In order to be packaged for sale, each animal must receive a USDA-certified stamp. Only farmers who just want cuts of their own livestock for personal use can legally forgo that inspection (and pay a slightly lower rate.)
Once the animals are butchered into the cuts requested by the producer, Sunnyside immediately shrink-wraps them for distribution or sale. Their optional services also include ground meats, sausages, and smoked preparations.
Here, Zink shows me one of his sausage preparations—in this case from livestock he himself purchased—packaged for sale at the Sunnyside Market operated by his daughter, Holly.
Sunnyside Floor Plan
The full layout of the slaughterhouse, from the livestock pens to the freezers where Zink stores his prepared foods.
I swung over to Sunnyside Market to meet Holly and see the other side of the Zinks' business. Here, a dry-aged hind quarter of beef, soon to be custom butcher cuts for market customers. The store also serves up prepared foods, from house-cured bacon to beef jerky to sausages. Buying ground meat? Sunnyside Market can tell you what cuts they used and guarantee they're from a single cow—a far cry from the 55-1,082 animals you can expect to find in your average fast food patty.
Upon arrival, livestock are herded along a sloped wall into these pens, where they receive food, water, and a medical inspection to ensure they're in good health. The lighting and spatial organization is designed to help keep the animals calm.
The stone floor of the holding pen is deeply grooved. The design is one of Temple Grandin's, expressly engineered to limit slipping and injury—she observed unstable footing to be one of the greatest causes of stress and anxiety among cattle. At this point, roughly 50% of American packing plants have implemented Grandin's model for humane slaughter.
Holding pen walls
The pens are also surrounding on all sides by barriers designed to shield livestock from any potentially startling movements. Dr. Grandin found that cattle were far less likely to exhibit signs of stress when passersby or rapid movements were outside their range of sight—insight gained from her own challenges with visual and auditory stimuli.
Cattle squeeze chute
Sunnyside requires that animals enter the chute voluntarily—no prodding, shocking, or dragging. The door at the end of this shoot leads directly to the holding pens; when it opens, the livestock instinctively head into the brightly lit room—one of the reasons why the pens are kept in relatively low light.
The chute is then adjusted to place pressure on the animal's sides. This serves to both calm and still them—something that Grandin noted in her youth, leading to her similarly modeled hug machine.
Captive bolt pistol
This device, more commonly referred to as a cattle gun, delivers a powerful blow to the animal's forehead that immediately renders it unconscious. Administered correctly, it ensures that the animal will feel no pain during exsanguination.
The harvest floor
Once unconscious, the animal is released from the chute and lifted on this hook by its hind quarters. On the harvest, or "kill floor," a knife is used to sever the carotid artery and jugular vein and the animal is left to bleed out into the barrels pictured in the background.
Next, the animal's head, feet, hide, and internal organs are removed. Exsanguinated, the steer will retain roughly 60% of its live weight.
The organs are laid out for close examination by the USDA inspector, who looks for any irregularities or signs of illness.
In an effort to make their operation as sustainable as possible, Zink tries to find even these parts a home—even if that means donating to school science labs.
Jerry Zink demonstrates how the carcasses are broken down. Hanging from a suspension system, cattle are split in two, hogs butterflied open, and sheep left intact. They're also washed of any potential contaminants; Sunnyside uses an environmentally friendly spray of boiling water, as well as a solution of vinegar and hydrogen peroxide. At this stage, the carcasses are again examined by the USDA inspector before being cleared to proceed farther down the line.
Steel ceiling tracks wind through the building. Each carcass is hoisted and attached on the harvest floor; they can then be moved without further handling into the chill cooler, where they're brought to the standard temperature range of 46-48º F.
Meanwhile, hides are stacked and stored for sale to tanners. Zink tells me that uncured, they sell for only about $40 each.
Once the carcasses have reached regulation temperatures, they're moved into the holding cooler. Zink ages beef according to customer preference—anywhere from 14-21 days—but sheep and hogs are butchered and packaged much more promptly.
Each animal has a yellow tag that allows Sunnyside to track the producer and date of slaughter.