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How high-tech butchers, niche operations differ

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

May 23, 2010

Joe Cloud, a Seattle landscape architect, came to Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to help on his parents' hobby farm. He wound up in a slaughterhouse in nearby Harrisonburg.

He prefers the word abattoir. But he doesn't shrink from blood and guts, happily showing the kill floor to schoolchildren or anyone else who wants to see it.

Cloud was lured to this underappreciated link in the local food chain by Joel Salatin, the hyperarticulate farmer made famous by UC Berkeley's Michael Pollan and the film "Food, Inc." Salatin was worried about the Harrisonburg plant, T&E Meats, which was among the last that could process his tiny herds.

Small farms that want to brand their meats the way Napa vintners brand wines rely on small, federally inspected slaughterhouses to do it. T&E owners Tommy and Erma May would soon retire. Two years ago, Salatin persuaded Cloud, 52, a self-described foodie and dedicated carnivore, to plunge his retirement savings into the venture.

His customers include "full-on redneck farmers with a chew in their mouth and a big ol' diesel truck," Cloud said. "They want to know who raised that animal, and where it came from. They won't go to Walmart. They don't trust it. They don't think it's going to be any good."

Last year, he slaughtered 2,897 animals: hog, beef, lamb, goat, bison. By contrast, Smithfield Foods Inc.'s plant in Tar Heel, N.C., slaughters 32,000 pigs in one day.

Cloud sells ground beef in 10-pound bags to the Harrisonburg public schools, each identified by its original animal. He said most ground beef from large plants can contain meat from 15,000 animals.

His workers are skilled, local men. The animals are brought inside one at a time to the "kill box." They are shot, hanged, bled, skinned, gutted and cut, all largely by hand and under the watch of a government inspector. It is a mesmerizing and oddly reassuring sight.

To Cloud's knowledge, the plant has never tested positive for E. coli, which comes from manure.

"It takes me about 25 minutes, from start to finish, to walk a beef into my knock box to having a washed carcass hanging in my cooler," Cloud said. The giant slaughterhouses "have beefs flying down their lines every few seconds. The line speeds are extraordinary. You can't keep that carcass clean. They go to extraordinary lengths to do that. They have steam washers that I couldn't possibly afford. But it gets through."

Responding to media and advocacy-group calls for more testing in the wake of huge food recalls, the Obama administration has issued a draft testing regimen that Cloud says is misdirected.

"They want me to go through the exact same testing regulations as a plant that kills 5,000 or 6,000 head of beef a day," Cloud said. "It's the high-tech industrial system that creates the problems, and all the solutions are technological solutions. That's all Congress is capable of mandating, and it drives the system further into the paradigm that created the problem."

Carolyn Lochhead is the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she has covered national politics and policy for 22 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University.

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