Processing is the first step to creating a finished product from your farm. This step is critical and must be entered into with sufficient knowledge of possible products, rules and regulations, and an end goal in mind.
Before you begin direct marketing, you need to know what product(s) you plan to sell. You can sell whole or half carcasses, or individual cuts. Depending on your marketing goal, the fabrication may be different. You will work with your processor to determine the specific fabrication necessary, but you need to start out with a general understanding of the wholesale and retail cuts possible in a carcass.
Insurance is a must for all aspects of life and should be mandatory for conducting business. It is highly recommended that farmers selling meat from their farm animals along with other commodities carry at least $1 million of liability insurance or carry the amount of insurance as per the advice of a licensed insurance provider. Your local and/or personal insurance agent can help you find a policy that works for your needs.
USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
Congress passed the Federal Meat Inspection Act in 1906 creating a law that mandated all meat intended for interstate commerce must be inspected by the government prior to sale. The main goal of meat inspection is to help create a wholesome product for human consumption.
There are four main requirements for meat inspection;
1) mandatory pre-mortem inspection
2) mandatory inspection of every carcass
3) monitoring sanitary standards established for each slaughterhouse and meat processing plant
4) authorized the USDA – Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to monitor meat processing facilities.
In addition, the USDA-FSIS oversees the humane handling and slaughter of every animal that is on the property of the meat processor. There are no exceptions to this law, regardless of the number of animals or the size of operation.
Note, not all meat processors are USDA inspected; some are custom processors. These processors will harvest and fabricate your animal/carcass and then stamp all the packages as “Not for Sale”. These products are intended to be consumed by the owner of the animal. Custom processed meats cannot legally be sold, regardless of size of operation or number of animals.
Choosing a Processor
Choosing a meat processor can be very challenging. Often farmers find the closest meat processor to their farm, only to find out they are not USDA inspected.
Obviously, proximity is one of the main criteria, but sheep and goat farmers need to visit USDA inspected facilities before they enter into any agreement:
1) When visiting, pay close attention to the facility/building and the parking lot; do they look to be in good condition? The condition of the building and parking lot can indicate how the meat processor pays attention to detail.
2) Upon entering the building, how does the place smell? Meat processing facilities have a typical smell which is normal, but foul, pungent aromas are not and can indicate sanitation issues, which will affect the shelf-life of your product or worse a food poisoning/safety issue.
3) Some USDA inspected facilities have a retail meat case; pay attention to the cuts within the case, as this will be the quality of your retail cuts.
Most importantly, is the willingness of the meat processor to work with you. Schedule a meeting with the meat processor and discuss your intentions, goals, and even the basics of your business model. Ask to make sure all areas are inspected, i.e. the harvest (kill floor), carcass fabrication, and grinding need to be inspected. There have been incidences where an animal was harvested under USDA inspection, but the fabrication and grinding was not, thus the products could not be legally sold as they lost the mark of inspection once they entered a non-inspected process. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse; this is why it is important to discuss your goals and intentions with the meat processor.
Working With a Meat Processor
Working with a meat processor can be very intimidating, but open communication between the farmer and the processor is a key to success. Farmers often say that the meat processor is speaking English, but they do not understand what is being said. Meat processors, like most professions, have their own language and forget that not everyone understands the lingo. It is the responsibility of both the farmer and the meat processor to make sure that all parties understand. Do not be afraid to ask questions.
Below are a few phrases meat processors say:
1) Hot Carcass Weight – the carcass weight taken immediately after harvest, normally before the carcass goes into the cooler and/or rigor.
2) Dressing Percentage - the percentage difference between the live weight and the hot carcass weight. Typically, sheep will have an average dressing percentage of 50%, whereas goats may only dress 45%. This percentage is only an average and can be affected by anything influencing the live weight but not the hot carcass weight, such as an unshorn lamb, gut-fill, horns, etc.
3) Shrink - The amount of the carcass weight lost due to evaporative cooling. Meat is approximately 70% to 75% water and a carcass can lose as much as 3% to 5% in the first 24 hours immediately after harvest. The shrink tends to be higher in sheep and can be over 10% loss in goats due a limited fat cover.
4) Cutting Loss – The amount of fat and bone removed from the carcass and/or retail cuts.
5) Yield – The amount of retail cuts and ground product obtained in relationship to the live weight or carcass weight.
The meat processor will ask you how you want your animal to be cut up or fabricated, while others will have a “cut sheet” of the types of retail cuts they offer. This can be the most intimidating aspect of merchandising your own meats. Farmers need to educate themselves on this aspect of the business and can contact the Kentucky Sheep and Goat Development Office, their local county Cooperative Extension Agent, or the state meat specialist for help.
Sheep and goat farmers that want to sell at Farmer’s Markets or road-side stands need to have their meats vacuum packaged. Vacuum packaging or low oxygen packaging is the removal of air prior to package being heat sealed. This type of packaging is the best protection against freezer burn and will help ensure flavor consistency from one package to the next. In addition, vacuum packaging in clear plastics allows the consumers to see the product prior to purchasing. Farmers should communicate to their customers that the vacuum will be broken upon the thawing of frozen vacuum packages and that refreezing these package is not advisable.
Labels on packages are the main way to convey information about your product to consumers. Basic/generic labels contain the name of the cut, weight of the retail cut, price per pound, total price, use by date, and inspection legend. Farmers may want to add the farm name and art work. However, the labels need to be approved by the USDA when claims are added; e.g. environmentally friendly, no added hormones or antibiotics, lower fat, etc. The meat processor can be a valuable ally in creating a legal label to place on your packages.
Thank You to Our Partners
Special thanks to Dr. Gregg Rentfrow, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Associate Extension Professor in Meat Sciences, for developing the content of this page.