Our Meat, Made Visible

The new Vermont Packinghouse allows visitors to observe how animals become food

Arion Thiboumery
Arion Thiboumery in front of a viewing window

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February 13 , 2015

Ironically, given that it’s the only slaughterhouse in Vermont with public viewing windows, the new Vermont Packinghouse doesn’t have a single window on the outside, save on the front door of the main office. I peered through that office window when I visited the newly opened meat plant last fall, looking for managing partner Arion Thiboumery, but all I spotted were a couple of desks strewn with files.

A few back issues of Meatpaper, the now-defunct Bay Area magazine for meat-loving hipsters, lay on a side table in the office, indicating this wasn’t your traditional Vermont slaughterhouse—the kind worked by old-time Vermonters for whom animal fabrication has been such a longstanding part of life that who needs a magazine about it?

The office door was locked, so to find Arion I circled the entire building, which is located in a light industrial park in North Springfield. The dull, massive structure, painted a pallid gray, looks more like a Soviet-era apartment complex than a meat packing plant—you’d never know that Ben & Jerry’s Peace Pops were once made there. Around the back, I eventually found an unlocked door and stumbled into a small room next to the slaughtering area—an area that in most meat plants is quite off-limits to visitors.

I spotted a sanitation worker who offered to find Arion. Eventually the 33-year-old managing partner of the plant came by, wearing bright yellow muck boots and a hair net. Arion makes up in charm for what the building lacks of it, and after greeting me cheerfully he took me on a tour of the plant and showed me what might be its most unique feature: the public viewing windows.

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“The mood was sober and respectful, but stopped short of being either sad or sentimental.”

This is how a Minneapolis blogger described her 2010 visit to what is possibly the only other slaughterhouse in America with “glass walls”—Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, Minnesota. She wrote online that during her group’s guided visit, “Most of the tour-goers were impressed with Lorentz’s dedication to both humane animal treatment and clean, safe food, and told our tour leader so as they left the room.”

One person, she went on to write, was visibly shaken by seeing activity on the kill floor, but others were parents who brought their children along, “clearly intending for them to learn the whole story of where their food comes from.”

It’s no coincidence that Lorentz Meats and Vermont Packinghouse could be the only meat plants in America with viewing windows (and there could be more; as Arion says, “I can’t imagine there aren’t other people out there who have thought this was a good idea.”) Vermont Packinghouse is co-owned by Lorentz Meats, and Arion, the other co-owner (and the plant’s “jack-of-all-trades”), worked at the Minnesota meat company for five years and became its vice president before moving to Vermont to launch the Packinghouse.

Located southeast of Minneapolis, Lorentz offers a full slate of services, just as Vermont Packinghouse does, from slaughtering to sausage production. It’s lauded for being a state-of-the-art facility that helps medium-size meat producers break into larger markets (think Price Chopper, Whole Foods).

When Lorentz staff was invited to Vermont in 2012 to give feedback on the state’s meat plants, they ended up meeting the leadership team at Black River Produce, a Springfield-based local food distribution company that, at the time, was developing its own line of New England-raised meats (now called Black River Meats). According to Sean Buchanan, president of Black River Produce, the Lorentz folks convinced Black River of the need for its own slaughter and butchering facility if it wanted to provide consistent fresh products to grocery stores. Getting a high volume of meat processed at half-a-dozen existing Vermont slaughterhouses would introduce too many variables.

Seeing an opportunity to expand its vision and ideals beyond Minnesota, Lorentz struck a deal with Black River whereby Lorentz’s new Vermont Packinghouse would lease, for 10 years, a portion of the renovated building, which Black River owns. With the $9-million project now off the ground, and a staff of 24 currently working there, the Packinghouse processes for Black River Meats, while also offering slaughtering and butchering services to local farmers who raise cows, pigs, lambs, and goats.

Uber-transparency is the norm at both the Vermont and the Minnesota facilities because the owners are serving customers of the 21st century local food movement, who expect openness about all facets of food production. Other Vermont slaughterhouses are open about their practices, too—they just don’t have windows. “In a lot of the older plants in Vermont it would be hard to make a structural change like that,” says Chelsea Bardot Lewis, business development administrator at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. But she adds that a number of local slaughterhouses would not turn away someone with a genuine interest in seeing their process.

Arion, for his part, used to be a self-described “do-gooder academic type,” having earned a PhD in rural sociology and sustainable agriculture with a minor in meat science, but he turned to more hands-on projects at Lorentz because, “At the end of the day, if new food systems are going to happen, people have to come in and run businesses.”

Especially businesses like slaughterhouses. They’re desperately needed by small-scale livestock farmers, but they’re the least understood and least attractive of places to the average local food consumer.

Click on photos for descriptive caption

According to interviews conducted for a 2014 Vermont report on consumer valuation of meat processing, a handful of local meat professionals agreed that “consumers don’t want to think about the slaughterhouse, regardless of whether it is local or not,” and they’re definitely not interested in the details of animal processing.

But for those who want to observe it—an act that can require courage and vulnerability, but that can ultimately spark greater respect for animals, for meat, and for meat industry workers—Vermont Packinghouse quietly offers the opportunity, and with some degree of pride. Says Arion: “This is a clean facility, we’ve got good animal handling, and we’re committed to having people come here…. It’s not like were running some shady operation.”

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When Arion took me back into the building, I realized that the “glass walls” were in the very room I had accidentally stumbled into earlier, just above the kill floor. The door is kept locked when it’s unattended, but anyone who calls in advance or stops by during business hours can be let in to observe, through two small windows, the process by which live animals become food: the quick shot that renders the animal desensitized to pain; the hoisting of the animal by its legs, so it can bleed out; the splitting of the carcass; the removal of the hide and the insides.

No animals were being slaughtered on the day I visited, but on a second visit I watched a large veal calf from Lisa Kaiman’s Jersey Girls Farm in Chester going through the process. The chute in which the cattle are stunned has very high metal sides to keep critters from getting stressed, and there are bars at the top to prevent the more jittery ones from jumping out, so you can’t actually see into the chute from the public viewing area. (With the pig chute, you can.) But you can watch the person doing the job, and on the day of my visit, that person was Cory LaCroix, the foreman on the kill floor.

After he guided Lisa’s calf into the chute, it was less than 30 seconds before he managed to quiet the animal enough to place the captive bolt gun to its forehead and immediately desensitize it to pain. The animal did writhe, but Arion explained that this is because the cells and nerves in the individual muscles of an animal can remain active for two hours after death, even though the central nervous system is no longer living. (Workers confirm whether a stun was successful by touching the animal’s eye—if the animal doesn’t flinch, the stun was a success.)

The calf was then shackled by its hooves and hoisted upside down. As “Sweet Home Alabama” played on a radio, Cory and other workers bled out the carcass, split it in two, and removed the hide. Arion likes to say the Packinghouse uses “everything but the moo,” so the hide would go to JC Rendering out of New York State, the insides would be turned into offal, and anything not given back to the farmer would be rendered and turned into pet food.

Beyond the kill floor there are massive coolers in which carcasses hang for their allotted number of days. There are processing rooms in which meat is trimmed, turned into sausage, or aged. There is a smokehouse, fired by hickory and maple chips, and sophisticated packaging equipment. Beyond all that is a massive freezer shared by Black River’s seafood division.

Outside, there are holding pens for the animals that were designed by Temple Grandin’s firm, so they meet the high standards that Grandin, a pioneer in humane livestock handling, has set. High walls and a horseshoe design keep animals calm as they walk through. The plant is approved for use by Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) farmers for the slaughter of beef cattle and pigs from AWA farms.

As I spoke with Arion after observing the processing of the veal calf, Cory came walking into the observation room. I pointed to the viewing windows and asked, “Is it weird to have people watching you as you work? “Naw,” he said. “This isn’t our first tour comin’ through!”

 

Indeed, since the plant opened last fall, the largest tours have consisted of a few dozen students from Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester and UVM’s certificate program in food hub studies. But visitors have also included farmers who want to observe the facility that will bring their animals’ lives to an end.

“My whole thing is, I want the best start for them and the best life and the best end—then I know I’ve done my job as a responsible farmer,” says Lisa Kaiman, who is well-known in farming circles for totally babying her animals. “So to find someplace that has also thought through that whole process is really important.”

Lisa used to take her big, stout calves to the Royal Butcher in Braintree—a slaughter facility that is also approved for use by AWA farmers for beef cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and welcomes visitors. But though she praises Royal’s, it is two hours from her farm, while Vermont Packinghouse is just 10 minutes away. Also appealing was the fact that the Packinghouse has a sausage link machine and was able to make Lisa’s custom recipe for veal sausage—which she now sells in food co-ops throughout the state.

 

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Vermont Packinghouse isn’t the only new slaughterhouse on the Vermont food scene. Northeast Kingdom Processing in Lyndonville recently opened, the Adams Farm in Wilmington launched last year, and Westminster Meats is a relative newcomer at five years old. Plus, there is new ownership at Over the Hill (now Maple Ridge Meats) in Benson.

According to the Ag Agency’s Chelsea Bardot Lewis, what the Packinghouse represents, with its state-of-the-art facility and close partnership with Black River Meats, is a statewide move toward greater collaboration between meat producers (the farmers and food companies) and meat processors (the slaughterhouse owners and butchers). In Vermont’s small meat plants, Chelsea says, “processors are more in touch with what’s going on at farmers’ markets and what the end user wants, and producers are realizing there are skilled meat cutters across Vermont with whom they can create deeper partnerships…. We’re definitely seeing greater professionalism and customer service.”

In the meantime, the daily work that goes into putting humanely raised, ethically slaughtered, beautifully cut, delicious meat onto our tables goes on, all of it very much on display at Vermont Packinghouse.

As I left the small observation room from where I had observed my first industrial slaughter, I spotted a small sign that said photography of the processing area was not allowed—which made sense. It’s always better to see new things with your own eyes.

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