Walking out of the huge, cold meat locker the meat cutter turns and grabs a beef carcass hanging in front of him. He's already checked the inventory at the counter up front and finds several different cuts of beef are needed to replenish stocks. Yesterday was a good day. The saw is turned on to help cut the carcass into pieces before the meat cutter takes out his knives to carve the raw meat into the specially-cut items.
"Quality, that's the first thing," explains Darrell, owner-operator of a local meat shop for eight years, on the most important part of a meat cutter's work. "Second would be efficiency so (you're) not wasting a lot of (meat) by squaring off. Health and safety is a big issue too." Not only does that include working safely with and around things like saws, knives and grinders but in handling and storing meat according to government regulations.
While meat cutting is key to Darrell's family business -- he is a fourth generation meat cutter and has been at the trade for 27 years -- he also enjoys processing the meat further, by smoking it or turning it into sausage. "That's the fun part," he said. "If it was just meat cutting I don't know how long you could hang in there. If you further process, it's fun because you can experiment and come out with your own products."
That diversity is also listed as one of the best parts of the work to apprentice meat cutter Kalvin. "We don't do the same job everyday," he said. "We make sausages on Friday and the odd Saturday. We do so much processing it's not just straight cutting." Kalvin first got into meat cutting through a work experience program in high school and has worked full-time at Darrell's establishment for the last two years.
Not only does Darrell have years of experience in the meat shop, he also teaches in the meat cutting program at a local post secondary institution. This has given him a good insight into the food manufacturing industry beyond his own business. He said for meat cutters there are opportunities abound. "There is big demand. There are a lot of jobs out there (and) they're all looking for meat cutters."
Many meat cutting jobs are available in retail chain stores that have separate meat departments. Unlike Darrell's small shop where cutters work regular hours five days a week, some retail shops require cutters to work shifts any day of the week. And unlike the small shops, chain store cutters typically aren't allowed as much freedom to work, he said. "In the stores they have set ways of cutting things because of demographics and the ethnic diversity of the community. You can't really deviate."
Small shops tend to allow more freedom to its cutters. Small shops may also offer cutters the opportunity to use different kinds of base product. "We get carcass beef and block ready," Darrell said. Block ready is meat that has been broken down from a carcass and vacuum packed to age. "Now a days chain stores don't do carcass. In the small shops you get that versatility."
Kalvin has yet find anything he doesn't like about his work, but Darrell said a couple of things may get to you after time. "There is the repetition and the cold. Meat rooms are cold and your hands are on the cold meat." Regardless of the conditions, have no doubt meat cutters earn their keep. "It is physical, Darrell said. "You do get good muscles out of it." Kalvin added: "If you're scared of doing hard work, it's (not for you). It's not a slacker job. Sometimes you do a lot of lifting." Alberta is the only province where meat cutting is not an certified trade.
At a small meat shop the work load will also increase during hunting season when hunters bring in their kill to be processed into sausage, jerky, steaks or whatever. "Hunting season is a crazy time of the year," Darrell said. "When they bring it in you can't say I'll fit you in next week. You've got to take it and do it." This time of year will see the meat cutters putting in overtime hours.
Part of the reason Kalvin had an interest in meat cutting is due to hunting season. "My dad hunts and I wanted to learn where the steaks and roasts came from and help him out," he said. Both meat cutters also enjoy the perks of knowing how to work with meat. "If you like to eat good, it's a great trade to learn," Kalvin said. "It's kind of neat to get in here and see how things are made." Darrell agreed: "People are fascinated with meat. Everyone's (wondering) what to cook and how to cook it. You know how. That's kind of neat."