Want To Open A Slaughterhouse? Go To Meat School At the State University of New York's meat lab, students learn how to kill, cut and grind up beef, pork and lamb. After a month, they get a meat-processing and food-safety certificate and the basic know-how to work in the industry. The program aims to help fill the shortage of butchers and small slaughterhouses -- and keep meat local.
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Want To Open A Slaughterhouse? Go To Meat School

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Want To Open A Slaughterhouse? Go To Meat School

Want To Open A Slaughterhouse? Go To Meat School

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Now lets go shopping at the butcher shop. Sam the butcher was a regular character on the classic TV show The Brady Bunch.

(Soundbite of TV show, The Brady Bunch)

Mr. ROBERT REED (Actor): (as Mike Brady) Hi, Sam.

Mr. ALLAN MELVIN (Actor): (as Sam Franklin) Hi, Mr. Brady.

Mr. REED: (as Mike Brady) Say, that was a great roast we had the other night.

Mr. MELVIN: (as Sam Franklin) Thanks. This aint a bad little lamp chop right here either.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Ughh, laugh track. Neighborhood butchers are few and far between these days, and that's a problem now that demand for locally raised meet is rising. Theres not only a shortage of trained meat cutters; there are not enough small-scale slaughterhouses.

North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.

(Soundbite of door slamming)

Mr. DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: Its lamb day at the State University of New Yorks 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 yesterday. Instructor Clint Lane runs through the cut list.

Mr. CLINT LANE (Instructor, New Yorks Meat Lab): All the riblets, were going pull the flank off of them, cut them in half for riblets.

(Soundbite of machine)

SOMMERSTEIN: The students slice the carcasses on the band saw. They paid $3,000 for a month of killing, cutting, and grinding up beef, pork and lamb.

Theres Fred Beckman, whos worked in Manhattans fanciest restaurants and wants to sell his own foie gras, terrines, and sausages.

Mr. FRED BECKMAN (Student): Theres nothing thats more satisfying than biting into something that has a great deal of good fat.

SOMMERSTEIN: And Tom Acampora, a construction worker who wants to build a slaughterhouse next to his home.

Mr. TOM ACAMPORA (Student): Walk out in the morning with a cup of coffee, start doing some cleanup and get going at my own leisure.

SOMMERSTEIN: 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. Tom Vilsack is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

Secretary TOM VILSACK (Department of Agriculture): 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.

SOMMERSTEIN: Theres 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 whats known as an abattoir costly to build and daunting to run.

Ms. BETSY HODGE (Cornell Cooperative Extension): Theyre put in there for safety reasons. But they are sort of overwhelming for these smaller slaughterhouse operators to handle.

SOMMERSTEIN: Also, the craft of butchery is becoming scarce. It used to be aspiring knifemen apprenticed with a butcher, or in the meat department of the neighborhood grocer. But meat cutting has industrialized. Plants in the Midwest slaughter and cut up tens of thousands of animals a day.

(Soundbite of machine)

SOMMERSTEIN: 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.

Mr. ERIC SHELLEY (Director, New Yorks Meat Lab): What is this part?

SOMMERSTEIN: Shelley drills a student on the lambs basic parts, or primals.

Mr. SHELLEY: What was the (unintelligible) here?

Unidentified Man: Sirloin. No.

Mr. SHELLEY: What is it on you?

Unidentified Man: Shoulder.

Mr. SHELLEY: Shoulder. Next one?

Unidentified Man: Rib.

Mr. SHELLEY: Rib. And then it goes into the...

Unidentified Man: The loin.

Mr. SHELLEY: Loin. Right.

SOMMERSTEIN: Shelley used to work at Wal-Mart, where, like most supermarkets today, meat arrives pre-cut into the primals.

Mr. SHELLEY: Basically, it comes out of a box. Youve got to know which end to start cutting and then just start cutting. Whether its 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.

SOMMERSTEIN: Jason Cramer wraps and labels shank cuts, the final product. He wants to start a slaughterhouse on the farm where he works near Buffalo. They breed and raise 300 Hereford cattle. But they have to truck them to Pennsylvania for butchery.

Mr. JASON CRAMER (New Yorks Meat Lab): Its 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 it should be sold, in my eyes, it should be sold locally, because we put so much time and effort into the animals.

SOMMERSTEIN: 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, starting to fill in the gap left by the disappearance of Sam the Butcher.

For NPR News, Im David Sommerstein in Canton, New York.

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