Not all commercial meat processors are created equal.
Every serious hunter should know how to field dress and the basics of do-it-yourself meat processing. But, sometimes it’s just easier and maybe even cheaper to pay a meat processor.
While choosing the processor located closest to you may be most convenient, it’s important to do your research.
Here are 10 questions you should ask before trusting a commercial meat processor with your harvest.
1. Will I get my own deer back?
You might think this goes without asking, but some processors will process multiple deer and not take the care to keep them separate.
You might get meat back from someone else’s kill or even a mixture of meat from multiple deer.
While you were careful to avoid a gut shot and retrieve your deer quickly before it sat roasting in the sun all day, other hunters may not have taken the same precautions.
Choose a processor that uses an organized tagging system that will guarantee you pick up exactly what you dropped off.
2. What is your average yield?
This is arguably the most important question to ask before choosing a meat processor.
If you choose to go the do-it-yourself route, it’s not uncommon to yield 40-45 percent in meat if you take your time and do a detailed job.
However, commercial processors might not be as meticulous as you. This can be especially true on opening day or during busy seasons like the rut. The average yield from most processors I’ve dealt with is roughly 35 percent.
It may also be worth asking if that particular processor keeps a percentage of your meat or “butcher’s cut” for their own reserve.
3. What is your aging time?
Aging meat makes for a better quality finished product. For deer, two weeks is an ideal amount of time to age. But, even just a day or two is sufficient.
The amount of time a processor lets your meat age likely depends on their amount of cooler space.
Make sure the processor you choose has ample cooler space to handle the amount of deer they accept each day.
4. What percent of fat do you add and where does it come from?
Venison is lean, so fat has to be added to ground meat. Fat content should be limited to no more than 20 percent for ground. Otherwise, you’ll lose the flavor of your meat all together.
When making sausage, you can use a slightly higher ratio of up to 30 percent.
Using fat from wild or free range pork or grass fed beef is ideal when possible. However, some processors will just use the cheapest source of fat they can find.
If they can’t tell you where their fat comes from, consider choosing another processor.
5. How will you package it?
Butcher paper is perfectly fine, but a vacuum sealer will extend the life of your meat.
Some processors will offer you the option to pay a higher price for vacuum sealing. It’s really a matter of personal preference, but you should always ask your processor before drop-off.
6. Can I take a look around?
Any meat processor that runs a legitimate, clean operation will likely offer to show you around. And if you ask for a tour, they by no means should turn you down unless they have something to hide.
If it looks dirty or you smell a foul odor, find another processor.
My favorite processor does all of their butchering, processing and packing in a refrigerated room. Meat kept at room temperature is more susceptible to bacteria growth.
Also, if you take a peek in their freezer you should see that all the meat is clearly labeled and organized by customer, rather than all lumped in together.
7. Are you USDA approved?
Not all meat processors are required by law to be inspected by the USDA.
Processors only have to operate a USDA-approved inspection facility if they sell at farmer’s market, cross state lines, sell individual retail cuts, sell to a restaurant, grocery store or butcher shop or create any value-added product such as sausage.
Consider asking when they were last inspected.
8. What will it cost?
Most processors will charge you a per-pound price. I have come across a few that use a tier system, where a flat fee is charged depending on what range the hanging weight of the deer falls in.
Always ask what their skinning fee is. It may be worth your time to just skin it yourself before dropping off your deer.
Any reputable meat processor will have a price list and cut list readily available.
9. What type of payment do you accept?
While most processors today are likely equipped to process a debit/credit card, some may only accept cash or check.
Ask before you leave so that you don’t get turned away to make an ATM run when you arrive for pickup.
10. How soon will your meat need to be picked up?
Freezer space is valuable real estate for a processor. Ask about their estimated turn-around time.
Once your deer is ready, be sure to ask how long you have to pick it up. Some processors may charge a storage fee if you don’t show up within a designated time frame.
Once you’ve chosen a meat processor, it’s important to maintain a good relationship with them. After all, they are handling the food that you will consume.
The best way to build trust is communication. Ultimately, you should feel comfortable asking questions.
By building a relationship and being a good customer, your processor is more likely to be honest and contact you if any problems arise along the way.