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Meatcutters and Meat Packers

The Job

Meatcutters receive animal carcasses in refrigerated trucks from food distributors. For easier handling, the carcasses have already been cut into sides or quarters at the meatpacking plant or central distribution center before shipping. Meatcutters first divide the carcasses into rounds, loins, and ribs, and then into serving-size portions such as roasts, steaks, and chops. Less expensive cuts and meat trimmings are cut into pieces for stewing or ground into hamburger. Meatcutters try to cut everything that can be sold or in some way used into appropriate sizes. About two-thirds of a cow can be processed as beef cuts; another one-fourth can be processed as ground beef, and about 8 percent of a cow can be used for cold-cut-type products.

The large sides of beef are stored in refrigerated rooms until they are ready to be cut and packaged. In their work, meatcutters use special tools such as band saws, power cutters, butcher knives, cleavers, and electric grinders to divide animal carcasses into smaller portions. Meats intended for sale in food outlets and meat markets must then be weighed, priced, labeled, and graded according to government standards. Meatcutters also place the meat in trays, wrap the trays in plastic, and fill display cases with them.

In retail stores, meatcutters are often called butchers. They are responsible for displaying the food properly, waiting on customers, and cutting orders to meet special needs. They may also filet fish, dress poultry, make sausage, and pickle meats. Other important aspects of the job include selecting meats from wholesale distributors, keeping accurate records, and maintaining adequate inventory. Some meatcutters specialize as chicken or fish butchers.

In hotels and restaurants, meatcutters are usually referred to as meat butchers. Their duties involve preparing both large quantities and individual portions of meat. They may also estimate the amount of meat they need, order meat supplies, inspect and store meat upon delivery, and keep records. A head butcher has the responsibility of supervising the work of other butchers. To lessen the work of kitchen staff, many hotel and restaurant kitchens now buy their meats already cut into portions.

Other related occupations include schactos, who slaughter meat according to Jewish dietary laws; halal slaughterers, who slaughter meat according to Muslim dietary laws; and all-around butchers, and meat dressers, who work in slaughterhouses killing animals and preparing carcasses. This type of work resembles an assembly line more than a butcher's kitchen.

The type of work that meatpacking workers perform depends on their skill level and the size of the plant in which they work. Skilled workers are relied on to kill, dress, cut, and cure meats, while unskilled workers perform most of the heavy labor and less complicated tasks. In small plants workers may perform a variety of tasks, while in large plants jobs are more specialized.

First, workers must slaughter the animals. Today, following the federal standards established by the 1958 Humane Slaughter Act, they use humane methods that do not cause the animals pain. To begin, workers called stunners admit a certain number of animals from a large yard into a pen, where the stunners use electric prods, carbon dioxide, or cartridge-firing devices to knock the animals unconscious quickly. Shacklers then chain the animals' hind legs to hoists or conveyors that suspend them above the killing floors for slaughtering. Animal stickers then cut the carotid arteries of the unconscious animals and let the blood drain from the carcasses. Poultry is killed in almost the same way. Poultry hangers shackle and suspend live poultry from conveyors, and poultry killers sever the birds' jugular veins with a knife as they pass on the conveyors overhead.

Before butchering, workers remove the hair, hide, or feathers from the animals. Steamers spray steam on suspended hog carcasses to remove hair and dirt, while dehairing-machine tenders do the same thing with scalding water. Singers use torches to singe hair from hog carcasses. Shavers use knives and scrapers to remove dirt and hair from hog carcasses and prepare them for further processing. Skinners remove the hides of cattle, hog, and sheep carcasses using knives, while hide pullers remove hides using machines.

Poultry-picking machine operators use machines that remove the feathers of slaughtered poultry. They then scald the birds, wash them, and prepare them for butchering. Poultry dressers ready chickens for marketing.

After hides are removed, hide trimmers remove any fat, viscera, or ragged edges. Depilatory painters paint sheep skins with chemicals to loosen wool. Wool pullers remove wool from the pelts, sort the wool into bins according to color, texture, and length; and scrape the hides until they are free from hair.

Gambrelers and their helpers use what are called "gamb sticks" to spread the legs of animal carcasses and hang the carcasses on an overhead rail to prepare them for dressing. Next, carcass splitters use saws, cleavers, and knives to dismember and cut animal carcasses into large pieces before further processing. Eviscerators remove the intestines, internal organs, and other viscera from the carcasses and deposit them in bins. Offal separators separate the edible parts of the viscera, such as livers, from waste portions. In addition, they set aside certain glands that are purchased by agricultural and pharmaceutical companies to make chemicals or drugs. Casing cleaners clean, cure, and soak intestines for use as sausage casings. Casing splitters split cured casings and press them flat so they may be made into surgical sutures, violin strings, and strings for tennis rackets.

After they come off the production line, carcasses go to cooling rooms where they hang for one or two days. Later, meatcutters, also called butchers, and apprentice meatcutters cut the heads off carcasses and trim off bruises and blemishes. Using knives, cleavers, and power saws, they slice the sides of beef, pork, or lamb into meat cuts. Meat trimmers trim fat, skin, tendons, tissues, and ragged edges from meat cuts. Meat machine peelers and head trimmers trim meat and other parts from animal heads using machines or knives. Band saw operators handle electric band saws that cut portions from hams to prepare them for curing or smoking.

Some meat is boned in the slaughterhouse. Meat boners cut bones from standard cuts of meat, such as chucks, loins, and rounds, to prepare them for packing and marketing. Poultry boners bone cooked poultry before it is processed into frozen dinners and other products.

Meat that is not sold fresh must be preserved. Some meats are pickled, dry-cured, and smoked, while others are cooked and canned. Pickling-solution makers mix phosphate, nitrate, and brine solutions together to cure meat. Picklers immerse meats in vats of pickling solutions to cure them before they are smoked. Picklepumpers inject meats with curing solution using a machine that pumps the solution into the meat through needles. Dry curers pack pork, ham, bacon, or casings into boxes or vats with dry-curing agents such as sugar, sodium nitrate, and salt. Smoked-meat preparers soak and clean meats to be smoked and then hang them on conveyors to be carried to the smoke room. Smokers load racks and cages with meat and push them into the smokehouse. They ignite sawdust in the smokehouse burner and start fans to blow the smoke into the chamber. Smokers must also regulate temperatures, humidity, and time of smoking for each different batch of smoked meats. They determine when smoking is done and remove the meats to the chill room. It is then the job of cooks to bake, boil, and deep-fry meats such as ham, beef, sausage, and tripe (stomach parts of cow, oxen, or sheep) to prepare them for further processing.

Many kinds of meat are ground, chopped, or formed to make sausages and other products. To make sausages, casing-running-machine tenders operate machines that gather casings into stuffing-machine nozzles, ready to be stuffed. Sausage-meat trimmers remove meat from bones and dice it; meat grinders grind it; and seasoning mixers weigh and mix seasonings to flavor it. Next, chopping-machine operators tend machines that chop and mix the ground meat with the seasonings to make the "emulsion," or stuffing, for sausages and other products like bologna, meat loaves, and wieners. Sausage makers and mixers may also perform these tasks. Then stuffers run machines that force the emulsion into casings to make sausages and similar products. Linkers twist and tie sausage-filled casings to make sausage links of specified lengths; otherwise, linking machine operators do this by machine. Sausage inspectors make sure sausages are of uniform length and firmness.

Other meats are pressed or shaped by meat press operators, meat molders, pork-cutlet makers, and turkey-roll makers. Ham-rolling-machine operators run machines that wind the binding around hams, and tiers roll and tie cuts of meat to form roasts.

By-products of animals, such as lard and animal feed, are also processed by meat packing workers. Lard bleachers and refiners cook and filter animal fat. Hasher operators and rendering-equipment tenders process waste, such as tendons and cartilage, from the slaughtering operation for use as animal feed.

After meat is processed, scaler-packers and hand packagers package meat for shipment or sale. The meat industry also employs a variety of graders and inspectors, who grade meat, skins, pelts, and hides according to sales value, quality, size, and type.

Workers with several years of experience supervise other workers in various departments. Opportunities for unskilled workers include laborers, who load and unload racks of meat, clean equipment, and perform various other duties as needed; and order runners, who take smoked meats out of bins and racks and put them on conveyors leading to packing rooms. Because meatpacking plants must meet stringent sanitation requirements, cleaning workers also are important. They include box-truck washers and equipment cleaners.