October 2009
From the State Vet's Office

Custom Not For Sale

Let’s get this over with right off the bat. All of you who have ever rendered lard, raise your hand please. Very good. I noticed there were very few hands that went up from people under 50 years old.

I vaguely remember that old black iron pot over the fire cooking that hog fat into grease. Then when the grease was cooled, you had lard…and cracklings.

Interestingly, there were a lot of you older than 50 who raised your hands. Fifty-plus years ago it was fairly common for people to raise their own hog to kill. Then everyone had their job in processing the meat. You know, my kids don’t even know what it means when I say, "It feels like hog-killing weather." But that was another time. We mostly buy our meat at the grocery store now.

Notice I said we "mostly" buy our meat at the grocery store. There are still those of you who fatten a calf or a top hog, take it to a local slaughter house and take it home to fill up the freezer. Now I’m not one who thinks we are getting fed "who knows what" in the meat we buy. In fact, I think the meat we buy is extremely safe, wholesome and free of hormones and antibiotics. Believe me, there is a lot more testing going on than most people are aware of. (How did I get off on that?) Anyway what I want to say is the quality of home-raised beef or pork is simply hard to beat. When I eat with someone who is serving up "custom-processed meat," I can certainly tell the difference.

That brings me to the point of my article, which is "custom-processed meat." Over the years, and even now, there is some confusion accompanying custom-processed meat. Hopefully, in a few minutes when you turn the page, you will be an expert on what is encompassed by the exemption given in the Federal Meat Inspection Act for custom-processed meat. To start, we need to know in Alabama the Department of Agriculture and Industries regulates the Meat Inspection program from my office and is directed daily by a Director of Meat Inspection, Dr. Terry Slaten. Meat is processed in one of three categories. First, if you own the animal, you can pretty much kill and process your own meat like you used to do 50 or 60 years ago. There are not any regulations governing this type of processing. However, if you own a goat and live in an apartment complex in some city, you could get some heartburn from the local authorities. But if you’re doing something like that, you’re probably not a stranger to the local authorities anyway. So, if you live out on the farm and have a fat hog you want to kill and process next winter, you will not have a problem with us if you keep the meat at home and don’t sell it.

Another category of slaughter is "inspected slaughter and processing." All of the meat we buy falls under the inspected slaughter category and most of it falls under inspected processing, although most of the cutting and grinding going on in a grocery store falls under the jurisdiction of the local health department. The establishment operating under inspection adheres to a strict bunch of regulations. Either state or federal inspection personnel assure strict sanitation standard operating procedures are in place and are being adhered to. The establishments must also have a document called a HACCP plan breaking down every step in slaughtering or processing and implements steps to reduce pathogens (germs that can cause foodborne illnesses). In fact, more and more microbiological testing is being done to make sure meat processed under inspection is safe.

Finally, the third category is custom slaughter and inspection. The custom exemption allows a slaughter and processing establishment to charge for his or her services, yet many of the regulations governing "inspected" meat do not come into play. The Federal Meat Inspection Act basically says "custom" applies to an animal of a person’s own raising to be consumed by the owner, his or her household and their non-paying guests. All products, carcasses and parts like quarters must be stamped or labeled "CUSTOM NOT FOR SALE." And strangely enough, that means this meat cannot be sold. We do, on occasion, get complaints from someone who has purchased custom meat and they are surprised they were able to purchase meat that by regulation cannot be sold. I wonder what they think "not for sale" means. A new Federal Directive just came out also making it clear a custom product cannot be donated.

Does that mean if you do not raise cattle or hogs, you cannot have animals custom slaughtered and processed? If a farmer has steers or hogs he wishes to sell to be custom slaughtered, the animals must be sold "on the hoof." In fact, two people may buy a live animal from the producer and have it custom slaughtered and processed. Or four people may have the animal quartered. The problem comes when that fourth quarter is not sold "on the hoof." Once the animal is slaughtered the meat cannot be sold…period.

Custom establishments are held to the same sanitation requirements as an inspected plant. They do not, however, have to have a sanitation standard operating procedure document. Neither do they have to have a HACCP plan. Custom plants, for the most part, are not required to perform microbiological testing. Custom establishments are under the jurisdiction of either state or federal meat inspection programs and they must adhere to some strict requirements. We often have people asking us what the score is for certain meat establishments. The fact is we do not score these establishments like the health department does. If the establishment meets the strict requirements, they are open and allowed to operate. If they fail to adhere to those requirements, they are not allowed to operate.

I am fortunate to work for a Commissioner of Agriculture who also takes food safety seriously. We all watch the news and know the stakes can be high. Just remember, if it says "custom not for sale," you can’t buy it and Mr. Producer, you can’t sell it. That said, if any of you want to invite my family and me over for some custom-processed steaks from a steer you raised, just give me a call and I will do my best to be there.