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Merciful Meat

For the owner of a Solano County slaughterhouse that's both humane and halal, the dictates of religion don't go nearly far enough.

Ahmad Karaouni grips a slaughtering knife in his right hand, maimed in a car accident more than 40 years ago in Lebanon.
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Ahmad Karaouni supplies a largely immigrant clientele with something that most are unaccustomed to: fresh, cheap, pasture-raised halal meat.
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Karaouni walks the grazing fields horseshoeing Nature’s Bounty.
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Tending to customers inside the kill room.
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An insistence on transparency is not the slaughterhouse’s only rare quality— its very existence makes it an outlier. Karaouni is a Lilliputian in a world populated by giants. American sheep, their numbers hovering at over 5 million head, are scattered across more than 80,000 farms and ranches. But in a pattern replicated throughout the range of animals that we eat, almost 60 percent of the 2.2 million lambs and sheep slaughtered in 2012 were funneled from those 80,000 ranches into just three processing plants. One of them, Superior Farms in nearby Dixon, is so close to Nature’s Bounty that a massive white wind turbine erected on its property can be seen from Karaouni’s driveway. Not a large slaughterhouse compared to cattle and hog operations elsewhere, Superior nearly doubles Karaouni’s annual kill total every week at its Dixon plant.

The production model for sustainably produced meat, which relies on small-scale slaughterhouses like Nature’s Bounty, has been likened to an hourglass, with the bulbs on the top and bottom symbolizing consumers and willing ranchers. The constricted bottleneck in the middle represents the current shortage of small slaughterhouses. A farmer who might need only 40 or 50 cows slaughtered can’t turn to an industrial plant, most of which are clustered in the Great Plains and run on tightly regimented production cycles, but access to local slaughterhouses is rapidly dwindling. Just 50 years ago, there were several slaughterhouses in San Francisco itself. Food and farming writer Barry Estabrook has noted that 1,500 local processors have shut down within the last decade. A Food & Water Watch study released in 2009 confirms this trend, charting a 20 percent decrease in small-scale slaughter facilities between 1998 and 2007.

Karaouni’s dedication to micro-scale custom slaughter, to the notion that we must know our meat, won’t do much to counter the widespread consolidation of the meat industry. But he’s certain that his operation has lessons to teach. For him, the main problem with high-volume slaughter is the inability to source animals like the ones he remembers in Lebanon, free from feedlots, irrigated fields contaminated with pesticides, and antibiotics and hormones. “It’s got to be a small operation,” says Karaouni. “If you do 100 head a day at one slaughterhouse, that’s 700 head a week, 2,800 head a month. Multiply that by 12 for the year. You’re not going to find those animals. There’s no way.”

Karaouni makes $40 for each lamb or goat that he slaughters. With a margin that low, especially when every animal means 20 or 30 minutes of work, it’s tempting to ramp up production. But because it’s his own meat that he’s marketing, he resists this urge, declining frequent requests, mostly from owners of halal markets, that he expand. At one time, he worked with a halal market supplier who paid him a few hundred dollars a day to rent his kill floor. It was easy money, and Karaouni tolerated it as long as he could, even as federal inspectors, who consistently give his facility high marks, raised their eyebrows at the carcasses. They teased him that Nature’s Bounty should now be called Karaouni’s Fantastic Animals, a reference to the artificially grown stock that they were seeing at his facility for the first time. One day, Karaouni saw his new lessee kill 15 lambs, of which 2 would be condemned by the USDA and another 7 had pneumonia. “That was the last day he killed here,” Karaouni says. “I told him, ‘It’s over, finished.’”

When he took over from his brother, Karaouni experimented with purchasing from livestock auctions, but he couldn’t verify the provenance of the animals. His solution was to circumvent auctions by agreeing to buy all his lambs from a single rancher two weeks after their birth. It’s a novel arrangement in a line of work wherein most ranchers are beholden, with little leverage, to the behemoths of the slaughter industry. Karaouni reserves his animals with a deposit and promises to complete the purchase at market price once the lambs mature. The rancher—who grazes his sheep on the hills near Rio Vista, less than 30 miles from Vacaville—avoids terms dictated by a large processor and the headache of trucking his lambs to auction, while Karaouni knows exactly what his lambs have ingested. When he first proposed the deal, he promised to buy 500 newborn lambs and put down a $25 deposit for each if the rancher vowed to finish his lambs on grass and not pump them with antibiotics or hormones. “He said I was crazy,” says Karaouni, “but the first year, he saw that I came up with [the money].”

Now, Karaouni is up to 4,000 lambs with the same rancher and—such is their level of trust—is no longer asked to put down a deposit. He is protective of this relationship, knowing that the market pressures ranchers to produce increasingly larger animals. “The ranchers, their main aim is profit,” he shrugs. “They don’t care. The more they feed the animals things like corn, the more the animals are going to grow. If he can sell his lamb for $150 or $200, which way is he going to go? That’s why I paid a deposit: to let him know that those are my animals—not your animals.”

The contradictions, however, aren’t all the fault of the breeders, who follow the cues of a handful of processors who determine everything from weight to price. The processors, meanwhile, say that they respond to consumer demand in the form of large grocery retailers, which pass those standards downstream. Superior Farms, for example, the industry’s leading lamb processor, slaughters 10-month-olds, mostly finished on feedlots, weighing between 140 and 150 pounds. But Karaouni won’t stand for it. No rancher, he believes, should raise a 150-pound lamb in 10 months. He sells 6- to 10-month-old lambs that range from 60 to 115 pounds. “For me, 130 pounds is a disaster,” he says. “At 110 pounds, I start shaking my head.” He does a back-of-the-napkin calculation for a hypothetical 160-pound lamb and arrives at 88 pounds of meat. He jerks his head up. “Who wants 88 pounds of meat?” he demands. “I will not touch it. I will not eat it. If you tell me the lamb was two years old, that’s something. But 10 months at 160 pounds?” His disgust is palpable.

When I visit Karaouni one Saturday afternoon this past spring, I catch him inside the kill room during a lull after the morning rush, slumped in a plastic black chair, his head tilted back against the wall. “I’m too old for this,” he complains to Lourdes. He tells me that for all his attention to natural foods, his biggest challenge might be the day-to-day running of his business, a responsibility that none of his three children is likely to shoulder once he walks away. On a grazing field outside, about 20 lambs, born just weeks before, huddle near their mothers— animals that Karaouni had elected not to slaughter in the winter because they were “second-class.” He hadn’t unloaded them in castaway markets for cheap halal meat because they were pregnant (a surprise: one of his males had escaped castration), and he knew that the Islamic discouragement against slaughtering pregnant animals would be ignored. So now he has babies.

Karaouni had just informed one of his customers that five goats preceded the customer’s lamb in line. The customer took it badly, arguing to be moved up. “I said, ‘Good-bye. I salute you.’ So he took off.” Karaouni shrugs. “That’s why [people from Muslim countries] are [falling] behind the whole world. They think they are the only ones who exist.” He recalls his father sending him to government offices in Lebanon with a folded piece of paper and instructions not to look at the money enclosed inside. “We’re accustomed to it,” Karaouni sneers. “We’re special. We don’t have to wait.” He thinks, sometimes, that he’s become too Americanized, having little patience for habits— haggling, indirectness, unreliability, disregard for time—that he identifies, almost like a 19th-century Orientalist, as peculiar to his customers from Muslim countries. Some of the more religious customers bother him in inventive ways, rejecting, for instance, his halal authenticity because he follows the Shia tradition.

Page four: Slaughtering the lamb