Chop Shop

Behind the Scenes at the UA Animal Sciences Meat Sale

Heather Hoch

There's no pretty way to slaughter and butcher an animal, but there is a way to do it as humanely as possible. That's the way that Sam Garcia and his team of students and workers at the UA Animal Sciences department seek to go.

Every Friday, Garcia and a crew of about five to six people butcher and package meat to sell at the department's meat sale, which runs from 3 until 6 p.m. Although the program itself has been around for decades, students each year learn the importance of food safety and preparation through harvesting and manufacturing programs including butchery and making bacon, pastrami, carne asada, sausages and more.

Meats butchered and prepared at the school are sold at the Food Conspiracy Co-Op and served at restaurants like 5 Points Market, The Coronet and Proper.

Although Garcia grew up on a ranch in northern Mexico, he didn't take to the family business until later in his life.

"I wanted to be a cowboy, but my dad didn't have enough space for that," he says.

He took a few years of community college and eventually settled into a veterinary program. While an undergraduate, Garcia worked in the same facility he spends his days chopping up rib eye and skirt steaks now. Garcia decided at that time that he no longer wanted to pursue a veterinary career, instead getting a master's and then eventually a PhD in Animal Sciences at the UA.

With his early years on a cattle ranch and the last five years teaching at the university, when it comes to beef—Garcia is your man. That's why buzzwords like grass-fed and factory farming don't really faze him. In fact, the concept of a factory farm doesn't exactly connect with what he's seen in the industry.

"No matter what, a cow has transferred probably about eight owners before it gets to you," he says, citing the ranch, seller, stocker, feed lot, packing and commercial elements to cattle sales.

Although Garcia grew up on grass-fed beef, he says he sees benefits to both and even prefers the flavor of grain-fed beef now. The difference, he says, lies in musculature and fat. Grain-fed cattle build muscle and fat quicker, which typically makes them larger, but also allows for more marbling in the meat. He says the flavor of grass-fed beef changes, depending on where the cattle were raised and what grasses they were eating.

"Grass-fed is only more popular because of the media," Garcia says. "It's like some weeks we sell out of tri-tip because someone says it's the best cut and then the next week it'll be skirt steak."

However, the buzzwords and trends and fads aren't what get to Garcia—it's the misunderstanding.

"People don't want to associate a face with their steak," he says.

If you're one of those people, you should probably stop reading. If you, instead, want to be aware of what happens to the cow that made the steak you enjoy so you can be a more conscious consumer, read on.

The cattle and goats that come to the Animal Sciences school are raised at a university-owned ranch near Flagstaff, though the crew also does a fair amount of custom butchery work for StarBar Ranch and Sky Island Ranch. The school also owns a feed lot to get animals to weight before slaughtering. Once they're ready to be slaughtered, they're sent down to the facility, located at 4181 N. Campbell Ave. Some of the cows that were slaughtered recently were about 700 or 800 pounds at just 18 months old.

Once in the facility, cows are lined up and walked into a metal pen. A worker takes a special .22 caliber gun that's equipped with a rod, and, well, I said it wasn't pretty, but the cow dies instantly because of that rod shooting directly into the brain. At this point, it's probably best to start calling the cow what the workers and students do—beef.

The beef head is removed and examined by a USDA representative to make sure it is healthy for consumption. While that's happening, the team has the body hoisted by the hind legs up on a rotating line. It's cut open and the innards (or offal, if you're fancy) are removed and again examined by a USDA official to ensure quality. Once given the okay, the hide is removed, which is later sold to leather makers. The team then takes the healthy carcass and cuts it into two equal pieces, placing them in a refrigerated room where they age for two weeks to develop flavor.

Once the two-week period is up, Garcia and his crew spray the carcass with lactic acid to get rid of bacteria and then use a host of specialized knives and saws to parcel out the meat into cuts people are used to buying. Almost everything gets used in this process, aside from excess fats and small bones. However, larger bones are actually the meat sale's most requested item for bone marrow and stocks. Each half-carcass takes a crew of about five to six workers and students 45 minutes to an hour to chop and package. The process of seeing something go from very animal-like still to perfect cuts of marbled steak is oddly kind of beautiful, or, at least, informative.

"It's not just chopping," he says. "You have to know just how to cut and slice and where."

Garcia and his team do this from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m., clean up in a refrigerated room. On meat sale days, Garcia is there from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.

"We're in the cold at least six hours a day. Not everyone likes it," Garcia says. "It's loud and it's bloody and there's guts."

However, if you're interested in the art of butchery, he says the school offers a certification program for $2,400, which includes 640 hours of on-the-job training. He also will give anyone a tour of the facility and any of its processes, even groups of elementary school kids, with one caveat.

"I'll show anyone how it works," he says and pauses for a smile. "If they have a good attitude, that is."

You can always just stop by the UA Meat Sale on Fridays from 3 until 6 p.m. to get some finely butchered meats, without seeing behind the scenes, too.

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