To start fast without getting bogged down—even before the co-op formally took shape—Sacred Heart started buying whole cattle and then whole hogs and whole chickens, rather than insist on buying just the cuts and parts that are affordable and most useful in the hospital's menu, such as large orders of stew meat and ground beef. The animals are slaughtered and butchered at local processors, then delivered by freezer truck. Little by little, Beckler worked with Anderson and the coalescing co-op on cuts, sizes and packaging that make things easier on the hospital's kitchen staff.
The co-op has signed up seven small meat processors, four of which handle beef. The smallest is Indee Meat & Locker Service in Independence, Wis., population 1,250, give or take.
“The buyer needs to understand that things in the small-scale world are different,” says Anderson, who arranged a visit to Indee, as well as two farms, including Lorch's. At Indee, animals are slaughtered on Thursdays, one at a time. Industry giants Cargill, Tyson Foods and JBS—which together account for two-thirds of U.S. beef production—slaughter thousands of cattle a day in single plants.
Velma Gallagher, the matriarch of the family-owned meat processor, says she and her husband bought the facility 56 years ago. From the street, the business she, her son and daughter still run half a century later looks like a modest-size house. Quite a few of the cattle that come through Indee now end up in meals served to the patients and staff at Sacred Heart. “We've already processed 44 beef for the hospital co-op, and we have No. 45 hanging in the cooler,” says Gallagher's daughter, LouAnn Rebarchek.
Volunteering to show how the slaughtering happens, Gallagher gets up from a desk by the front door and hustles through the cutting room, the slaughter room, and into a dark space at the back of the building.
“The beef come in here,” she says, pointing to a large sliding door at the back of the room aglow in dim yellow light.
The animals move through a series of wood-plank stock pens and finally through a gate into the knocking pen, where they're stunned, falling and rolling under a heavy revolving grate and onto the slaughter-room floor. Her son, Randy Gallagher, and the hired staff—increased for slaughter days to two men from one—then attach shackles to the animal and hoist it toward the ceiling, drain its blood into a barrel, and then lower it into a cradle to complete the skinning and remove the innards, preparing for the carcass to be halved, quartered and moved on gambrels into the cooler.
Throughout the process a state inspector makes sure nothing touches the floor and checks the glands and organs for disease or contamination. The beef and packaging bear the inspector's stamp.
At the hospital, Beckler repeats several times that the meat is inspected just like meat bought through any large-scale food supplier, clearly sensitive to the possibility that someone might fear that the food the hospital buys from small producers and processors is less safe. In fact, the hospital sees better food safety and security as benefits of the project. During a salmonella outbreak in 2008, he says, it took investigators several months to track the infections in 43 states through U.S. distributors and finally to jalapeno and serrano peppers grown in Mexico.
Sacred Heart, in contrast, knows that each tube of ground beef came from a single animal and knows where and how that animal was raised. Beckler also notes that the hospital's local food supply would remain stable in the event of an epidemic or catastrophe that interrupted interstate commerce.
Producers and processors that sign up for the co-op promise to employ growing practices and animal husbandry that's good for the land, good for the animals and good for the people who eat the food. The buyers, in turn, agree to pay a price that reflects the cost of producing food that lives up to those standards plus a small profit. Buyers also agree to be flexible if certain products or quantities aren't available when they want them, filling the gaps through other suppliers.
The standards include that livestock must have access to fresh air, space and pasture. “We have certain guidelines for our members—how they raise their animals, how they feed them,” Lorch says. “They basically are certifying they're not feeding animal parts. They're not feeding hormones; they're not using implants,” he explains, referring to the common practice of implanting growth hormones at the base of the ear in beef cattle. “They're not feeding continuous antibiotics, and any of this type of thing the industry does today.”
Growers declare that they only use pesticides and herbicides approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for organic crops, although they aren't required to be certified as organic. They're also required to follow USDA guidelines intended to mitigate the risk of food-borne illness. Farmers and processors applying to sell through the co-op pay a $50 fee to cover the cost of a visit “to more or less inspect their premises and to see if they're doing what they say they're doing,” Lorch says.
At Deutsch Family Farm in Arcadia, Wis., hogs spend some of their time outside on a pasture and otherwise in pens with deep beds of straw that allow them to root around, as is their nature, compared with the conventional practice of raising hogs on slotted concrete floors over manure pits. Jim and Alison Deutsch raise about 200 pigs a year. She's now sending one to be processed for Sacred Heart once every three weeks. Their chickens—they're raising a brood of 125 right now, all for Sacred Heart—have access to an ample yard, where they can feast on the grass.