Meet your meat man

A field trip to the university slaughterhouse during annual Farm Week

STEP INTO THE FREEZER Veteran butcher Jim Holt and four-year student Melissa Holzkamp stand inside the freezing meat locker of the Meat Lab at University Farm.

STEP INTO THE FREEZER Veteran butcher Jim Holt and four-year student Melissa Holzkamp stand inside the freezing meat locker of the Meat Lab at University Farm.

photo by Tom Angel

Don’t look, just enjoy: At the University Farm, sausage is made in this process: killing and cleaning the animals, determining the mix of meats to be ground or chopped in heavy duty machines, adding spices or whatever the USDA-approved menu calls for, stuffing the product into casing, and finally cooking and chilling the sausage and placing it in the cooler for packaging and shipment.

For a big, tough-looking guy who gets splattered by blood every day, butcher Jim Holt is pretty friendly in person.

Tossing turkey livers into the trash inside the cold University Farm Meat Lab building, his white smock covered with blood, Holt, a hefty man with a belt of knives, seems to personify one of the oldest professions in the world. He’s a butcher from a longstanding family of butchers, and he knows his business.

Holt is busy today filling orders, his usual practice from 9 to 5 Mondays through Fridays. This means many work hours in addition to his role overseeing students for the local university intern program.

The Meat Lab, which is located off Hegan Lane within a compound of clustered buildings and land, is a part of the huge Animal Science program at the University Farm. The program trains students in a wide range of ag studies, from meat science, food safety, marketing and business to the biology of animals and more. There are four livestock facilities—sheep, beef, swine and dairy—as well as just under 900 farm acres for the animals and various grow-crop orchards and irrigation projects.

Though he originally wanted to be a plumber because he liked fixing things, Holt says his father got him into the butcher business early on. Now, it’s second nature to him.

“Usually on Tuesdays I’ll break a group of animals, and the rest of the week is busy making sure every part of these sheep and pigs or cows, what have you, gets used. It’s an effective process we’ve got down here. The animals are treated with respect until they reach maturity and then, one day, it’s lights out,” he says matter-of-factly.

Walking around inside the high-ceilinged, cold interior of the Meat Lab processing room—it’s like a cross between a warehouse and an industrial kitchen—one notices the many hoses used almost constantly to wash and clean the facility. The dampness only adds to the chill temperature of the metallic room.

Cleanliness is a major component of working in a federally regulated meat house, Holt tells me, and inspectors frequently drop by to make sure the product is being handled properly. There’s an almost surgical air to the proceedings; it’s a mechanical, industrial-type process with several $30,000-$50,000 slicing and grinding machines lined up in the corners.

“That’s a major focus of the current meat industry,” Holt explains. “After the mad-cow-disease scare in Europe, we’re very concerned here at home about making sure people realize this process is safe and that we are highly regulated. You know, 98 percent of the problems, e. coli for example, are from shoppers mishandling their meat and cooking things rare. It’s not on our end.”

Today is part of the 21st annual Farm Celebration Week at the farm, a series of events that director Ray Watkins describes as a broad-based education program targeting urban and city areas to show them how farming is done in the new age of technology. Across the property, young schoolchildren wander the barns in groups learning what actually constitutes their pizza toppings. Meanwhile, the CN&R photographer and I shiver in hardhats and white lab coats, learning more about the fabrication of meat products from inside the icy ninth circle of Meat Lab hell.

Also working today is a paid intern for the last four years, Melissa Holzkamp, a petite ag communications senior from Chico State who works a heavy-duty butchering saw more than twice her weight.

“When I started I was a little intimidated,” she said. “But you get used to it. And I’ve really learned a lot about several areas including the NMA [National Meat Association], which has offices nearby in Oakland where I worked last summer. … I’m not sure what I want to do when I get out, but I’ve got some good experience now.”

Whereas a century ago nearly everyone in America raised livestock for food, nowadays a very small percentage of truly dedicated workers provide for the large population of meat-eaters in this country—though technology has meant greater production and success for some.

“Gone are the days when we needed big guys to lug meat around,” Holt says. “Now, with technology the way it is, I’ve actually got several young women from the university who work here and they do a great job. … I teach them all aspects of the business so they know pretty much how to do everything on any given day.”

During our tour, Holt takes me into the killing room or, as he prefers to call it, using the French term, the abattoir. As I imagined, the space has the razor-thin air of finality to it—a cold, factory atmosphere embodied by concrete, electric saws, cables and long hoses hanging and rusted floor grates to drain the bloodletting. One might think it hard to work around death every week, but for Holt this is a part of everyday life. He views it in purely mechanical terms, and in a way sees the killings as more humane than most human deaths.

“First off, we take care of these animals and feed them throughout their life—they’re not brought down by wolves or disease or whatever. Then, when it’s their time to go, usually four or so at a time are brought here and rounded up—then they don’t know what hit them. … Out in the Midwest, they have factories that can kill 5,000 an hour, but here we run a small, tightly controlled operation.”

Holt kills the animals from behind using a knocker that cuts the spinal cord. It’s quick and humane, and they’re not beat around or scared, he says.

“Besides being inhumane, [such treatment] would damage the product. It’s just not a good business practice for any place to do that. I’d much more prefer to go [the way his animals die], rather than lie around in bed dying of cancer. The only thing people know about death is what they’ve learned from those before them. These animals don’t know that. They have no idea. All they know is instinct for survival and what their mamas taught them: to run away from a threat—or, if you’re a bull, run toward it.”

Still, animal-rights groups and vegetarian organizations make yearly visits to the university slaughterhouse, which Holt welcomes. It’s good, on the whole, he says, to have those groups around to make sure abuses are not made in some places.

“When they leave, I think they feel a little bit better about the whole process.”

Holt won’t say where he does his own meat shopping, though he does hint that you get what you pay for.

When asked whether student workers become attached to some of the animals they help raise toward their final day, Holt says inevitably some do. But he always has an honest talk with them on the first day about the realistic expectations of working in a meat house.

“I don’t enjoy killing,” Holt says in closing. “I don’t even hunt. But the meat industry is a fact of life. Without these thousands of by-products, people wouldn’t have a lot of things: from leather and plastics and other fibers to food or even collagen for Madonna’s lips. … It’s gotten to the point now where the meat is almost a by-product itself because there are so many other uses. Sure, the industry could change, and we could all go vegetarian, but it’s going to be a hard life.”

When Holt says this, the steely directness of his gaze lets you know he means it.