In an effort to live as a conscious carnivore, I make it a point to know how the animals I eat are harvested. Naturally, EPIC Provisions applies the same values for every item we produce. The reasoning is simple: understanding how an animal dies is equally as important as knowing how it lives. Although it can be difficult for some omnivores to witness, seeing an animal being slaughtered for human consumption grants me a deeper and more profound respect for that animal's life. It reminds me to be grateful for the meat I consume as well as the importance of minimizing waste. It also speaks to EPIC’s belief in transparency and being honest to consumers.
Over the years, I have seen hundreds of animals take their last breath prior to becoming a safe product for human consumption. Although it’s never easy to witness, it’s crucial to truly understand and appreciate where our food comes from. That’s why I’m working to break down the barriers and widespread cognitive dissonance our society struggles with when it come to our food.
Northstar Bison is a family-owned ranch that specializes in producing 100% grass fed bison. These fine folks are our most cherished bison suppliers and recently partnered with EPIC to purchase over 1,000 living animals to be used in our products. Through their network of bison ranches throughout Wisconsin, these champions have become the largest producers of grass fed bison in North America. In true EPIC synergy, our companies share many foundational values that set the industry standard for respect, honor, and compassion towards animals. This is reflected in Northstar’s deep commitment to helping bison thrive in natural habitats while expressing their innate biological behaviors. But what truly has impressed me is the way in which they’ve raised the bar for humanely harvesting their animals.
In order to understand how special this field harvest is, I’ll need to first explain the process in which the vast majority of meat is processed. Animals are typically loaded into large trucks and driven to a processing plant. Depending on the ranch location to a quality processor, this commute may take over 5 hours. While attempts are made to provide comfort to these animals, the unnatural state of being in a trailer often results in undesirable stress. Like humans, when livestock experiences stress the body responds with increased adrenaline and the release of cortisol hormones. When improperly managed, this stress can result in a buildup of hormones in your meat. These hormones can degrade flavor as well as alter the nutritional composition of meat. They’re also indicative of the fact that the animal’s final moments were that of terror and fear.
It gets worse. These animals will then be unloaded from their trailer at the site of a large processing plant and placed into crowded pens. This further increases stress. Next, they will be moved into shoots and transition single-file into the processing plant. Their final moments will be spent inside a sterile room often known as the “kill floor.” Although I have seen different methods of harvesting animals, the most common tactic used for ruminants (cattle, sheep, buffalo, goats) involves some type of “gun” that delivers a precise blow to the front of the animal’s skull and knocks it unconsciousness. While these systems can be very humane and focused on minimizing animal stress, they are often built on efficiency and productivity. Most small processing plants do a good job, but large industrial slaughterhouses are nothing short of nightmarish. What they do should be illegal.
Northstar Bison’s model is radically different from those industry-standard plants. Rather than focusing on efficiency, their priorities are focused squarely on minimizing stress and optimizing their animals’ end of life transition. Every animal deserves to die with dignity. As a result, Northstar’s method of field harvesting does not entail any lengthy truck rides or scary assembly lines. It’s as thoughtful and simple as possible. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
It all starts with tools. Because the Northstar family prioritized vertically integrating their ranch, are responsible for every aspect of the harvesting process. This has allowed them to coordinate a short commute from their pasture to their processing plant and own their own abattoir, which is especially important. Northstar’s bison aren’t marched to their deaths when they arrive at the processing plant, though—instead, they graze in large pastures alongside the rest of their herd for weeks. This gives them sufficient time to metabolize any residual stress hormones their body may have built up from moving pastures.
When it’s time to harvest the bison, Lee Graese (Northstar’s family patriarch) drives out to the pastures and delicately picks which animal to harvest. Maintaining his distance, Lee is careful to avoid animal distress. Once he’s made his selection, he delivers an unexpected and effectively lethal blow to animal’s brain stem at the base of its skull. Accuracy and patience—skills Lee has patiently mastered over the past 20—are key here. The result is a highly effective hit that instantly renders the animal unconscious.
It’s never easy to witness a majestic animal lose its life. But I find incredible comfort in knowing that the bison at Northstar live their final moments on the pastures they call home, surrounded by their familial herd. In a beautiful gesture, every animal harvested dies with a mouth full of grass.
This unique form of harvesting animals isn’t easy. It takes time. It requires dedication and humility. On a good day, Northstar can harvest and process around 20 animals— a far cry from the 100 animals per hour industrialized systems harvest. This speaks to their commitment to animal care rather than efficiency, and is why the field harvest method is the most humane and natural end of life scenario I have ever seen. It sets the industry standard for thoughtful animal harvesting and reflects why EPIC supports ranchers doing the right thing. We’re just getting started, though. We intend to accelerate our growth with Northstar Bison and have made it our goal to scale their business until they are managing over 1,000,000 acres by the year 2020!
Few meat eaters enjoy these conversations, but they are important to have. We must be consciously aware of how an animal ends its life—because if we can’t do that in a way that reflects our own values, we must then question the ethical nature of consuming meat as a whole. While we still have a long way to go, the good news is there are a handful of ranchers and processors like Northstar who are doing amazing work! And if consumers continue to vote with their dollars and help EPIC change livestock production, the feedlots and slaughterhouses of today will be history tomorrow.