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Virginia slaughterhouse links local meat, consumers

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP)--The T&E Meats building sits along Charles Street on the north side of Harrisonburg, one of the neighborhood's many squat, nondescript and easily-overlooked industrial buildings.

And in another sense, it sits on lonely ground as a local, federally inspected meat processing facility--an essential link between producers and consumers of animals.

"There are very few places like us left," said Joe Cloud, who bought the processing plant last summer. Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms and foodie renown, is a co-owner.

According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, there are 34 slaughterhouses in the state that, like T&E Meats, are inspected to meet federal food standards--that number excludes large poultry processors, which have separate inspection arrangements. In the seven Shenandoah Valley counties between Augusta and Clarke, there are just six such facilities.

A small barn in back serves as the first stop for the roughly 3,000 hogs, cattle, sheep and goats that get slaughtered here each year. From the barn, the animals proceed to the kill floor where they undergo the conversion from animal to meat. The meat then heads through a series of walk-in coolers before final prep on a butchering table or in a sausage grinder, and finally, on to the customers, via truck delivery, pick-up or the small T&E retail space out front.

In the company's store, Cloud said, walk-in customers can choose from a full range of fresh beef and pork cuts, fresh sausage, deli meats and cheeses. T&E Meats also sells frozen natural beef, pork and lamb. Cloud also said his company can fill large or special orders by request.

Between 60,000 and 75,000 pounds of meat per month moves through T&E Meats, Cloud said. That total includes the animals slaughtered in-house as well as a significant amount of boxed beef and pork bought on the commodity market, because demand for certain cuts--pork chops, for example--is far in excess of Cloud's capacity to meet locally.

Take the growing interest in local food from consumers, plus growing interest in reaching that market from producers, and suddenly, a place like T&E Meats isn't a holdover from a simpler time. You can't eat meat without slaughtering something, and your marketing options are seriously constrained without an inspector's seal of approval.

"These types of facilities are critical, really," said Rob Clements, owner of Misty Meadow Farm in Weyers Cave, who had 100 grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free lambs processed at T&E Meats last year.

One of the most valuable things about the place, Clements said, is the fact that the facility is USDA-inspected. That allows Clements to sell his own meat to restaurants and other consumers in Virginia and other states.

Without a nearby slaughterhouse that meets federal standards, Clements would have to pay to transport his lambs to the closest available option, or fall back on the mercy of the commodity markets and the whims of large and far-away processing facilities.

Last year, Clements sold his entire lamb crop to a northern Virginia restaurant after processing at T&E Meats, and he's planning on doing the same thing this year.

All told, Clements said, T&E Meats affords him "a wonderful opportunity to be able to market to retail establishments and end users."

Those end users are glad for the opportunity as well.

"We're lucky to have them there," said Mark Newsome, executive chef at the Joshua Wilton House and a regular customer at T&E Meats since Cloud and Salatin bought it.

Newsome said the close relationship he enjoys with the workers and owners of the facility is one of the nicest things about being a customer there. It allows him to talk directly with the butcher about the cuts he'd like for the restaurant, and conversely, T&E Meats has called him when they have something they think Newsome would be interested in. That sort of communication and flexibility isn't something that's usually possible when dealing with conventional meat wholesalers, Newsome said.

"It's nice to have someone that you can talk to and is interested in what cuts you want, and how you want the animal butchered," he said.

Judging from the response to his dishes, Newsome said his customers are likewise impressed with T&E Meats' meats.

"We're getting great feedback on a lot of the local meats," Newsome said. "So far, it's been a really positive experience."

Cloud bought T&E Meats from Tom and Erma May, who retired after running the place for the last 35 years.

"(He) is going into all-natural beef," said Tom May, who sticks around a few days a week to cook the pon hoss. "The change is what everybody wants," said May, who didn't get into natural beef himself but is glad that the new owners are.

While focusing on local, natural meats--imprecise terms that encompass numerous alternatives to the standard model of American meat production--is something that Cloud hopes to do more of in the future, he's bringing change slowly to T&E Meats.

"The majority of our sales are still conventionally-produced animals," he said.

For now, Cloud has been talking with white-tablecloth restaurants and other consumers interested in natural meats, trying to establish a reputation. If demand grows, Cloud says he'll start increasing the amount of natural meat working its way from T&E's barn to its customers. And if everything works out as planned, that nondescript building itself will grow.



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