Choice Cuts

Concord conference serves up lessons in niche meat handling.

In one room of the Cabarrus Event Center, Dr. Gregg Rentfrow of the University of Kentucky is cutting a side of beef into pieces, demonstrating where to find value-added cuts like a flat iron steak, chuck tender or a Denver cut.

Later, N.C. State University’s Dr. Dana Hanson tries to debunk some myths about meat production, while across the way, a group of would-be butchers learn where meat comes from by cutting down half a pork carcass.

This was the scene in March at the Carolina Meat Conference in Concord, which brought together more than 250 players in the meat industry from 13 states. The event, coordinated by NC Choices, a Center for Environmental Farming Systems’ program, drew meat producers, butchers, processors, retailers, regulators and chefs from as far away as Texas, California and Vermont.

NC Choices promotes the production and sale of locally raised and niche meats. Such products are defined by a range of production practices and marketing strategies that consumers increasingly value. Production methods that define niche meats include organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, cage-free, free-range and heritage breed, as well as meat raised with humane husbandry practices and without antibiotics or added hormones.

CALS’ Dr. Dana Hanson was the meat-processing myth buster.

“We were just thrilled and excited with the diversity of individuals who came to the conference,” said Jennifer Curtis, NC Choices project director. Curtis said the conference was the first of its kind in the country.

“I think it was the right time to do it, because of the growth and demand for niche meats,” said Casey McKissick, NC Choices’ coordinator. “Did it work? Yeah, I think people were very excited, reinvigorated and inspired.” It was so successful that McKissick is already planning a focused workshop series in 2012 and a repeat statewide conference in 2013.

Curtis, who has worked with NC Choices for five years, says it’s difficult to track exactly how much North Carolina’s niche meat industry has grown in the last 10 years, but it’s safe to say that it is in pace with what has happened in national markets. Comments from conference participants outside the state indicate that North Carolina is nationally recognized for its progressive work in the area of local food systems, especially locally produced meats.

Across the United States, sales of natural and organic red meats have grown by 15 percent, compared with growth of 1.7 percent for all red meat sales. Poultry sales overall increased 7.8 percent, while sales of natural and organic poultry have grown by almost 14 percent.

Curtis says the best way to get a picture of how North Carolina’s niche meat industry has grown is by the growth in the number of meat handlers’ registration in the state since 2007. The number of registered meat handlers in the state has grown by 187 percent over four years, while the number of farmer-registered meat handlers has grown by 321 percent, she said.

Curtis hopes conference participants got a sense of being part of a growing industry. Producer Karen McAdams of Orange County said it was unusual to have both producers and processors at the same conference.

“I think it was a step in the right direction, addressing some of the issues with marketing local meats,” said McAdams, a former livestock Extension agent, who now raises beef and lamb with her husband, Howard, at McAdams Farm.
McKissick hopes that the butchery parts of the workshop will help encourage newcomers to the field of artisanal butchery. Most retail outlets now sell meat that is processed offsite, Curtis said, and there is little role for store-based butchers anymore.

“More and more young people are interested in working in butchery shops,” she said. “They’re anxious for more information on the art of butchery.”

Butchers-in-training worked in teams to practice cutting and processing carcasses.

Artisanal butchery promotes meat sales to restaurants by providing chefs with options for utilizing a whole meat carcass, rather than just buying select cuts. Farmers benefit when they can sell the whole carcass, McKissick said.

During the conference,  a chef workshop on whole animal utilization was filled and had a waiting list, showing the meat industry’s interest in learning more about buying, selling and processing whole  carcasses.

Rentfrow of the University of Kentucky provided a workshop for meat processors on optimizing carcass utilization. He demonstrated the labor-intensive nature of some specialty meat cuts. Rentfrow said the meat processing industry is looking for ways to reduce the labor involved in those specialty cuts.

Meanwhile, N.C. State’s Extension meat specialist Dr. Dana Hanson addressed “meat-processing myth busters,” explaining some common misconceptions about the cost of meat processing equipment, maintenance and the profit margins of meat processing.

During the first afternoon of the conference, home chefs grabbed some very sharp knives and tested their skill at butchery to see first-hand where various cuts of meat are found in a whole carcass. Tia Harrison of the Butcher’s Guild and executive chef of Sociale in San Francisco has been offering a consumer class for several years, “so people will know where their meat comes from.”

— Natalie Hampton

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