As we collectively slog through the surreal reality that is living in the midst of a pandemic, we are slowly resigning ourselves to discomforts from cancelled events to shaggy haircuts, and, of course, the guessing game that grocery shopping has become. Will I be able to find toilet paper today? Will I need to stand in line at the door? How many gallons of milk can I buy? One department where items have been noticeably limited is meat and poultry. An article from Supermarket News earlier this month describes nationwide limits on meat at major retail chains including Kroger, Hy-Vee, Costco, Giant Eagle, H-E-B, and Wegmans (Browne, 2020). Though coolers and freezers are certainly more full, in my observations, than a few weeks ago, pickings sometimes seem slim, and limitations on purchases persist. While these limits may have initially been the response to fears stemming from the early days of COVD-19 and its associated uncertainties, limits are still needed to mitigate impulse buying spurred by major livestock processors temporarily shutting down.
These shutdowns have allowed time for plants to be thoroughly cleaned, have new safety guards installed, and to be ready to welcome back employees with new protocols to stay healthy. This interactive map and timeline from Meat+Poultry details where and when major processors have opened and closed across the continental U.S. since the end of March. As in many industries and institutions across the globe, knowing how fast to return to “normal” is unknown, and the impact of closing facilities farmers rely on to humanely and efficiently process thousands of head of livestock each day is affecting producers, processors, and purchasers alike. Unfortunately, some farmers caught between a closed processing plant and a herd ready to be harvested face the difficult choice to euthanize or find other outlets for their market-ready animals (Mesch, 2020).
This nightmare for farmers has led to the phenomenon of small processors taking in animals originally destined for a larger plant. One post on my Facebook feed from a local farmer looking for people to buy pigs from her market-ready herd prompted me to call our nearby meat processor to see if they had room in their schedule for one more little piggy. Nope. Booked through August. After some checking around, I was able to find a processor that had a steady supply of pigs…our share would be ready in July. Why the backlog? Well, processing a hog is time-intensive labor, especially without the assistance of equipment found in large plants that aid in slaughter and further processing. A person does not just push the button nose of a pig and make it fall apart into packages of ham, sausage, and pork rinds.
Several steps are involved to harvest a living animal and yield the nutritious meat humans have cherished for millennia (Aberle, Forrest, Gerrard, Mills, 2001). Below is a general outline of this conversion of muscle to meat in pigs without the inclusion of deviations such as special religious customs.
- Animals are delivered in a calm, orderly manner and rendered unconscious. Ensuring an animal is peaceful and then insensible at the very beginning of slaughter is extremely important; not only is it humane, but it also allows for a steady, normal progression of muscle to high quality meat.
- Blood is drained in the process known as exsanguination. In live animals, blood is the vehicle for oxygen as it’s delivered from the lungs to all the other tissues. When blood can no longer deliver oxygen, metabolism shifts from aerobic to anaerobic mode. You might have experienced this if you’ve sprinted too fast too far and ended up with a burning sensation in your legs. This is caused by the creation and buildup of lactic acid: a byproduct of the body trying to maintain order when (**DANGER, DANGER**) oxygen supply is low. In a living creature, lactic acid is processed by the liver and heart but, without blood to pull lactic acid to these organs, it builds up in muscle and causes the pH within muscle to decline. (Remember: the pH number on a scale of 0 to 14 is inversely proportionate to the concentration of free hydrogen ions. pH down = acid up) In ideal circumstances, pH decline is steady and will decrease from a value of roughly 6.8 to 5.7 over 24 hours.
- After exsanguination, hair, organs, and the head are removed. The carcass must be clean and fit for further processing before moving on to the next stages.
- In addition to pH decline, the removal of blood causes a cascade of chemical reactions that ultimately determine the color, flavor, water content, and firmness of the meat now suitable for being broken down into primal, subprimal, and retail cuts as well as being used to make everything from head cheese to pickled trotters.
As you can see, the conversion from pig to pork is intrinsic, and highly skilled professionals are needed to ensure that animals are treated well up to the point of slaughter, carcasses are handled in a safe, efficient manner, and the resulting meat is stored and used in a way that creates the best product. But when the health of these professionals is at risk, a new normal must be adopted to ensure the safety of workers that are essential to feeding the world. So, as a consumer, thank a farmer you know for their hard work and dedication in these trying times. Be mindful of other buyers and respect any purchase limits grocery stores have in place. Utilize local processors around you; their increased business doesn’t necessarily mean increased freezer space, and they will gladly welcome you in their store. And if you know someone who works at a processing plant, large or small, thank them for their service on the front line to keep the world fed.
Aberle, E.D., Forrest, J.C., Gerrard, D.E., Mills, E.W. (2001). Principles of Meat Science (4th ed.).Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Browne, M. (5 May 2020). Grocery chains limit meat purchases to prevent hoarding. Supermarket News. Retrieved from https://www.supermarketnews.com/meat/grocery-chains-limit-meat-purchases-prevent-hoarding.
McCarthy, R., Danley, S. (28 May 2020). Map: COVID-19 meat plant closures. Meat+Poultry. Retrieved from https://www.meatpoultry.com/articles/22993-covid-19-meat-plant-map.
Mesch, S.K. (10 May 2020). As meat processing slows, Wisconsin grocery stores battle hoarding tendencies amid COVID-19 pandemic. Wisconsin State Journal.