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Meat is probably the least transparent business on earth.
Our desire for cheap meat has created an industrial system that sates the American appetite of an estimated 200 pounds of meat per person each year. That’s about twice the global average. Plus, we seem to know very little about something we eat an awful lot.
The industrial meat business is predominately a closed system that takes place behind gated complexes, far from the potential consumer.
I am not against eating meat, but we should open our eyes to the true cost of cheap meat for the animal, the environment, the worker, our health and our local food economy.
This disconnect between where our food comes from is a rather recent development in human history as super markets replaced corner markets and butcher shops. Kentucky’s agricultural diversification has seen an increase in animal husbandry for meat protein, and, as we move forward, we also need to see the local processing infrastructure grow to support it. So, you can imagine my delight to have spent a day at shadowing Faulkner Meats’ butcher, George Cox and hanging out with the new owners Amy Streible and Mitchell Warren. Faulkner Meats is attempting to bring the local butcher back to the neighborhood.
We raise pastured poultry and lamb so I can attest to what goes on before processing, but I also wanted to experience the skills that turn my product into food. As a “butcher-for-the -day” I was a part of a team that put the finishing touches on three of my lambs that had been slaughtered the week before. I took responsibility for these animals from birth to death to food and I take that very seriously, and I appreciate the opportunity to participate.
Old store’s new owners
Faulkner Meats came under new ownership in January 2012, when Warren and Streible had plans to build a USDA processing facility on their farm in Brooks but a zoning despite over non-residential and non-agricultural use of the land stalled their efforts. Then owner Lynne Faulkner saw the news coverage and approached the couple about purchasing the store. From there, one family business became another’s.
Warren was raised in Brooks, hunting and processing was something he was taught early on. He is well acquainted with the technical skills needed to slaughter and process deer, goat, lamb, beef and pork, among others. As an experienced hunter he understands the nature of life and death a little differently than most of us.
While I did not witness the slaughter of any animals – it was offered but I am not quite ready for that – I did witness some sheep having their hides removed, and, as we respectfully stood by, I asked Warren if it was emotionally hard to do.
“Not to sound corny but I do pray on them every day,” he said, acknowledging a little sense of humor with your co-workers allows you to get through it. It is a manageable scale for this family, Warren’s nephews are predominately in charge of slaughter and his three daughters help out front alongside Cox and Streible.
When you walk into Faulkner Meats you may see Cox, the butcher, at the band saw cutting lamb chops. He has been a butcher for nearly 35 years. He trained at Nation’s Meats and then went on to work at Country Market in Shelbyville before going to work for Warren and Streible.
The first time I met him, I remember he commented about how good it was to be in a place where he was appreciated. As I watched him go between quartering the lamb into the four primal cuts, to the table to do trim and then to the band saw, the fluidity of his work was remarkable. They joke about what they would do if something happened to him, “we’re a dying breed,” he laughs. Renewed interest in these artisan skills has them pondering the idea of a Butcher’s College to pass on years of experience with the knife. For me, I appreciate the great product I get in the end and a very consistent one at that.
Streible is what I consider “the front of the house.” But this needs some explanation.
The business does both custom and USDA inspected work. In fact they house one of the area’s USDA regulators’ offices. According to the USDA there needs to be a separation between their retail space and their regulated work space. But this is the part I love about Faulkner Meats, you walk in and you see everyone at work. Their custom work area is for all to see in that very old-fashioned way. If you ask for your beef tenderloin to be cut you get to watch them do it. You can watch Courtney Warren, Mitchell Warren’s daughter, twist sausage or Streible wrap rabbit. In fact, Courtney Warren tells me she is an expert at three things, “shingling bacon, the foot pedal and twisting sausage.” I saw her do the latter two for my mild lamb chorizo and I agree.
Having their custom work area open to the customer brings the local butcher back into a relationship with the consumer. And here is the very thing that makes Faulkner Meats so special, and one of the hurdles they had in complying with USDA regulations, the “hidden” room that complies with USDA regulations is completely in the back and they have plans to add an additional walk-in freezer and source a higher percentage of local animals.
They are waiting for their plucker to arrive so they can do custom chicken, as well. For now they source local beef, pork and lamb and purchase boxed meats to fill the rest. Warren explained that whole animal processing is growing but there are some limitations for them. For example, they cannot keep up with rib-eye steak demand on local sources alone.
When I first met Streible, she was very impressive. A young woman in the meat business was encouraging and a service needed for my business, obviously. But this young couple and their business also breathes a little more life into Cox’s proverbial “dying breed.”
Small scale processing where the food is raised makes sense; butchering where the food is sold makes sense, making the relationship between the farm and the eater just got a little bit closer.
From carcass to retail cut
Jessie Berry and David Johnson do the slaughtering and evisceration. The carcass is then USDA inspected just before it goes into the cooler where it may hang for several days to tenderize. There the store has a railing system that facilitates the movement of the carcass through the facility.
George Cox uses a saw to quarter the lamb into primal cuts – the shoulder, rib, loin and leg. He calls this “breaking it out.”
Cox will cut lean trim for the grinder and trim fat and then move on to the band saw to cut to order for the customer – rib and loin chops, leg steaks, shanks, shoulder roasts, etc.
Courtney Warren uses the scraper to remove bone dust, and then vacuum seals and passes the retail cuts to Amy Streible who weighs and labels them.
To finish our lamb, we made some mild lamb chorizo that is put through the grinder with spices and packaged in casings. Courtney Warren uses the foot pedal to control the speed and twists the links before vacuum sealing the links.