Whole Animal Butchery: The Growth, the Problems, and the Future
Ten years ago -- even five years ago -- whole animal butchery was just "something you'd experience in rural areas," said Ryan Farr, head of 4505 Meats, and that was only out of necessity. When he started buying whole animals in Northern California, back in the late 1990s, "it was kind of weird."
But, slowly, as diners started to ask more and more questions about where their vegetables were coming from, they began to wonder about their meat too.
"Folks just want to know more about what they're eating," he said. That caught on quickly in cities and foodie hotspots, like San Francisco. Now, there are probably a dozen to two dozen butchers in the Bay Area and maybe 50 restaurants that do some form of whole animal butchery, including all the local favorites like Fatted Calf, Avedano's, and Drewes Bros. Meats.
'Whole animal' or 'whole beast' refers to using the entire animal -- all the bits that are left after cutting out a couple of flank steaks. Some shops buy whole animals -- chickens or pigs or cows -- and do the cutting themselves. Some restaurants buy all the pieces after they've been cut by a trusted butcher. Many places instead buy a surplus of popular cuts for most of their meals, but do some entrees as whole animals or special events, such as whole pig roasts. The benefits are multi-fold, said Farr. It makes it easier to know where what you're eating came from and to track the quality from small local farmers. The taste can also be very different for animals that are stored and aged whole before being cut. And, using every single piece of an animal -- instead of throwing food out -- is important for creating a sustainable food system.
While most in-the-know diners may think of whole animal butchery as normal (or even a passing trend), that doesn't mean it's actually become mainstream yet. There's still a wealth of challenges and problems.
"You have to educate the diner, so they know they're not always getting a ribeye," said Farr. In restaurants that comes down to the waiter knowing the difference between obscure cuts of meat, and in butcher shops it means people asking questions.
There's also practical issues of money and what exactly do you do with all the parts of the animal. It can be more expensive to buy whole animals and more labor-intensive to do unique and strange cuts. And, then, you're still left over with a lot of bits.
That's why Farr is just about to release a second book on how to make sausage, because a whole lot of those bits end up becoming sausage. His first book, Whole Beast Butchery, tried to explain to the home butcher how to go about doing this themselves. Now, he's trying to help them make sausage, since that's the easiest thing to do with the leftovers if you're genuinely trying to use all of the animal.
Farr is optimistic that as more people learn about the meat they're eating (and even try some butchering themselves), whole animal butchery will go from niche market to mainstream. The challenge will be that with the majority of demand currently being met by small shops and small farms and not always enough slaughterhouses, there will have to be a growth and shift in the supply. For him the next question is how to expand beyond high-end diners. What if instead of going to Burger King, families stopped for an affordable burger from their local butcher?
"A Whopper Jr. has been $1 since I was a kid," said Farr.
A Guild Again
Farr had to do things by trial and error, but that's not true for the next batch of up-and-coming butchers. Part of the shift in the supply is coming with a growth in the number of highly-trained butchers.
Traditionally, guilds help to preserve a craft and ensure that the next generation can carry on the art. That is exactly what they're trying to do. In the last five years they've added over 200 members from all over -- the Bay Area, New York, Atlanta, Austin. The only qualification is that "you have to be doing at least some whole animal butchery," said Guggiana.
The group wanted to be inclusive and wanted to acknowledge that 100% whole animal butchery is very hard. There are lots of places, she said, that are doing 20-25% whole animal and supplementing with chicken breasts or ribeyes.
Part of what makes whole animal butchery hard -- besides needing the training and skills, which the guild is working to pass on -- is that you also need the infrastructure to support you: farmers and distributors and slaughterhouses and processing plants. Many of those things used to be in every community, much like local butcher shops used to be mainstays in each neighborhood or town, but all of that was very centralized in the last 50 years, said Guggiana. Rebuilding that infrastructure "takes money and it takes expertise," she said.
But, it's coming. It's hard to deny the unprecedented growth in whole animal butchery and the momentum building. It's important for people, and for the natural system, to have diversity, said Guggiana.
"If you just drink the fruit of the juice all the time, it becomes poison," she said.
Vertically Integrated Animals
Most whole animal butchers and restaurants that buy whole animals don't have control over where the animal is slaughtered or what happens in that process. It's part of the challenges that Guggiana sees the industry having to overcome. And, it's why some places are trying to break out on their own.
When Belcampo Meat Company began considering the business of butchery and providing whole animals to customers, they came against one big problem: slaughterhouses. Bronwen Hanna-Korpi, the president of Belcampo Meat Co., studied the food system while getting her Masters and realized one of the biggest holes in accountability comes when the ranchers and farmers drive their animals to the slaughterhouse. "Great, local places have to drive eight hours to a facility," she said. And, they don't always have control over what's happening in that facility -- as the recent Rancho Feeding Corp. recall and shutdown highlighted.
That's why when Belcampo was founded in 2011 it was founded as three integrated parts: the farm, the slaughterhouse, and the butcher shops and restaurant.
"For reasons of safety and transparency and quality, we wanted to be totally integrated," said Hanna-Korpi. It's a sentiment that any local butcher or whole animal advocate can appreciate.
The company operates two farms up near Mt. Shasta, a slaughterhouse facility that also takes orders from small local ranchers, and a restaurant in Larkspur. They're hoping that ensures that they can track the meat from start all the way to the table, which -- ideally -- means it doesn't have the same problems as some of the mass-processed and mass-produced meat.
But, Belcampo still faces all the same problems that come with dealing with whole animals. Most of the time, when butchers cut meat, they're left with trim, which gets turned into ground beef or sausage. But, that's a whole lot of ground beef that the restaurant and butcher shop would have to move. (The company doesn't do wholesale.) So, instead, they've had to be creative about how to use all the meat on the animal.
"We raise a whole cow, we have to figure out a way to move the whole animal itself," she said. That often means taking the time to do a more labor-intensive cut of an obscure piece, which is more exciting to eat and can be sold for a higher price. It also means being flexible about what gets moved from the butcher shop to the restaurant. If quail isn't selling one week out of the cases, then the restaurant may find itself delivering a quail special that weekend. And, that means the diners that come to the restaurant have to be prepared for cuts they've never heard of and menus that change frequently.
Whole animal butchery, she believes, though, is now here to stay -- at least in some form. "It's now a term that people use," she said. At least, Belcampo is banking on it being here to stay. They're opening a Los Angeles restaurant this week, to go with their Marin County restaurant, and then will open five more restaurants this year.
"Butchery is really becoming more of a craft again," she said. With the mass production of meat post-World War II, the skill was lost. Butchers, frequently, were just opening boxes and taking out patties. But, no more. Now skilled butchers are taking over shops and restaurants. Small farms are raising whole animals to be sold. A number of slaughterhouse business models are being tested. Some will be like Belcampo's, taking orders from other small local farms, and some will be like what Marin Sun Farms proposes in taking over the Rancho Feeding Corp. slaughterhouse. All these things are necessary to continue to rebuild the meat production system. And, for our part, we'll have to continue to ask questions and opt for the higher-quality, whole animal cuts -- even when it means less meat, but better meat.
Who wants to go back to eating boxed patties anyway, when they could eat hand-crafted cuts from the whole animal?