussion of cleaning and sanitation. Gone are the days when a 16-year-old swept up after school; today's clean-up guy is an expert in microbiology. As Mr. Jamison puts it, "There's no way it isn't perfect when it goes out because so many people are watching."
That's the processing side. But what about the reason we're here in the first place?
To a nation accustomed to corn-fed meat, beef raised solely on mother's milk, grass and sunshine might seem like a new idea. But virtually all cattle before World War II enjoyed a natural grass diet, notes Ms. Beal; it was only post-war, when -- aided by federal subsidies -- agribusiness produced large surpluses of soybeans and corn, and farmers realized it was not only cheaper to feed cattle grain but it also made them fatter, quicker. (Grass-fed cattle take between two to three years to bring to plate, while grain-fed are ready for slaughter in 16 to 18 months.)
The best breeds are the big, square cows on skinny legs depicted in early American pastoral landscapes: squatty Herefords, Scottish Highlands, Devons. Horizon View Farms in the Laurel Highlands, which won this year's cook-off among 13 farms, raises Salers, a breed that originated in France. Cressbrook Farm, last year's champion and this year's Farmer's Choice winner, raises on 60 acres in Lancaster Irish Blacks, a pure, thick-bodied breed that traces back to three sires imported from Ireland.
Grass-fed beef comes at a premium -- Horizon charges $14.95 per pound for New York strip -- but advocates say the health benefits are worth it. Lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than grain-fed beef, it also has three times more heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Because grass-fed cows typically are individually butchered by skilled craftsmen, there's also less chance of E. coli contamination. Also, grass-fed beef doesn't receive growth hormones or unnecessary antibiotics.
What's not so good for the consumer is that the taste, which is gamier than conventional steak, varies from farm to farm, season to season, and even cow to cow. It all depends on the type of grass the cows are eating, and whether they're "finished" in the summer or winter, when their diet includes hay. The texture, too, is a bit less tender.
Sounds crazy, but I wasn't sure if my first taste of grass-fed beef at the cook-off was beef or lamb, it was so different -- in a good way -- from what I was used to. But Big Burrito Restaurant Group's Bill Fuller -- one of 10 food professionals who judged the steaks based on appearance, aroma, texture, flavor and aftertaste -- knew what to expect.
"Man, that's beautiful," he declares after tasting a particularly juicy-looking entry.
"It's a taste that jumps out at you," Larry Herr of Cressbrook Farm tells me afterwards. "When you eat it, you say, 'That's good beef!' "
The USDA has yet to adopt a definition of "grass-fed" for labeling, which complicates things. Some producers market their beef as raised on grass but actually "polish" them with grain in the last weeks to fatten them up.
"The words can be greenwashed a little," Ms. Beal concedes, "because everyone is looking for something to make their product unique."
To assure they're getting a 100-percent grass-fed product, then, consumers need to develop a relationship with the individual farmers or suppliers. Which may be easier said than done: grass-fed beef still accounts for a tiny part of the $73 billion U.S. beef industry, so finding it at your local grocery store could be a challenge. (You may have better luck at a farmers market.)
Grass-fed beef also doesn't abound on local menus. As Mr. Fuller and fellow cook-off judge Trevett Hooper, chef and co-owner of Legume Bistro in Regent Square, lamented while sitting under a tent, grass-fed beef often is sold by the quarter or half carcass, so you can't easily order up 50 steaks for Saturday night's crowd. Plus, because it's lean, cooking cuts other than steak takes some know-how.
"I haven't really figured it out yet," admits Mr. Hooper.
Before the PASA butchery class and cook-off, I never cared too much where I bought my beef or how it was processed; afterwards, I started to reconsider. Grass-fed beef is better for the body, kinder to the animal, gentler on the land and just plain tasty.
With three teenagers and a husband who aren't afraid to ask for seconds in the house, it's unrealistic to think I'll spend $30 or $40 on steak for a school-night dinner. But special occasions, or when it's just me and my husband? Definitely a possibility.
Gretchen McKay: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1419. First Published August 12, 2010 4:00 AM