Humane Slaughterhouse: Eagle Bridge Custom Meat
Do you ever think about how a pig becomes pork? It’s a stark question. It’s something Debbie Downer might pose to a table of horrified guests about to dig into a roast on Saturday Night Live, and one that most of us resist probing too deeply.
To manage our anxiety about the more scatological aspects of farm-to-table cuisine, we even use language as a way to distance ourselves from the harvesting process: No one ever asks for a pig chop at the farmers’ market or butcher shop.
Many large-scale organic brands are built around the marketing premise that happy farm animals produce more delicious milk and meat—and for good reason. The desire to know where our food came from and how it was raised and cared for has become ubiquitous. It’s just the last step that is still stubbornly glossed over.
Consider this: In a 2015 report to Congress, the USDA reported that regional food hubs, which focus on getting local food to local eaters, increased by 288% since 2006 and farm-to-school programs increased by 430% since 2006.
Now, second-graders and earnest gardeners are growing organic kale and topping their grass-fed, local burgers with a sprig of it. But. Depending on which company is doing the processing, all of the work we put into sourcing the best local meat, shelling out extra money for it and lovingly preparing a well-balanced meal with it may be for naught. Because if an animal wasn’t handled humanely just before slaughter, the quality of the meat that results will be adversely affected.
When an animal is handled properly before slaughter, the glycogen in the muscles is converted into lactic acid post-mortem, helping to ensure flavorful, plump meat. In a stressed animal, adrenaline is released, burning through the glycogen and creating Dark Firm Dry (DFD) meat in cattle and sheep, or Pale Soft Exudative (PSE) meat in pigs. Not good eating.
“It’s a shame,” Debbie Farrara, co-operator and manager of Eagle Bridge Custom Meat & Smokehouse, says sincerely. “All of the time, care and expense farmers put into raising their animals on small farms can disappear at the end of the animal’s life. Not good from any aspect. Not the right thing to do when it comes to the animal, and a bad business proposition that can lead to a subpar product.”
We’ve all been there: shelling out twice the price for organic and grass-fed over conventional, only to be disappointed with the results. We wonder where we went wrong in the preparation process. Turns out, it may not be our cooking skills. At Eagle Bridge Custom Meat, they process animals, fabricate cuts of meat and make a variety of sausages and smoked meats. The operation is USDA-inspected, allowing their clients to sell product through many channels and outlets. The meat processed at Eagle Bridge goes to farmers’ markets, CSAs, restaurants, butcher shops and grocery stores all over the Northeast.
As with many things in life, transparent sourcing and business practices with humane standards ensure quality, Debbie explains. We sat down with Debbie to learn more about this facility that serves the region’s farmers and ranchers.
The town of Eagle Bridge, where the slaughterhouse was founded by Debbie’s brother, Stephen Farrara, is in bucolic Washington County. The town, and its surrounding villages, exude an old-fashioned American pride of place rarely seen outside of the silver screen.
On a recent drive out to their facility, the road was brimming with picture-perfect antiques stores, hand-painted fences sheltering impeccably cared for family homes with delightful idiosyncrasies. Content cows could be seen munching through sweet grass, and views of the Berkshires and the Green Mountains beckoned. It was easy to see why so many of us get lulled into a superficial, pretty farm-to-table daydream that doesn’t take the grittier stops on the cycle of life into account.
Eagle Bridge Custom Meat itself, unexpectedly, was brimming with life. Out front, three burly men were focused on loading a refrigerated truck with boxes. Inside, a billboard at the front desk featured hand-written thank you cards from customers. Debbie and Steve were exchanging verbal volleys as they went over paperwork. A woman in a hardhat smiled as she strode past me on the way to a warren of rooms in back, which includes several refrigerated hanging lockers, a cutting room, a processing room, a sorting room and a bacon room (translation: a room to process cooked products including delicious bacon, hams, kielbasa). The hum of a well-oiled small business machine was palpable.
Debbie and Steve operate Eagle Bridge as a team. They grew up next door, and when the previous owners sold what was once a dairy farm, Stephen bought the property. Over the years Steve operated a different small business on-site that worked in conjunction with another branch of the family’s machine and tool business. When the family business was sold, Steve started into the next steps of his career and found the perfect path, right under his feet.
“My brother raised his own animals, from beef to chicken to pigs. He faced the challenges that many encountered when it came time to have them processed. Who do you trust, how long will it take to get the meat back. How far will we need to travel?” Debbie explains. The shortage of meat processing facilities throughout the Northeast was real, and he looked at that gap as an opportunity.
From the get-go, Debbie says that ensuring quality through traceability, tracking, food safety, cleanliness, proper packaging and presentation, quality, customer service was a priority.
Mistakes or lack of attention to detail are not just an inconvenience. “Our crew works hard to get it right. This allows our farmers to support their families,” Debbie says. “My brother and I are committed to the ethical treatment of animals. is was factored into our decision to have our operation certified for humane handling by the Animal Welfare Institute.”
Eagle Bridge is so infused with laughter and camaraderie it’s hard to remember that it’s in the business of death. According to Debbie, the rigorous systems ensuring humane treatment of animals, proper hanging, smoking and packing methods, are in place throughout the facility thanks to her brother “who just has a brilliant mind for details, process and e ciency. He checks and re-checks everything.”
If Steve is in charge of the details, Debbie is in charge of the heart. On our tour of the facility, the employees regarded her with the same mix of respect and affection good coaches engender. Debbie previously was a Human Resource manager for a major corporation, traveling the country delivering management and customer service training, and it shows. She even treated the hanging carcasses with care, naming the farmers who brought them in just by glancing at the animal’s structure, size and the fat cover.
I walked through the coolers with Debbie and saw the carcasses through her eyes, as things of stark beauty, to be treated with care and respect. They will fuel and sustain us, bring us great gustatory pleasure, and for that they should be treated with dignity. Not as an abstraction.
Still, it isn’t a conceptual art project. It’s a business. Animals are brought in and treated with care under the watchful eye of the on-site USDA inspector who upholds the Animal Welfare Institute guidelines regarding temperature control of the facility, feeding practices, pen space, handling principles and so much more.
They process animals, make sausage and smoke meats, but all for their clients, who then sell them at farmers’ markets, in CSAs and to restaurants.
Eagle Bridge is a growing business and many of their clients drive two or more hours to get them, but they want to stay smallish. They have a waiting list for new clients, but Debbie and Steve do their utmost to accommodate every request, she says.
“Steve and I have our schedule mapped out a year in advance,” she explains. “But there’s a little wiggle room. We are operating at the scale we desire at this point. We still have time for our families and lives. We do our best to accommodate as many clients as we can, but frankly we do have a waiting list.”
Many of us take pride in knowing where our food comes from, how it’s handled, what it’s fed, how much room it has to sleep and play. Perhaps it’s time to consider the last stop it makes on its journey to our plates.