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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 26, 2009
Is your hamburger safer made of meat from home?
By Zach Simeone
Amid the buzz created by a young Minnesota woman’s paralysis by E. coli that was traced back to a hamburger, a USDA-certified slaughterhouse near Altamont processes meat for more than 60 farms, the owner said some as close as the Helderberg Hilltowns, and some as far away as Rhode Island.
“We’re unique,” said Lowell Carson, who owns Double L. Ranch, where he works with his sons, Lowell Jr. and Zack.
What makes the slaughterhouse unique locally is that an inspector from the United States Department of Agriculture examines every animal throughout the slaughtering process, “which is rare in the area,” Carson said. The USDA inspector is there from 7 a.m. till 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
In fact, the service Double L. Ranch provides is so rare that Mary Hawkins, a 30-year-old intern there, came across the country from Oregon to learn of the family’s meat-cutting ways, Carson said.
Safety in smaller numbers
In the fall of 2007, Stephanie Smith, a 22-year-old children’s dance instructor from Minnesota, ate an American Chef’s Selection Angus Beef Patties hamburger at a Sunday dinner with her family. Michael Moss told her story on the front page of the Oct. 4 New York Times, tracing the trail of E. coli and showing the flaws of the ground-beef inspection system.
The patty Smith ate, manufactured by Cargill, reportedly contained a mixture of meats from slaughterhouses in Texas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Uruguay, cut from areas of the cow more likely to come into contact with feces, which carries E. coli. It was from this patty, Moss wrote, that Smith contracted a potentially deadly strain of the bacteria, called O157:H7, which began with bloody diarrhea, and eventually led to paralysis from the waist down.
One of the greatest differences between buying local meats and buying most brands of pre-formed beef patties is that consumers know that every bit of the hamburger came from the same place, and, in many cases, the same animal.
Also, cows on a corn diet, typical of large commercial operations, are more likely to have acidic stomachs than grass-fed beef, a developing niche market; this acidic environment is more likely to harbor E. coli.
Since beef cows do not interact with humans nearly as often as dairy cows, the trip to the slaughterhouse can be jarring for them, Lowell Carson said, and they are easily riled once they arrive.
“The trip in spooks them, especially if they’re by themselves,” said Carson, as three of the massive black heifers stomp back and forth in the pen behind him. His son, Zack, looks on. They estimated that the largest of the three cows was about 1,600 pounds. Its hide alone can weigh 100 pounds.
Carson himself was uneasy when he first entered his profession.
“It took me about three months to be able to handle it not to think about it,” Carson said of getting accustomed to taking the life of a living thing. “It’s a job, and it’s food, and that’s how you’ve got to look at it. I used to get heartburn for the first few months, till an old timer sat me down and talked to me about it.”
Sometimes, animals with names are brought in.
“It’s not an easy thing all the time,” Carson said.
Zack, his youngest son at 21, does most of the actual slaughtering these days, which takes place in a larger adjacent room.
The white-tiled walls and hard cement floor glisten, still wet from their last spray-down. An array of metal hooks dangle from the high ceiling. Lambs are hung from these hooks during the slaughter.
Hanging over the blood pit in the corner of the room is a chain with a hook on the end that is thicker than the others; cows are hung from here while they are killed.
But first, the animal is knocked unconscious by a captive-bolt gun to prevent it from suffering while it is killed. The gun, which contains a stainless-steel rod, is aimed at the top of the animal’s head. The rod is thrust from the gun by a blank cartridge, and is driven into the animal’s skull, scrambling its cerebrum. The animal is then bled to death by a stick-wound using a knife to puncture the heart.
In the middle of the room hangs the Jarvis Buster V, a large, electric bandsaw used for slicing the animal in half after the slaughter. It is hung by its hind legs as it is sawed apart.
At the end of the room opposite the blood pit is the wash station, where the carcass is sprayed down.
“You can only rinse blood off,” explained Carson with widened eyes. “Any contamination has to actually be cut off before you wash the animal. If you rinse the contamination, you’ll spread it.”
Once clean, the carcass is stored in a large walk-in freezer.
“One thing I can do in here that the bigger factories can’t is dry aging,” Carson went on as he walked by row after frigid row butchered cows, goats, lambs, and swine. Beef is aged two to three weeks; the other meats are aged five to seven days. “We also save up the edible organs like heart, tongue, liver, kidneys,” he said.
When the meats are ready, that’s when Carson’s other son, Lowell Jr., takes over.
“He actually does the processing,” Carson said of his older son, who is 24. “He actually cuts the carcass into retail cuts, and he does the quality control, making sure everything was done right when the customer comes to pick up their product.”
From there, Hawkins, the intern from Oregon, and employee Edward Gallagher package the meat.
Eliminating E. coli
Double L. Ranch is required to test its beef once a month for O157:H7, the same deadly strain of E. coli that left Stephanie Smith paralyzed. Carson sends a sample of ground beef, as well as a sponge that was used to swab a beef carcass, to Marshfield Labs in Wisconsin, where the meat is tested.
“Which cow we send is literally by the roll of the dice, and the inspector watches us do it,” said Carson. “In a big plant, they get five seconds to inspect each cow,” Carson said. “Our guy is on a carcass the whole time it’s in here.”
Thomas Gallagher, Agriculture Issue Team Leader at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County, agrees that smaller slaughterhouses can be safer.
“The key with E. coli is, it usually comes from inside the animal’s gut, so, you have to be very careful with the knife so you don’t puncture the stomach,” Gallagher said. “In a large plant, the animal’s hanging, and they have an electronic puller that pulls the hide off; in a smaller plant, they actually skin it with a knife, so they’re able to keep the animal cleaner.”
Double L. Ranch is one of very few USDA-inspected slaughterhouses in the area, and none of the others operate on quite the same level.
“There isn’t any other way for people to get meat the way we do it; that’s the problem,” Carson said. “The larger factories, if you can’t do a full trailer load, which is like 30 heads at a time, then they won’t take you. Without a facility like mine that handles small farmers, they just close up.”
The State University of New York College of Agriculture and Technology at Cobleskill has a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse, though it is used mostly for teaching students about meat processing, Gallagher explained. Carson himself taught at SUNY Cobleskill for four years.
“I taught slaughter and meat processing meat cutting for restaurant use for the culinary kids,” Carson said. “Most of the students were animal-science students. They weren’t there to be butchers; they were there for anything other than that.”
Hilltown Fork, a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse in Canaan, New York, processes mostly swine, Gallagher said, and is a slightly larger operation.
“Those are probably the ones most of our people use,” he said. “At Cobleskill, they don’t take too many outside animals anymore; they usually buy from local farmers and they’re used for school. Hilltown Fork, they do mostly hogs, but that’s a bigger operation; they kill quite a few hogs, and, with hogs, you’re not worried about E. coli because swine aren’t ruminants.”
A smaller slaughterhouse, like Double L. Ranch, processes one animal about every 45 minutes, Gallagher said.
“They’ve got an inspector looking at it from the time it’s on the kill floor till the time it’s in the freezer,” he said. “You go to a plant down in Pennsylvania, they’re probably running an animal through every minute, but there are a lot of inspectors there.”
“Go to your local farmers’ market,” exclaimed Carson as he sat at his desk, shuffling through his customers’ business cards. “Small businesses like me don’t have recalls because we can’t release the product until we get the results.”
Much of the meat processed at Double L. Ranch is sold at farmers’ markets in Albany, Troy, Saratoga, and every Sunday at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady. Some Hilltown farmers sell the meat right at their farms, while farmers from Syracuse, New York City, and parts of Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey bring their livestock here for butchering.
Albany County Legislator Alexander “Sandy” Gordon, also a Knox farmer, brings his grass-fed beef to Double L. Ranch for processing. Gordon said that the Albany Pump Station, a restaurant in downtown Albany, cooks with his grass-fed beef.
“We can’t be happier than to have local vendors that put a premium value on local product,” Gordon told The Enterprise this week.
His beef is also available for private sale.
“I’ll arrange a sale where a customer will buy a half of the animal or a whole of the animal prior to its processing,” Gordon said.
Another customer of Double L. Ranch is Derek DeBoer, who studied under Carson during his days teaching at SUNY Cobleskill. DeBoer runs At Ease Acres near the border between Berne and Wright.
“If someone calls me up today and says they want half a steer, I ask for a deposit, I ship it to Lowell [Carson] who processes it how they want it, he sends it back to me, and I sell it by quarter halves or wholes,” said DeBoer. “I’m not a farmers’ market guy, but I’m looking to get into restaurants and food distributors.”
Gordon said later that he encourages customers to “know their farmer.”
“There are a lot of people asking questions about food safety, and I think they could be answered if people were able to ask those questions directly of the farmer growing the product,” he concluded. “That’s something that really is missing on the commercial side of the food business.”