Breeding and raising an animal is only the first step in the journey from farm to table. The cow or pig is then sent to local processing companies such as Sunnyside Meats. There, the animal is followed by employees from the time of plant entry to the end packaging. Sunnyside processes between eight and ten beef a day, up to forty a week. The plant employs about 15 people, two of which are inspectors solely responsible for meat quality.
In contrast, at a larger processing plant, the priorities shift. JPS, one of the four big meat processing companies in the United States, operates a Greeley plant. The employees work double shifts seven days a week, processing 6,000 beef a day. “To think about having that oversight over that quantity of product is kind of mindboggling,” said Ian Chamberlain, general manager at Sunnyside Meats.
With the lack of individual inspection, problems can arise. “They will take literally thousands of animals and grind them up,” said Chamberlain. “When you eat a burger, it’s literally from thousands of animals. If one of those animals has a health issue, it contaminates all of that product.”
Another potential health issue is irradiation. Irradiation is exposing food to radiation to kill unwanted issues, such as bacteria. In order for large plants to earn a profit, speed is required and often placed in a higher priority over health and quality. Escherichia coli, or E Coli, is an example of bacteria that can be found in beef. E Coli results in severe food poisoning, and occasionally death. However, some sources say that the longest human studies regarding irradiated food were only 15 weeks long. Long term effects are unknown.
Aside from health issues, there is the simple case of logistics. Mass-produced beef cannot be aged. At the JPS plant, the animal’s own circulatory system is flushed with water in order to cool the beef within 24 hours. As a result, the beef loses flavor and lacks tenderness. “It’s just not logistically possible to age that much beef,” Chamberlain said. “If they’re doing 6,000 beef in a day, and you want to age it 14 days, they don’t make refrigerators that big.”
These issues are eliminated through local processing. Sunnyside can age beef up to thirty days. With the low volume of beef processed weekly, Sunnyside can produce healthy and tender product that is also USDA-approved, GMO-free, antibiotic-free, and all natural, with no added hormones. Yet all of these benefits are not without their cost. A percentage of the expense from a local product at the Ore House or a similar restaurant comes from the processing. These costs do add up. However, small plants like Sunnyside and local restaurants like the Ore House are simply alternatives. “It’s good for the community to know that those options are available,” said Chamberlain. “It’s important just to get the word out there, too.”
This is the second part in a three-part series about The Bottom Line: the Cost of Local, Organic and Sustainable Food. Getting a meal from farm to table requires a lot of hard work by a lot of people, and consists of producing, processing, and preparing. The Ore House talked with Ian Chamberlain, the general manager of Sunnyside Meats, to discuss the details. This was originally posted on the Ore House’s website during February 2014. Read part one and part three.