The inspiration for the quiet pause is a quotation from humane animal treatment expert Temple Grandin. It is framed and hanging on a wall of the “knock box,” where cows are stunned before their throats are slit.
Grandin’s quote: “I believe that the place where an animal dies is a sacred one.” Bringing ritual into slaughter plants might prevent people from becoming numb or callous. “The ritual could be something very simple, such as a moment of silence. … No words. Just one pure moment of silence.”
The 15,000-acre ranch in the shadow of Mount Shasta is not only an organic operation, but is also one of a growing number of beef producers certified by Humane Farm Animal Care, which outlines conditions for the raising, processing and transportation of animals used for food.
Inquiries from the public about Prather Ranch meat pick up after incidents like the recent record-setting beef recall out of Chino-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., where undercover video revealed abuse of cattle with forklifts and electric prods, ranch owner Mary Rickert said.
Two Hallmark employees have been charged with cruelty and accused of forcing into the slaughterhouse cows that were too weak or injured to stand, and a government inspector and veterinarian assigned to the plant have been suspended. Federal laws adopted to keep mad-cow disease out of U.S. beef prohibit such cows from entering the human food supply without a veterinarian’s approval. Consumers’ concerns about food safety, humane treatment of animals and the adequacy of federal inspections — all issues raised in the Hallmark case — are helping push beef operations like Prather Ranch from boutique to mainstream.
“It’s all part of a whole. People who are concerned about healthy food generally care about all the components that go into making that food healthy,” said Adele Douglass, founder of Humane Farm Animal Care in Virginia. “You don’t get healthy food from sick animals.”
When Douglass’ group started in 2002, membership included 50 farms with 143,000 animals. By the end of last year, she had almost 700 farms representing 20 million animals. Certification earns producers a special packaging logo signifying humane treatment. Such meat products are carried at Clark’s Nutritional Center in Loma Linda; Sprouts Farmer’s Market in Claremont carries certified humane-raised dairy products.
The growth mirrors the rising popularity of organic beef, which, according to federal standards, comes from cows raised on organic feed or grasses, without hormones or antibiotics, and allowed to roam outside.
Organic beef sales have increased more than 50 percent a year for the past six years, said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association. Beef is the fastest-growing segment of the organic market, which has grown 40 percent annually and includes products from produce to cosmetics.
A Matter of Taste
Much of the growth is fueled by health benefits associated with grass-fed beef, which Cummins said has less fat and cholesterol, and more beneficial omega 3 and omega 6 fats, than conventional beef raised on corn and grain.
There are no conclusive studies that organic beef is healthier or safer than other types of beef, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which says the choice comes down to taste.
Organic beef costs about twice that of conventional beef. Many consumers are willing to pay, but there isn’t enough supply, so many markets opt not to carry it, Cummins said.
Prather Ranch, for example, slaughters only 25 cows per week, handpicked from a herd of 4,000 that was started in 1964. The demand for the meat is so great that the company stopped taking Internet orders, Rickert said. The beef is sold at the Prather Ranch store in San Francisco, several weekly farmer’s markets in Northern California, and grocery stores in the Sacramento area and southern Oregon.
Prather Ranch’s on-site slaughterhouse was specially designed to minimize stress on cattle, which is said to make the meat tough. For example, a 30-foot half-circle alleyway leading to the knock box has solid sides, so nothing distracts or startles the cows, Rickert said.
Downer cows — those too sick or injured to stand or walk on their own — are rare, and electric prods are never used. Mats are laid on the ground so the cattle don’t slip on concrete, and they are moved quietly up the chute and into the box for the moment of silence.
“I’ve had some cattle producers look at me and roll their eyes, but I don’t care,” said Rickert, who is part-owner of the self-sustaining ranch with her husband, Jim, and supermarket magnate Walter Ralphs. “This is an important issue we as producers need to be concerned with.”
At the family-run Brandt ranch in Brawley, south of the Salton Sea in Imperial Valley, rancher William Brandt made his 70 employees watch the undercover Humane Society video of workers abusing cows at Hallmark.
The workers had to sign a statement reiterating that the Brandt company has a no-animal-abuse policy and that workers abusing animals will be terminated and reported to authorities.
Brandt, who raises 100,000 black-and-white Holsteins on land just north of the Mexican border, is thinking about installing video cameras in the cattle-handling areas.
“Something like that,” Brandt said of the abuse, “you think you’re on top of everything. But you have to take everything a step further.”
About 4,700 acres of alfalfa and Sudan grass, which are used as feed, surround the cattle. Six miles away, a 100-car train comes from the Midwest once a week to deposit 10,000 tons of corn, also used as feed, in three steel silos that the Brandts share with Superior Cattle Feeders, another Imperial Valley beef cattle company.
The Brandt family has raised cattle since 1945. But it’s only in the past four years that they started raising some of their cattle “naturally” and selling it under the “Brandt Beef” name.
The natural cows, which account for 30 percent of the Brandt operation, differ from the commodity cattle in several ways, said Brandt, 62, who runs the beef and farming operations.
They do not receive any hormones, which would make the cattle gain weight faster. They do not get antibiotics during their last 300 days in the pens. And their birth line can always be traced.
It costs about $30 to $40 more to raise a natural cow, but the meat is more tender and has better flavor, he said.
It also sells for about 30 percent more, said Eric Brandt, one of William Brandt’s four children involved with the company. Buyers include chefs throughout the country and people at farmers markets in San Diego. Consumers can buy it at brandtbeef.com.
Humane treatment of livestock isn’t limited to organic operations; natural producers and humane treatment don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand; and raising cattle on feedlots isn’t necessarily bad, said Dan Loy, a beef specialist with Iowa State University.
In the Midwest, where grass grows only three or four months a year, cattle have to be fed in lots. They also can be brought into shelter from below-zero weather, giving them a better environment than they’d have in the open.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on how they’re managed and the credibility of the person managing it — their honesty, their work ethic, the conscientiousness of the producer. That’s true of any production system,” Loy said.
The cattle slaughtered at the Chino plant were primarily spent dairy cows that could no longer give milk. Such meat gets mixed in with trimmings from beef cows before being ground into hamburger, making it virtually impossible to know whether it came from an old dairy cow, Loy said.
Mixing different cuts increases the risk of E. coli, he said.
Getting the Best Beef
Loy emphasized that the system is safe, but there are things people can do to ensure a better cut of meat. Ground beef labeled as “ground round” or “ground chuck” probably came from a beef cow, he said. And whole muscle cuts, like a steak or roast, are inherently safer.
Kosher slaughter is considered the most humane, based on Torah law that the animal cannot suffer needless pain.
Instead of being stunned unconscious, which doesn’t always work the first time, a man trained in Jewish law cuts the cow’s trachea and esophagus quickly with a sharp knife that causes profound blood loss and unconsciousness within two seconds.
Kosher beef can be ordered online, including through Chabad of Rancho Mirage.
Desert chef Eric Wadlund, the father of three young boys, is cautious about the meat he buys for his family and his restaurant, Beefsteak Fine Food and Wine in Rancho Mirage.
When he doesn’t use the Kansas angus from his restaurant supplier for home use, he cuts his own from large pieces of meat. When he craves hamburger, he buys a chuck roast and grinds it with a special attachment on his Kitchen Aid stand mixer.
“You can buy a bunch and freeze it up. That’s what we do. It takes no time at all,” Wadlund said. “Or if you have a good butcher and they’re grinding it right there, that’s fine.”
The butchers at Stater Bros. markets will grind a whole chuck roast, about 12 pounds, into hamburger for customers who give two days’ notice, owner Jack Brown said.
The store takes steaks and roasts out of the primal cut, the larger section of carcass. As the butcher cuts the meat, he is the final inspector, checking the meat for any problems, Brown said.
“There’s no substitute for fresh,” he said. “Any time products are pre-packaged, you don’t know when they were put in to the package or how far it came.”