Remember Sam the Butcher from The Brady Bunch?
Today, the days of the neighborhood butcher like Sam are mostly gone, replaced by vast meat-processing plants putting out shrink-wrapped cuts for supermarkets.
But foodies and locavores are fueling a demand for local and artisanal meat products. The problem is there aren't enough slaughterhouses or qualified meat cutters.
A Month In The Meat Lab: $3,000
It was lamb day recently at the State University of New York's meat lab in Cobleskill, a little town near Albany. Guys in white smocks and hard hats haul carcasses out of the cooler. They slaughtered the animals the day before.
McKeever Stanley was looking for a job when he enrolled in the State University of New York's Meat Lab course. He says he loves to dress the venison he hunts each fall.
McKeever Stanley was looking for a job when he enrolled in the State University of New York's Meat Lab course. He says he loves to dress the venison he hunts each fall. David Sommerstein/NPR
Instructor Clint Lane runs through the cut list.
"All the riblets, we're gonna pull the flank off of them, cut 'em in half for riblets," he says. "Shanks — we'll do half of 'em as whole and half of 'em as cross-cuts."
The students slice the carcasses on the band saw. They forked over $3,000 for a month of killing, cutting, and grinding up beef, pork and lamb. They get a meat-processing and food-safety certificate and the basic know-how to work in the industry.
Fred Beckman, who's worked in Manhattan's fanciest restaurants, wants to sell his own foie gras, terrines and sausages.
"There's nothing that's more satisfying than biting into something that has a great deal of good fat," he says.
McKeever Stanley, who's out of a job, loves to dress the venison he hunts every fall.
"My wife one day said, 'Why don't you go to school and do it and get paid for it?'"
And Tom Acampora, a construction worker, wants to build a slaughterhouse next to his home.
"Walk out in the morning with a cup of coffee, start doing some cleanup and get going at my own leisure," he says.
Shortage Of Small Slaughterhouses
The local food movement is driving more farmers to raise animals for meat. But between farm and table is a bottleneck — a shortage of small slaughterhouses serving small farms, especially in the Northeast.
"What we need is for that smaller operator who may have 100 acres or 150 acres — he would like to have the opportunity to take and raise a few cattle or a few hogs and be able to slaughter them and sell them locally. To do that, you have to have an infrastructure," says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
There are a couple reasons for the shortage. Hundreds of slaughterhouses went out of business in the 1990s after new, technical regulations took effect. Betsy Hodge, of Cornell Cooperative Extension, says they make what's known as an abattoir costly to build and daunting to run.
"They're put in there for safety reasons. But they are sort of overwhelming for these smaller slaughterhouse operators to handle," she says.
Also, the craft of butchery is becoming scarce. It used to be that aspiring knifemen apprenticed with a butcher, or in the meat department of the neighborhood grocer.
Help Meat Stay Local
But meat cutting has industrialized. Plants in the Midwest slaughter and cut up tens of thousands of animals each day.
At the meat lab, director Eric Shelley teaches his students about every step, from food safety and humane animal handling to how to cook different cuts.
Meat Lab director Eric Shelley wants to revive the fading craft of meat-cutting.
Meat Lab director Eric Shelley wants to revive the fading craft of meat-cutting. David Sommerstein/NPR
He drills a student on the lamb's basic parts, or primals.
Shelley used to work at Walmart, where, like most supermarkets today, meat arrives pre-cut into the primals.
"Basically, it comes out of a box," he says. "You've gotta know which end to start cutting and then just start cutting, whether it's on a saw or with a knife. The skill of knowing where that part came off — and how to get it from a carcass — has left."
Jason Cramer wraps and labels shank cuts, the final product. He wants to start a slaughterhouse on the farm where he works near Buffalo, N.Y. They run a herd of 300 Hereford cattle. But they have to truck them to Pennsylvania for butchery.
"It's just a shame to see it go out of state and to go into these big factories and get mixed in with all this other meat when, in my eyes, it should be sold locally because we put so much time and effort into the animals," he says.
The federal government is taking small steps to help meat stay local. The USDA is offering grants for mobile slaughterhouses, an abattoir on wheels that goes from farm to farm.
Meat lab director Eric Shelley says more than half of his graduates work in the industry today — they're starting to fill in the gap left by the disappearance of Sam the Butcher.