Leading Lambs to Slaughter
In search of a kinder, gentler abbatoir
by Marissa Guggiana
I AM USHERED through
the kill floor of Superior Farms, a lamb slaughterhouse in
Dixon, California, I am shocked by how normal the whole process
seems after only a few minutes. Lamb after lamb glides by,
dangling from a conveyor as it is separated from its pelt
in a single, almost graceful movement. The journey from lamb
to rib chop is swift, mechanical and hypnotic in its uniformity
I sell meat. I buy
animals from ranchers and then send them to the slaughterhouse.
At my plant, we cut the carcasses into the pieces customers
recognize as dinner options: a lamb rack frenched down to
the tender eye, some hearty veal osso buco slices. Then,
I market the product and deliver it to grocery stores and
restaurants. I am a middle-woman. To get to your meat, you
have to go through me, or someone like me.
Next lamb season,
the ranchers who sell to me will be experimenting with ways
to respond to a new kind of customer, one who wants to know
that the animal he or she eats was treated humanely during
its short life. Traditionally, ranchers “dock” or
remove lambs’ tails, often by applying a rubber ring
that cuts circulation until the tail falls off. This year,
they’ll leave the tails alone. They’ll also stop
castrating their animals. These practices are considered
stressful to the animals and over the past few years, they’ve
come under scrutiny. So the ranchers change their practices.
MPU stands for mobile processing unit, a euphemism for a
kill floor on wheels
I sell meat raised as close to the customer as I can, often
buying from lamb ranches only a few miles from my plant.
I do this because transporting and storing animals as little
as possible makes good sense for the environment. It also
makes good business sense. Because I spend less on transportation
than most other distributors, I can afford to pay the ranchers
as much as 25 percent above market price. But the closest
slaughterhouse, Superior Farms, is 90 miles away, which means
the animals take a 90-mile ride to the slaughterhouse and
then the carcasses take a 90-mile ride back to my plant.
That’s a 180-mile trip for animals that may have been
born only ten miles away from my plant. There is no other
option. The only other lamb slaughterhouse in the area is
a small family operation that isn’t equipped to manage
our volume. And so the animals travel hundreds of miles by
trailer. They have room to turn around and a comfortable
surface, but from the way they quiver as they are ushered
into the slaughterhouse, it’s clear this is a high-stress
journey for them.
Everyone agrees that it would make most
sense to slaughter animals on the ranch where they are raised.
Indeed, doing this would earn us a top-tier spot in the Whole
Foods ranking for sustainable, humane meat practices. The
lambs would suffer far less stress and our carbon footprint
would shrink from a size 10 to a size 5. But current federal
law prohibits us from doing this. Ranch kill is not legal
for resale. You can shoot a cow on your property and fill
up that freezer in your garage but try selling one of those
burgers to a friend, and you run into trouble. Anything slaughtered
for resale must be killed under the inspection of the USDA,
with all the three-ring binders full of rules that go with
Over the last two years, since I began
working directly with local ranchers, the slaughterhouse
dilemma has really begun to eat at me. The slaughter defines
my relationship to the lamb as I take it through its final
moments. It also defines, to some extent, the product that
bears my company’s
name. I can determine so many aspects of the lives of the
animals we sell, but this final moment, frustratingly, remains
beyond my control.
To harvest lambs (the contemporary, gentler
term for “kill”)
without moving them, you have to move the slaughterhouse.
If that sounds farfetched, meet the MPU. MPU stands for mobile
processing unit, a euphemism for a kill floor on wheels.
Most are of a straightforward design: a trailer with a ramp
outside for the animals to climb and inside, the basic necessities
of slaughter. There are hooks and a rail for hanging the
carcasses and a sink. Pretty straightforward, but they hold
some mystique for those of us in the sustainable meat industry.
From the moment I learned about MPUs, I was intrigued: They
seem such an elegant solution.
Right now there are seven
operating MPUs in the U.S., but none of them are in California.
California’s lone MPU
sits gathering dust in Monterey County. The MPU is operated
by George Work, of Work Family Ranch. Work’s enthusiasm
for the practicality of the MPU got it built, but it hasn’t
been enough to overcome state and county bureaucracy, and
a federal regulatory system that seems reluctant to change.
Dunlop is the MPU movement’s Johnny Appleseed.
Dunlop is a member of Washington State’s Island Grown
Farmers Cooperative, an organization of cattle ranchers who
raise, slaughter, and market their beef. Once upon a time,
Dunlop and other ranchers in his area had to truck their
lambs 16 hours to the slaughterhouse in Dixon. A few years
back, the cooperative raised $150,000 in government grants
and private donations to build an MPU. Now, Dunlop operates
a sideline of building and selling MPUs — he’s
had a hand in five of the seven currently in circulation
across the country.
The general response from other meat processors,
government workers, and members of the sustainability community
to the MPU is a list of reasons why it does not work, has
not worked, and will not work. Most of these focus on county
regulations. For instance, in Washington, where Dunlop operates,
able to compost the non-edible remainders and return them
to the pasture as fertilizer. In California this wouldn’t
be tolerated. While each county has its legal peculiarities,
there seems to be an overarching resistance rooted in a fear
of decentralization, a fear that if we move outside the model
of faster, cheaper, and more, we lose.
good reason to believe that MPUs might be not just more humane,
but cheaper and simpler, too. In Marin County — where
the Bay Area’s last remaining
slaughterhouse is on the verge of closing — a Tiburon-based
company called North Coast Meats wants to build a new, permanent
slaughter facility at an estimated cost of between $3 million
and $15 million, according to a spokesman. Compare that to
the $200,000 price tag on an MPU. And if you think there
is red tape to wade through before getting a mobile slaughter
unit, try convincing a neighborhood to allow a slaughterhouse
to move in next door.
If you want to get good meat, you have
to get it from a good source. But there’s more to sustainability
than how the animal is raised and what it eats. In order
to truly shape a food chain into something sustainable and
progressive, we have to create new models for the distribution
chain. We middlemen may not have the sexiness of dirt-caked
cowboy boots on a rolling hill, but we provide the drumbeat
for the industry and we need to be as sustainable as the
products we carry. Bringing the slaughter to the animals
is a funny sort of olive branch but it could be the beginning
of a revolution.
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Two.