Where beef is more than dinner

Think a cow is only destined to be eaten? Think again. Cow parts are hot commodities in the biomedical research industry.

In a slaughterhouse just south of the Oregon border in Macdoel, California, seven workers move, dance-like, around each other and the four beef carcasses on the kill floor.

“Just on the other side of that panel, the animal’s knocked unconscious,” Prather Ranch co-owner Mary Rickert explains. “The throats are slit, they have to be bled out. Then they’re laid on this cradle,” where their hides are skinned off. Workers remove organs and the spinal cord, then cut the carcass in half with a saw.

That’s where Emily Rosecrans takes over. With perfectly painted nails, she trims off “hair, feces, bruises, pretty much anything I wouldn’t want to eat,” she says.

After an on-site USDA inspector examines the carcass, “I wash it and then I spray with vinegar, which is a natural antiseptic, so it stops the growth of any bad bacteria and helps to stop e. coli,” Rosecrans says.

She moves the carcass into a cooler.

After trimming off imperfections from the carcass, Emily Rosecrans washes it, then sprays it with vinegar, a natural antiseptic. Photo by Lisa Morehouse.

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Mary’s husband Jim Rickert is working away from the main action.

“I’m boning out the cow head, “ he explains. “You kind of have to know how an animal’s put together so you can take it apart.”

He puts all the meat he wouldn’t feed to his grandchildren on one tray —sold as pet food — and the really good stuff goes on another tray.

“There’s a nice beef cheek right there,” he says. “It goes down to a restaurant in San Francisco, and as I recall, they sell a dinner there, a beef cheek dinner, and for $75. I’ve never been able to afford one, but that’s what I hear.”

The butchers work carefully. They need to meet USDA standards and Jim’s “grandchildren test,” but they’re careful for another reason as well: Parts of these animals are sold to biomedical companies. The hides, for example, are used to make purified collagen used in cell research. And the bones? Some have been made into screws for knee surgery.

“Cow bones are real popular,” says Jim Rickert. “There’s one company that takes all this stuff for dental work,” grinding up bones for fillings.

Another company is researching ways to replace damaged parts of human bones. They’re attaching human cells to Prather Ranch cow bones with a 3D printer.

“Pretty strange science but really fascinating,” says Jim Rickert, “and we like doing our part of it. If we’re gonna take the animal’s life, I believe we have the moral obligation to utilize the animal as much as possible. First it’s good business, but it’s good morals.”

Companies come to Prather Ranch for lots of bovine parts, Mary Rickert says. “We’ve done all the way from pituitary glands to eyeballs to uteri to pericardium.”

In some ways, this is nothing new. Certainly, indigenous people around the world have used plants and whole animals for medicine as well as food. In western medicine, Jim Rickert says, “there’s clear evidence of people using bones from pigs clear back to the 1700s,” though not very successfully.

“You’ve heard of catgut?” he asks, “Well I think that was one of the things that was used at times for suturing.”

Employee Craig Holbrook prepares a femur bone for a medical client. Photo by Lisa Morehouse.

The Rickerts met and fell in love at Cal Poly in the early 1970s. By the end of the decade, they came up to Prather Ranch to manage the operation. They’ve been part-owners since 1983. They faced a money-losing business, and had to get creative, Jim explains.

“I shrunk the herd down to about 250 mother cows. We just didn’t buy replacement females.”

That created what’s known as a “closed herd.” All animals in the herd are born within it, no new ones are introduced. That decision changed everything. Because, at the same time — the early 1990s —two things happened that, on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with each other.

The first was an animal health scare. “Mad Cow disease was really developing into a real serious health crisis in the United Kingdom and Europe,” Mary says.

The second? A beauty trend: dermal fillers.

“That’s the ladies with the puffy lips and all that sort of stuff,” says Jim.

Remember the pillowy lips of actresses in the 1990s? That filler came from collagen injections that came from cow hides. Jim explains that an old friend, an early pioneer in collagen dermal fillers, knew that Prather Ranch had a closed herd, which made it much less susceptible to problems like Mad Cow disease. He knew he could make a cleaner, safer collagen with their cow hides. So he called them up.

“And I remember going, really?” Jim says with a laugh.

Mary adds, “Puffy lips wasn’t exactly our primary life goal at that point.”

But the Rickerts wanted to keep the ranch going. The collagen company built them the slaughterhouse on-site. Eventually, biomedical companies came knocking for cow parts, too. He won’t reveal much about the financials, but he say that some years they’ve made more money selling beef byproducts for medical use, than they’ve made selling beef for steaks, roasts and hamburgers.

The companies that buy from Prather Ranch sign confidentiality agreements, but one exec — whose company turns Prather Ranch cow hides into purified collagen for cell research, cancer research, 3-D bioprinting — says that a hide from Prather Ranch can cost him thousands of dollars more than those from other sources.

Back in the processing room, employee Craig Holbrook preps a femur bone for a medical client. He saws the bone, double-bags it in plastic, then sends it through a vacuum sealer. Packages are then FedExed to customers in San Diego, Florida, and Brooklyn.

One result of meeting FDA standards to supply medical companies: the Rickets set themselves up to produce really high-quality beef. Mary says they DNA-test bulls specifically for genes that increase the likelihood of marbling and tenderness. It’s sought after, and pretty expensive. At the San Francisco Ferry Building, their New York strip is $26 a pound.

Mary Rickert says that she and her husband share a core belief, that they should handle animals gently until the very last minute. She walks me to the knock box, where cows get knocked out by a stun gun before being moved to the kill floor. She points out a quote hanging over the space by the animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, who advocates for humane slaughter of livestock. It reads: “I believe that the place an animal dies is a sacred one. The ritual could be something very simple, such as a moment of silence, no words, one pure moment of silence. I can picture it perfectly.”

I wanted to put that over our knock box so we always remember that this animal is giving its life not only for food but also to improve the quality of life for people for medical reasons,” Mary says. She wants everyone at the slaughterhouse to think about that.

Lead image: Cow and calf in the pasture of Prather Ranch, which tracks every field each animal has lived in, what it has eaten, and if it has ever been sick. Photo by Lisa Morehouse.

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