Dear Aggie: I would like to buy beef raised locally. What is the difference between beef processed at a USDA plant and a custom processor?
There is little practical difference in beef processed at custom and USDA-inspected facilities. Both humanely slaughter the animal, eviscerate the carcass and remove the hide. Carcasses are then reduced to halves or quarters, from which more familiar cuts of meat are cut and packaged. Both custom exempt and USDA facilities process the meat under sanitary conditions to ensure food safety. The primary difference between the two types of processors relates to whether the carcass is federally inspected and where the meat can be sold.
Custom exempt processing is sometimes known as “freezer trade.” Farmers sell a live animal directly to a customer or group of customers. The farmer then delivers that customer’s animal to a custom exempt slaughterhouse who slaughters the animal. The customer who purchased the animal is considered the owner of the animal at the time of slaughtering. Customers communicate with the butcher how they would the carcass to be cut. Though the carcass and meat are not inspected, the facility itself is inspected by regulatory agencies for cleanliness and sanitation. Consumption of beef products from custom facilities is limited to the animal’s owner, their family, friends and employees. When beef is processed as custom-exempt, products must be explicitly labelled “not for sale.”
Contrarily, beef processed at a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant can be sold anywhere in the United States. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service inspects meat intended for human consumption. The inspector must be present during the slaughtering process. Beef processed through a USDA facility is what you will see for sale at local supermarkets, restaurants, and through wholesale channels. For example, a beef entrée served to you at your favorite restaurant or hamburger sold in your local grocery store must come from cows slaughtered at a USDA-inspected facility.
A handful of local farmers send their animals to USDA-inspected slaughterhouses, which allows them to sell smaller cuts of meat directly to consumers and restaurants. Unfortunately, there are few USDA-inspected meat processors in the north country, resulting in a significant bottleneck. Appointments to have animals processed must often be scheduled as far as 18 months in advance. Because of this bottleneck, a growing number of local farmers sell and ship cattle to operations in the mid-west rather than attempting to sell locally.
Buying a whole or half of an animal and having it custom-processed can be a great value if you have the freezer space. One thing that often surprises consumers new to buying whole animals is that they receive fewer choice cuts, such as New York strip or sirloin steaks, than they expect. Unfortunately, the anatomy of the animal limits the number of choice cuts that can be obtained from a single carcass. Secondly, consumers often overestimate the amount of meat they will get from a single cow. The dress weight of a carcass will be about 60% of the live weight. From that dress weight, expect about 65-60% to be meat (including fat); the rest will be bones.
There are dozens of producers in the north country selling locally grown meats, including USDA-inspected meat and custom-processed animals.
By Abigail Jantzi, dairy and livestock specialist, for Cornell Cooperative Esxtension of Jefferson County.