Know thy meat processor. Sounds like a good, solid commandment that more carnivores should follow. For those who tend to enjoy the juicy, grilled burger but have an aversion to the slaughterhouse, a visit to the Oregon State University Clark Meat Center might be in order.
Clark is not fancy. It sits in a gravel lot surrounded by more gravel. The sign outside the building is sharpie on wood. Inside it is basic and hasn’t seen a remodel in years, or ever. But it is small and quiet and clean. So clean that it is a little surprising to find out that heifer, steer, pigs and sheep are slaughtered and processed here.
The all-student staff is full of grins, quick jokes and sincerity about their work, even when it involves packing countless pounds of ground beef into little red wrappers.
Clark gets most of its animals through the Steer-a-Year program, where steer and occasionally heifers are donated to students. The animals live in a feedlot tended by students who have one year to get them to the ideal weight for processing. Students learn about antibiotics, tillage, feed and all other things cattle. They typically put about 30 steers through the program in one year. After processing, the donor buys back the meat with some sold to the general public. All proceeds support the program.
Throughout the process, students keep prodigious track of their cattle and learn many aspects of the industry. The donors become connected to the students and get some feedback that may help their operation.
“They [donors] want to help out OSU, but they also want to get some feedback,” says manager Nate Parker. “And we’re open to any praise or any criticism we get. We want to improve.”
Parker, a graduate student in agriculture and rangeland sciences, is a guy who really enjoys talking about anything and everything meat: safety standards, marbling, regulations and most of all, cleanliness.
He started at the center in 2008 as an undergrad doing cleanup. This is not an easy job in a facility that slaughters 1200-pound animals. The experience taught him the importance of safety and cleanliness. In one way, it is a typical lab job for a grad or undergrad. But these students have to make sure things like Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (Mad Cow), transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (scrapie) and E.coli don’t make it into the meat. They have to handle and slaughter large animals efficiently and humanely.
Parker is a passionate spokesman for the educational experience.
Most people are not “fully aware of the beef industry, slaughter and meat. They need to know. It’s important to let them know and make them informed consumers,” Parker said.
Elizabeth Wong is one worker who has done just about everything at the meat center. She is a senior animal science major who will be interviewing for jobs at meat processing plants in the coming month. About working in the industry she said, “I like the idea of providing a good, high quality product to customers.”
Nate walked me through the slaughter process, from chute to carcass room. He went through the testing and regulations they submit to with encyclopedic precision. I was next to the pen where a steer rolls after being stunned by a captive bolt blow to the skull before being hoisted to the exsanguination area where it would lose its head, bleed out and finally die. As he was explaining how the process is carried out, Nate looked across the room and stopped mid-sentence, “Oh, there’s a cobweb there. That shouldn’t be there.”
I could not see it even when I walked over to the area. But I was glad he could.
The Clark Meat Center has many loyal customers and typically sell all kinds of meat products each Friday from 1 to 5:30 p.m. Parker and another graduate student have been working on a project to introduce charcuterie to the Beaver family. In the future, there may be a signature salami or prosciutto to go with your Beaver Gold cheese.
Slaughter is a nasty business. But the students at Clark work in a learning environment and take the utmost care with their job. Know your butcher; they should know their meat.
The Clark Meat Center is located on OSU’s campus. For directions or
information, contact 541-737-1927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Bridget Egan