By Pamela Hess, Photos by Molly McDonald Peterson
Respect for animals, workers, guides Blue Ridge Meats
This animal, a small black heifer, backs into the only chute in the kill room. Her rump is where her head needs to be, so a Blue Ridge animal handler alights on the railing and clucks his tongue, gently urging her to turn. She circles obediently and places her head in the collar. It locks in place. Another handler smoothly presses a .22 bolt gun to her forehead and pulls the trigger.
There is a pop. Her body sags against the railing; she is instantly brain dead, although her heart beats a short while longer. Her eyeball is touched to confirm unresponsiveness. The journey from straw-lined pen to death takes just seconds. It is marked by quiet respect – for the humans who carry out this bloody work, for the customers who entrust them with their animals, and for the beasts themselves. Many walk into the slaughterhouse with names, straddling the line between pet and product.
Americans eat almost 200 pounds of meat per person every year. Most will never see an animal slaughtered. If they do, it will probably not be a kill like this one.
A nearby commercial slaughterhouse is capable of dispatching 1,900 head of cattle every day. The USDA’s humane guidelines allow them to use electric prods to force animals into kill tunnels where an electric shock or carbon dioxide gas is administered to render a state of “surgical anesthesia” en masse, before they are bled and butchered.
It is a grim process, and the hidden cost of eating meat. But there is nothing hidden at Blue Ridge Meats. “We treat the animals with dignity,” says Doug Aylestock, who with his wife Lois opened the operation in 2006.
The butcher’s processing room is completely on view to passersby behind a plate-glass window; white-coated men expertly cut sides of beef into steaks and chops and roasts for some of the finest restaurants in D.C.
Customers and clients are welcomed into the kill room if they want to be there; Blue Ridge is proud of its work and the standards it adheres to, which exceed the USDA’s humane guidelines. Blue Ridge processes a maximum of 20 animals a day. “I’ve been in other slaughter plants,” says Doug. “We’re not about numbers.”
Lois, a former cosmetics executive, won’t go on the floor during the moment of a kill, though she is in and out of the room at other times. “I am the biggest hypocrite you’ll meet,” she says, acknowledging the irony of a slaughterhouse owner who can’t bear witness to the death of an animal.
The kill is entrusted to Ryan Davidson, 20. He has worked at Blue Ridge Meats for eight months. He admits to it being “a little difficult” because he loves animals.
Some family and friends have given him a hard time for his work. “But it has to be done,” he says. He’s proud of what Blue Ridge Meats stands for. Those who criticize him “don’t know how their meat is raised, how it’s handled, if it’s mistreated. I try to explain it to them, that at least if they bought it here, they would know.”
Ryan did not start on the kill floor. He was an animal handler, tending the beasts in the clean outdoor pens where they are held for no more than 24 hours and often much less. Doug liked the compassion Ryan showed the animals and asked if he would take care of their final moments. “We’re lucky to have him,” says Lois. “It takes a really special person to do this job.” “I’m lucky to be here,” Ryan says.
Out of respect for each animal and the workers, the slick floor is cleaned between kills. “I don’t like my boys walking around in it,” says Doug, the esteem and affection he holds for his employees evident. A clean room reduces stress not just on the employees but on the animals. It’s not just kind; heightened stress causes the animal to release cortisol and that affects the taste of the meat.
Blue Ridge Meats is a Certified Humane retailer of locally raised hormone– and antibiotic-free beef, chicken, lamb, and fresh pork. Ham and bacon are smoked on site, and Doug hand makes more than 10 kinds of sausage. Sides of beef are dry aged from two weeks up to 52 days, depending on the client’s wishes. Dry aging naturally tenderizes the meat, and it is an art; Doug watches the process closely because every side of beef responds to aging differently. Blue Ridge opens its doors every Friday—known as “Fresh Friday”—to sell local-only products from farmers with whom Doug and Lois have strong relationships.
The ethics that guide the company emanate from Doug, a hunter since childhood. “I’ve always had huge respect for animals. Animals are put here for a reason. Deer, bison, elk, sheep—they were put here to consume. But I’m a hunter, a conservationist. That’s what got us into humane slaughtering,” explains Doug.
Formerly the front man for a rock band and a demolitions expert, he has been cleaning and butchering deer for other hunters since 1983. He also apprenticed at Tyson’s Locker Plant in Tysons Corner, Va., learning his skills from master butchers. Lois was originally a city girl from Annapolis. “I thought it was horrible to kill. I didn’t eat a lot of meat,” she says of life before Doug. “My life went a totally different path.” In 1992 she began helping Doug market his Sterling, Va., deer processing business; they were ultimately handling 1,500 deer annually. Life took another turn in 1997 when she and Doug bought 20 acres in Berryville, Va., and Doug brought home three sheep as a gift, intending them as show animals. Sheep being sheep, their flock quickly grew.
They got one of their lambs processed, but Doug was unhappy with the quality of the butchering. He could do better. Blue Ridge Meats of Front Royal opened its doors in 2006. “Today, we offer the best possible food from the best possible farms,” says Lois. That includes their own, but Lois has put her foot down on at least three of her flock. Mindy, Marlene, and Cotton will never leave her land.
Blue Ridge Meats
2391 Guard Hill Road,
Middletown, VA 22645
Pam Hess is the editor of Flavor Magazine.