We love robots — when they’re up on the big screen, that is.
From the alien’s metallic sidekick in the classic ’50s film “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (“klaatu barada nikto”) to Star Wars’ endearing C-3PO and R2-D2 to the iconic RoboCop to the wildly imaginative T-1000 liquid metal cyborg in “Terminator 2,” robots make for dynamic movie characters with power far beyond us mortal men.
But the impact of robotics technology in the workplace has been a mixed bag.
In the area of materials handling, the back-breaking labor of toting boxes and unloading pallets is now handled principally by automated machinery. However, much of what once were decent assembly line jobs, often requiring skills such as welding and painting, have also been taken over by “smart” robots.
In general, the public accepts such developments as automated assembly and computer-controlled manufacturing as the inevitable results of technological progress. We have smartphones, watches and appliances. Why should manufacturing be equally smart?
But what about the craftsmanship required to produce the artisanal products we cherish? Robotic vintners cranking out assembly-line wine? Don’t think so.
Programmable robots painting portraits instead of finders? Good luck auctioning those “art” pieces.
A definition of terms
Here’s the question, though: Where does butchering fit on that spectrum? It’s certainly requires a high degree of skill acquired only through years of practice. With playing a musical instrument, there’s a discernible difference between hitting the right notes, and making real music. Does butchering qualify as a similar “art form?”
It’s difficult to determine an answer to that question.
Partly because “butchering” has been seriously degraded over the last 30 to 40 years. What was once an arduous yet essential component of the meat production-processing pipeline that ended with a knife-wielding, bloody apron-clad butcher carving up the week’s dinnertime entrees for his regular customers has devolved into a mechanical, de-assembly process performed by low-wage workers stationed at high-speed conveyors.
Butchering and portioning beef and pork has been transformed into factory-floor work on an industrial scale that has quashed even the suggestion of “art.”
Moreover, poultry processing is now highly automated, with much of the portioning and deboning done by the same robotic “workers” that work 24-7 in manufacturing plants around the world.
But there’s remains a market niche for hand-carved cuts of meat, and truth be told, skilled butchering requires the exceptional dexterity and artistic flair that add both real and perceived value to a well-trimmed steak, a perfectly portioned crown roast or a beautifully presented lamb shank.
Like a delicately flavored sauce only a skilled chef can concoct, or a vintage wine fermented from grapes harvested at exactly the perfect moment, an expert butcher creates unique and sensuously appealing cut of meat that cannot be duplicated with either programmable cutting machines or semi-skilled assembly line workers.
In fact, the 2015 marketing survey, “The Power of Meat” revealed that full-service fresh meat counters in supermarkets were highly valued by respondents. The data showed that retailers who offered a full-service meat case earned the appreciation of shoppers: 63% of those surveyed considered access to such a store a genuine advantage, and among those who didn’t have access to a service meat counter, 36% said they wished their primary grocery store offered one.
Likewise, while there has been a notable emergence of “artisanal” butcher shops offering old school, custom cuts and personal service, the volume of such boutique stores is miniscule, and their clientele are limited to an equally minimal slice of affluent consumers.
Even more challenging, the word “artisan” refers to a worker skilled in a trade, ie, a craftsman. That is different from the definition of an “artist,” someone whose “work in the arts exhibits requires exceptional skill and is subject to aesthetic criteria.”
Butchery, unfortunately, remains a skilled craft, something that requires significant proficiency and practice, but something that— hopefully — will always be considered a higher level art beyond the reach of even the most intelligent robots.
We have confidence that the creative arts will never be fully delegated to a cadre of steel-skinned automatons.
Unless and until science figures out how to produce identically proportioned cattle and pigs, there will likewise be a need for flesh-and-blood butchers.
And here’s hoping science stops well short of developing the means to produce robot-ready animals.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator