According to Dr. Davey Griffin, associate professor and Texas A&M University Extension meat specialist, first and foremost they need to be sure that the processor they choose is inspected, if they plan on selling their product.
"Everybody is under some kind of inspection," Griffin said. "But, there are processors that only do custom-exempt work. Truly, they can't take them (livestock) to those guys and resell. It has got to be a place that is actually doing that as an inspected facility and be sure that it has got a label on it that carries a mark of inspection with it."
Depending on what kind of practices the producer wants to sell their product under, they can either be certified with the USDA inspection or with a state inspection.
"The difference, actually the state inspection is supposed to be equal to our federal," he said. "But, up until just recently, if you were state-inspected, then you could not cross state lines. So, it had to be sold within the state. There is a way that some state-inspection can be taken across state lines, but I don't know anybody in the state of Texas that has done that yet, that has applied for that."
Griffin says the reason many haven't applied to get that kind of allowance on their state inspection is because there are quite a number of hoops to get to that designation.
While there might be a small processor that could meet the producer's needs nearby, it is important that if they want to produce a product with an organic label that requires an organically-certified processor, they take extra care in making sure they have not wasted their work and wind up being forced to sell without the organic name. Griffin pointed out that most of the smaller plants in the state probably carry a state inspection instead of a federal inspection and that could hold some merit with some consumers and producers.
So, when picking a processor, producers should take care in asking questions about the type of inspection they have and while they are at it, it wouldn't hurt to schedule a visit around the processing plant.
"Without question you want to go and look and see that the place is clean and that the products that you see in there are fresh and they have some business where they are moving product through, and the guys there know what they are talking about," Griffin said.
Even if a producer is not planning on reselling their product, they are advised to take a look around and take some comfort in having an inspected facility handle their stock.
"If they are inspected, they have an inspector in there that deals with sanitation, SOPS, -- the standard operating procedures for the plant," Griffin explained. "They are there to be sure that everything is safe and humane in the way that it is handled and they take care of most of those things. But, if you are going to deal with those people on a day-to-day basis, you would certainly want to be confident that the product is handled in a safe and wholesome way."
Knowing that a producer is using an inspected facility can also give them some comfort in knowing that the inspection group again is taking care of them, as far as the actual handling of the animals. But, that doesn't mean there are not some key questions to ask. Right from the start, many producers will want to ask about the handling methods of the stock before processing and what kind of time frame they will be at the plant before being processed.
"If they are there for more than 24 hours the animals have to be fed, there has to be water at all times when they are through the plant," Griffins said. "I guess if I was really looking at this and I had an animal that I had hand fed and I was real proud of and things like that, I wouldn't probably want them there more than 24 hours, just from the stand-point of meat quality and things like that."
Being aware of the time frame the animal will be there before being processed may help a producer who is considering a processor make an educated decision on if that processor is right for them. While Griffin said he would have no question that they would be handled properly, he thinks that for the meat product that a producer would be trying to sell they would like for the stock to be fasted for about 12 hours before they are harvested, no more than 24.
"If you can put in that period, I think you are more likely to have an animal that is not stressed and the meat is going to be as high-quality as it has an opportunity to be," Griffin said. "That is more for a meat quality standpoint than anything else."
There are a few more things that Griffin considered to be important when interviewing a processor. One of those factors is the cutting style of the processor. As people are purchasing more in smaller portions, this is something that a producer would want to make sure that the processor can cut and package.
"I think the old bone-in, big cuts that we have seen in the past probably don't work as well for many of the people who are looking for an alternative upscale product of some kind," Griffin said. "You need to talk with these processors, because some of these guys are very familiar with some of these newer cuts that are out there on the market and then some of them are pretty standard in the way that they cut."
Another concern is the type of packaging material used.
"I know some of the smaller processors still paper wrap everything," Griffin said. "I really think if you are going to try and sell to consumers today, they want to see what they are buying, so I think vacuum packaging would be another thing that I would bring up and figure out whether that meets your needs and also the processor's needs as well."
Selecting a processor is a key step to the success of any meat-producing enterprise, especially those who want to maintain a specific designation. Producers should first be sure that the facility is either state- or federally-inspected, and then look into more personal concerns and preferences of livestock care, cutting style and packaging to make their product more appealing to their potential clientele.