Sunnyside Meats: The Sunnier Side of Meat Processing

By Zack Bukovich, Environmental Center Local Food Fellow

Sunnyside meat

Working as a Local Food Fellow for the Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College, I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity of getting up close and personal with many of La Plata County’s diverse and successful producers.  This summer alone I have had the pleasure of walking the long rows of Mike Nolan’s Mountain Roots Farm, touring the various garden plots beneath the dueling buttes at Twin Buttes Farm; and I have even been towed around in an old wagon by none other than Dave James himself as I received a detailed, behind the scenes look at the practices that make James Ranch successful and sustainable.

This week however, marked a shift in my escapades into the country.  This time I exchanged the sunshine and cool breeze for fluorescent lights and air conditioning, my ragged work clothes for a long white smock and a hairnet, for this week I visited Sunnyside Meats.  Though it may sound like an unappealing change, my visit to Sunnyside Meats had been long anticipated.  For good reason of course; Sunnyside is an essential piece to the local food puzzle here in La Plata County.  Having a USDA certified meat processing facility has made small-scale meat production affordable and reasonable for ranchers in the area.  Without it, most ranchers and farmers would have to drive the 200 miles to Monticello, Utah to get their livestock processed.  For some farmers who harvest their livestock weekly during the high season, this would severely cut into their profit margin, making it nearly impossible to sustain their farming practices.

This lack of locality was, as owner Holly Zinc relayed to us, severely harming the farmers in the area, and many began to consider dropping the occupation altogether. As a longtime supporter of local agriculture, Holly’s father recognized this problem and began working towards a solution.  Being the engineer and innovator that he was, Holly’s father made the decision to invest his time and effort locally, where he worked to design Sunnyside Meats.  And coincidently enough, as time went on, Holly began to take an interest in the business.  After attending CU Boulder, working in the meat department of a local Boulder grocery store and auditing the meat sciences program at Colorado State, Holly herself had developed an interest, as well as the skills and knowledge to take over and develop Sunnyside.  Eventually, in a mutual agreement between father and daughter, Holly took over the business where she still stands today.

This was the introduction Paula, my fellow Local Food Fellow, and myself were given when we sat down at Holly’s desk to learn the preliminaries before setting out on the tour.  After this debriefing, we were taken out to where it all begins, the ‘drop off’.  Here the livestock are dropped off and shuttled into the corrals that eventually lead to the killing floor.  These corrals, however, are not your average corrals, for they have been specifically engineered and designed by Holly’s father to operate cleanly and efficiently, while also providing comfort and ease of access for the livestock.  The corrals are lined with water that flows out of thick pipes as drinking water for the livestock, and the doors of the corrals are designed to mimic that of a revolving door so that one can control the direction of the livestock by revolving the door instead of using harmful methods of shocking and prodding.  Along with this, there is plenty of room for the livestock to move around, for Sunnyside makes a point of not crowding the corrals.

After moving through the drop off, we were brought to the heart of the action, the ‘killing floor’.  Now, I will say that this room is the most difficult to enter if one is squeamish…There are carcasses being skinned, organ meats being examined and of course this is where the livestock are slaughtered.  However, despite this, the room is exceptionally clean and surprisingly free of unpleasant odors. There are three to four workers in this room, three of whom rotate between slaughtering, skinning and processing the meat, while another, the USDA certified inspector, inspects the meats to ensure that they are free from any abnormalities or diseases.  Coincidently enough, while we watching these workers hurrying this way and that, clad in their long white frock coats, a cow was lead into the room to be slaughtered.

Now, I will admit that upon entering the facility, I was a little wary about seeing a slaughtering.  However, once I was on the killing floor, learning the stages and processes behind harvesting livestock I thought; why should I turn my head from such a crucial step in the process?  If I am going to eat meat and gain a full understanding of our local food system, I might as well face the reality of the process, no matter how gory.  So I did, and to be honest, it wasn’t as bad as I had made it out to be.  The actual slaughtering is very quick, and for the most part, painless for the animal.  It all begins with bringing the animal in to a closed coral so the butcher can get close enough to stun the animal accurately and precisely-to ensure that the animal feels no pain.  The stun gun when placed correctly, quickly inserts a rod into the brain of the animal, rendering it in insensible.  When this happens, the animal immediately loses all sense of feeling and cognitive ability, and therefore loses control of its limbs.  It drops down to the ground and the butcher quickly ties up its ankles up to a big chain that hoists the animal off the ground to be weighed and transported.  The animal is then placed over a trash bin where it is quickly cut and bled out.  At this point, the slaughtering of the animal is complete, and it is moved down the line to be further processed.  Like I said, it is a rather quick process, the entirety of it lasting between five and ten minutes.

Following the slaughter, we were led into the ‘aging cooler’.  Which is exactly that, it is a giant refrigerated room, where the processed carcasses are hung to properly age.  This enhances the quality and taste of the meat, and makes for a pretty scary place to play hide and seek!  When in the room, one has to almost shoulder between the rows of carcasses, needless to say, I was very glad that I was wearing my hairnet and long white frock coat.  After the aging cooler, we were taken to the final stages of processing, where the body of the animal is fabricated or cut into primal (major) or subprimal (minor) cuts for variability[1] (think short ribs, rib eye, flank steak, etc.) and then packaged.  In these varying rooms, they have multiple butchers working on the various cuts, distributing them into different bins that eventually work their way into the ‘packaging section’.

We looked only briefly into the packaging section, however we were able to take a good look at Sunnyside’s state of the art packaging machine.  This packaging machine efficiently packages a good portion of Sunnyside’s cuts into air sealed plastic packaging that allows the customer to actually see the product they are buying, instead of it being hidden behind layers of paper wrap.   This viewing of the packaging machine concluded our tour and our in depth view into the processes behind meat processing.

Thinking it over, processing meat is a dirty profession.  But like all professions, someone has to do it.  And as a citizen who values responsible practices that promote the welfare of the environment, the community and sentient beings, I could not choose a better organization than Sunnyside Meats to do the dirty work of feeding our local community.

[1] “meat processing”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 15 Aug. 2016