Bison Meat Processing

Understanding Bison Meat Processing

We do not incorporate the cost of processing in the sale of live animals. This is a separate expense as required by USDA regulations. We do include transportation to and from our chosen processing plant in our price.

The processing of livestock is governed on a national level by the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), and implemented through USDA regulations, specifically the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).

There are basically 2 ways to have an animal processed: USDA inspected and Custom Exempt. It is important that you understand the difference.

Custom Exempt Slaughter

bison slabs

Bison prime rib
Custom Order: Bone-in Bison Prime Rib Roast

Custom Exempt Slaughter allows the processing of an animal without Federal or State inspection and is exempt from the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) when such slaughter is performed on behalf of the owner for the exclusive consumption by the owner. Such meat is clearly labeled "NOT FOR SALE" and can only be consumed by the owner, the owner's family, and non-paying guests. Custom exempt products may not be sold or donated. The resulting meat is not to enter into the stream of commerce and, although these plants are subject to the same sanitation requirements of USDA-inspected plants, they are rarely inspected. These are the plants that process deer, other game animals, as well as cattle, sheep, hogs, etc. You assume all risk regarding the safely and wholesomeness of the meat.

Absolutely no product produced under this exemption may be sold commercially or even given away or donated. Whether you are selling/buying meat or a life animal can be blurry at times. It is easy to go afoul of State and Federal regulations.

To qualify for custom exempt the live animal must be fully owned before slaughter; selling an animal after slaughter is selling meat rather than an animal and that meat must be USDA inspected. If an animal is bought and sold by the rail weight (e.g., $8.50/lb on the rail), as opposed to live weight, then it is meat being bought or sold and not a live animal and (legally) cannot be processed under custom exempt. USDA has also ruled that the owner of the live animal must pay the processor directly and cannot be included in the animal purchase price. While many ranchers choose to ignore these regulations (e.g., selling by rail weight, selling after slaughter, etc.), we do not.

Custom exempt processing is generally cheaper than a USDA-inspected plant and there are far more custom-exempt plants that USDA-inspected, giving the owner more choices on where animals can be processed. Custom exempt is probably the most common slaughter choice when purchasing a whole, half, or quarter of an animal. Most of the larger USDA plants will not do quarters and some will not do halves because of the need to keep all exempt meat completely separate from USDA inspected.

The difference in cost between custom-exempt and USDA-inspection is minimal for livestock covered by the FMIA (cattle, sheep, swine, goats) and taxpayer paid, so the choice to go custom exempt is largely convenience.

Custom exempt processed carcasses, parts of carcasses, meat, or meat food products prepared from custom exempt processed meat must be kept separated at all times from USDA-inspected carcasses and meats.

You assume all risk as to the health of the animal and that the meat is wholesome, safe, and fit for human consumption.

USDA-Inspected Slaughter

The Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) requires that all meat sold commercially be inspected to ensure that it is safe, wholesome, and properly labeled. The FMIA requires inspection for any product intended for human consumption, wholly or in part, from the carcass or parts of any livestock or non-amenable animals. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is responsible for enforcing the FMIA. Only federally inspected establishments can produce products that are destined to enter interstate commerce or for export to foreign countries.

The purpose of Federal meat inspection is to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, each year in the United States, foodborne diseases kill 3,000 people, hospitalize 128,000, and sicken 48 million.

At any USDA-inspected facility, Federal inspection personnel must be present at all times during the slaughter operations and for at least part of each shift during which there is further processing of meat products. Inspection personnel verify the humane handling of animals and conduct ante-mortem inspection (before slaughter) to ensure that the live animal is fit for slaughter. Inspection program personnel are trained to look for abnormalities and signs that could indicate disease or health conditions that would prohibit the animal from entering the food supply.

Inspectors also conduct post-mortem inspection (after slaughter) to ensure that the meat from the carcass and internal organs are fit for human food. Inspectors look for signs of disease or pathological conditions that would render a carcass or part unwholesome or otherwise unfit for human consumption. In addition to inspecting the meat products, inspection personnel inspect the facilities and equipment on a daily basis to ensure sanitary conditions are maintained.

FSIS authority may be designated to a state agency in those states that chose to apply for such authority, as long as the state requirements are "at least equal to" those enforced by USDA-FSIS, so called State Inspection. State inspection programs operate under a cooperative agreement with FSIS. The difference between the two approaches is that state inspection programs only allow for meat processed in these facilities to be sold within the state- "intrastate"- while FSIS inspected facilities can export meat to other states, or "interstate."

USDA-inspected carcasses, parts of carcasses, meat, or meat food products prepared from USDA-inspected meat must be kept separated at all times from custom exempt processed meats. Thus, many USDA-inspected plants do not do custom-exempt slaughter.

Bison Processing

Having bison processed possess many challenges, particularly in Arkansas as there are no processing plants that are equipped to handle a number of bison. Some plants will process single bison and will kill them in what is known as a "trailer knock", i.e., the bison is killed in the trailer before being brought into the plant. There are a variety of risks involved in this type of "knock", not only to the trailer but also to the welfare of the animal.

Bison Ribeye Steaks
Bison Ribeye Steaks

Bison Ribeye Steak
Bison Ribeye Steak

Because bison are wild animals and panic in confinement and close quarters, anytime they are worked, including loading onto a trailer, there is always a risk of injury or death. These are the risks we take every day.

USDA considers bison to be non-amenable (exotic) animals that are not subject to mandatory USDA-FSIS meat inspection. Because USDA-inspection is required for the sale of bison meat in most States including Arkansas, USDA inspection is available on a fee for service basis or voluntary inspection. The USDA inspection seal on bison meat is a triangle as opposed to circular found in cattle, sheep, goats, and swine meat indicating voluntary inspection, which is not tax subsidized. As voluntary fee-for-service, we are required to financially compensate USDA for the time the inspector devotes to inspecting each bison. The triangle shaped "U.S. Inspected and Passed" seal ensures the bison meat is wholesome and free from disease.

In the past we had bison processed at the Cypress Valley Meat Company in Pottsville, but they will no longer do bison. We have also used the Quapaw Meat Authority in Miami Oklahoma which are set-up specifically for bison. However, they are 5+ hours away anddo not do custom exempt processing nor halves. They are also rather expensive.

This year (2024), 5R Custom Meats in Mount Vernon AR has agreed to process our bison, although we will need to bring the animals there in small groups. Although this creates additional stress (on us and the bison), it is far less stressful than being transported 5+ hours to Oklahoma. This processing plant will do custom exempt in addition to USDA inspection. You would have the option to pick up your meat at the Mount Vernon Plant and pay the processing fees directly or pick up your meat on our farm and reimburse us for the processing costs.

The other option would be to make your own processing arrangements at a local plant of your own choosing and have your bison brought to your own plant. Some of our clients choose this option. We will guarantee delivery of a healthy bison to the processing plant. Once we arrive at your chosen plant, responsibility transfers to you. However, since we take the risk of separating and loading your bison and making a special trip to the processing plant of your choosing, we charge $4.50 per loaded mile from our farm to your processing plant. Thus, for example, travelling 67 miles to a processing plant will add $301.50 to the processing costs. Traveling more or less would of course affect the final cost.

Other options would be to pick up your bison yourself and transport it to your processor. We would guarantee safe loading into your trailer. You can then bring your bison to the processing plant yourself or even home. If you select this option, we will discount the purchase price.

Last, you have the option to shoot your bison in the field and process it yourself. While we will dispose of viscera and other waste for you and load the carcass onto your truck and trailer, under the Personal Exemption clause of the USDA-FSIS regulations, we cannot assist you in the slaughter and processing of your animal. This is an option for those who may want to "hunt" a buffalo.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.

Where our Meat is Sold & Served