Butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters carve animal carcasses into small pieces of meat suitable for sale to consumers. In meatpacking plants, meatcutters slaughter cattle, hogs, goats, and sheep and cut the carcasses into large wholesale cuts such as rounds, loins, ribs, and chucks to facilitate handling, distribution, and marketing. Meat trimmings are used to prepare sausages, luncheon meats, and other fabricated meat products. Meatcutters usually work on assembly lines, with each individual responsible for only a few of the many cuts needed to process a carcass. Depending on the type of cut, they may use knives, cleavers, meat saws, bandsaws, and other equipment.
In grocery stores, wholesale establishments that supply meat to restaurants, and institutional food service facilities, butchers separate the wholesale cuts of meat into retail cuts or individual size servings. They cut the meat into steaks and chops using knives and electric saws, shape and tie roasts, and grind beef for sale as chopped meat. Boneless cuts are prepared using knives, slicers, or power cutters, while bandsaws are required on bone-in pieces. Butchers in retail food stores also may weigh, wrap, and label the cuts and arrange them in refrigerated cases for display to customers. They also may prepare special cuts of meat ordered by customers.
Poultry cutters slaughter and cut up chickens, turkeys, and other types of poultry. The poultry processing industry is becoming increasingly automated, but many jobs such as trimming, packing, and deboning are still done manually.
Fish cleaners cut, scale, and dress fish in fish processing plants and wholesale and retail fish markets. They remove the head, scales, and other inedible portions and cut the fish into steaks or boneless fillets. In markets, they may wait on customers and clean fish to order.
Retail meat, poultry, and fish cutters also prepare ready-to-heat foods. This often entails filleting meat or fish or cutting it into bite-sized pieces, preparing and adding vegetables, or applying sauces or breading.
Working conditions vary by the type and size of establishment. In meatpacking plants and larger retail food establishments, butchers and meatcutters work in large meatcutting rooms equipped with power machines and conveyors. In small retail markets, the butcher or fish cleaner may work in a space behind the meat counter. To avoid viral and bacterial infections, work areas must be clean and sanitary.
Butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters often work in cold, damp rooms. Cutting rooms are refrigerated to prevent meat from spoiling; they are damp because meat cutting generates large amounts of blood and fat. The low temperature, combined with the need to stand for long periods of time, makes the work tiring. Butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters are more susceptible to injury than other workers. In 1992, meatpacking plants had the highest incidence of work-related injury and illness of any industry. Cuts and even amputations, occur when knives, cleavers, and power tools are used improperly. The cool damp floors of meat processing areas increase the likelihood of slips and falls. Repetitive slicing and lifting often leads to cumulative trauma injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. To reduce the incidence of cumulative trauma disorders, many employers have reduced work loads, redesigned jobs and tools, and increased awareness of early warning signs. Nevertheless, workers in this occupation still face a serious threat of a disabling injury.
Butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters held about 351,043 jobs in 1994. Over four-fifths worked in meatpacking and poultry and fish processing plants and retail grocery stores, while others were employed by meat and fish markets, restaurants, hotels, and wholesale establishments. The majority of the 218,994 skilled butchers and meatcutters worked in retail grocery stores, while more than 9 out of 10 of the semiskilled meat, poultry, and fish cutters worked in meatpacking and poultry and fish processing plants. Skilled butchers and meatcutters are employed in almost every city and town in the Nation, while semiskilled meat, poultry, and fish cutter jobs are concentrated in communities with food processing plants.
Most butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters acquire their skills informally on the job or through apprenticeship programs. A few learn their basic skills by attending trade and vocational schools. However, graduates of these schools may need additional on-the-job training and experience to work as butchers and meatcutters.
Generally, on-the-job trainees begin by doing less difficult jobs, such as removing bones. Under the guidance of experienced workers, they learn the proper use of tools and equipment and how to prepare various cuts of meat. After demonstrating skill with tools, they learn to divide quarters into wholesale cuts and wholesale cuts into retail and individual portions. Trainees may learn to roll and tie roasts, prepare sausage, and cure meat. Those employed in retail food establishments may learn marketing operations such as inventory control, meat buying, and record keeping.
Retail meatcutters and butchers who learn the trade through apprenticeship programs generally complete 2 years of supervised on-the-job training supplemented by classroom work. At the end of the training period, apprentices must pass a meatcutting test. In some areas, apprentices may become meatcutters or butchers without completing the entire training program if they can pass the test.
Skills important in meat, poultry, and fish cutting are manual dexterity, good depth perception, color discrimination, and good eye-hand coordination. Also, physical strength is often needed to lift and move heavy pieces of meat. Butchers and fish cleaners who wait on customers must have a pleasant personality, a neat appearance, and the ability to communicate clearly. In some States a health certificate may be required for employment.
Butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters may progress to supervisory jobs, such as meat or seafood department managers in supermarkets. A few become meat or seafood buyers for wholesalers and supermarket chains. Some become grocery store managers or open their own meat or fish markets. In processing plants, butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters may move up to supervisory positions.
Overall employment of butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters is expected to change or grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2005 as more meat cutting and processing shifts from the retail store to the food processing plant. Nevertheless, job opportunities should be plentiful due to the need to replace experienced workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.
As the Nation's population grows, the demand for meat, poultry, and seafood should continue to increase. Successful marketing by the poultry industry is likely to increase demand for rotisserie chicken and ready-to-heat products. Similarly, the development of lower fat and ready-to-heat products promises to stimulate the consumption of red meat. The demand for fish and seafood should reach record levels in the coming years.
Employment growth of semiskilled meat, poultry, and fish cutters who work primarily in meatpacking, poultry, and fish processing plants is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Although much of the production of poultry and fabricated poultry products is performed by machines, the growing popularity of labor-intensive ready-to-heat goods promises to spur demand for poultry workers. Semiskilled meat and fish cutters also will be in demand as the task of preparing ready-to-heat meat and fish goods slowly shifts from the retail store to the processing plant. Although the supply of edible ocean fish is limited, advances in fish farming, or "aquaculture," are expected to reduce the gap between supply and demand, and produce ample opportunities for fish cutters.
Employment of skilled butchers and meatcutters, who work primarily in retail stores, is expected to decline gradually. Although meat is increasingly cut and processed at meatpacking plants, this transformation is proceeding slowly. At present, most red meat arrives at the grocery store partially cut up. The retail butcher performs the final processingcutting wholesale meat cuts into steaks, chops, and roasts and packaging them for sale.
Eventually, as ready-to-heat goods become more popular, both fresh meat and prepared foods will be completely processed and packaged at the plant. Consumers and the retail stores are slowly adjusting to this trend, and the demand for retail meat, poultry, and fish cutters should decline.
Butchers and meatcutters had median weekly earnings of $329 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $250 and $522 a week. The highest paid 10 percent earned over $702 a week. Meatcutters employed by retail grocery stores are generally among the highest paid workers.
Butchers and meat and fish cutters generally received paid vacations, sick leave, health insurance, and life insurance. Those who were union members and employed by grocery stores also had pension plans. However, poultry workers tended to rarely earn substantial benefits.
Many butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. In 1992, nearly 30 percent of all butchers and meatcutters were union members or covered by a union contract.
Butchers and meat, poultry, and fish cutters must be skilled at both hand and machine work and must have some knowledge of processes and techniques involved in handling and preparing food. Other occupations in food preparation which require similar skills and knowledge include bakers, chefs and cooks, and food preparation workers.
Information about work opportunities can be obtained from local employers or local offices of the State employment service. For information on training and other aspects of the trade, contact:
United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, 1775 K St. NW., Washington, DC 20006.