• Tuesday, July 9, 2013

    What Temple Grandin wants the world to know: How clean is the slaughter plant?

    One of the keynote speakers at a meeting I attended last month was Dr. Temple Grandin, world renowned animal welfare expert. If you haven’t heard, Dr. Grandin's story (frankly I don’t know where you’ve been hiding). She uses her unique perspective as a person with autism to help the livestock industry better understand animal welfare. Her life story has been made into an HBO movie.

    Dr. Temple Grandin's bookDr. Grandin spoke for over an hour and gave us lots of advice, one piece of which was to tell more of our story in the meat industry. She said that consumers want to know basically two things about their meat:

    1. How did you kill it?

    2. Is it clean?

    I think Dr. Grandin does a great job of addressing question 1 in the beef and pork slaughter videos she made with the American Meat Institute. I will warn you that these videos are graphic, but they are definitely worth watching if you have questions about animal welfare in slaughter plants.

    Dr. Grandin encouraged us to share what we know as meat scientists about the answer to question 2. I really felt like she was talking directly to me.

    The week before my meeting, I was part of a research team that collected some samples in a beef slaughter plant in Arkansas City, Kansas. (Since I posted this, the plant I visited, Creekstone Farms was featured in a story by the New York Times. Check it out and be sure to look for the pictures from inside the plant.)  As I was watching the process, I found myself in awe of the amazing number of steps that were taken on each and every animal to keep the meat clean. I have spent time in countless slaughter plants, and I have seen these steps in action. When I eat meat and when I feed it to my family, I know that the meat is safe and wholesome because I’ve seen what is done. I’ve learned about it in class. I’ve visited with the researchers who validated the steps. But, to stand and watch it all in action is awe-inspiring.

    One of the most amazing facts about these slaughter facilities is how fast they operate. Some may operate as fast as 300 to 400 cattle per hour. The plant I worked in last month operated at about half that speed, but even at the slower speed, that means a new beef carcass rolls past every 24 seconds. If you watch Dr. Grandin’s videos, you can get an idea of how fast the carcasses move through the plant. Another great video to watch is from the Oprah Winfrey show. Reporter, Lisa Ling, toured a beef slaughter plant in Colorado. You can see several of the steps to transform a steer into a beef carcass and eventually, ground beef.

    So, these animals are moving through the plant at pretty fast rates, and they roll on a sort of disassembly line past dozens of workers. Each of these workers has a specific job to do. The first few steps in the process have to do with humanely stunning and bleeding the animal and hanging up its carcass on the rail.

    Then the disassembly begins.

    Skinning a carcass
    Skinning a carcass
    (It is hard to get permission to take
    photos in a slaughter plant. These pics
    are courtesy of my friends at Texas Tech
    from a plant in Latin America. The process
    is pretty much the same as the US.)
    Removing the skin. The hide (skin) must be removed. Some plants will wash the animal’s hide to help lower the dirt and bacteria on it, but all plants have to treat the outside of skin as dirty and the meat as clean. Dirty and clean are not allowed to touch. Most of the employees involved in this process will make a few quick cuts with their knives to remove part of the skin from the carcass as it goes by, and then the carcass rolls on to the next employee. When they are cutting the skin, their knives may get dirty. After they make their cuts on each carcass, the employees will wash their gloves and dip their knives into a sterilizer bath containing 180°F water before the next carcass comes to them. That way each carcass is processed using a clean knife.

    I would say that the workers spend as much time cleaning themselves and their equipment as they do actually cutting on the carcasses.

    Removing the internal organs - Eviscerating
    Removing the internal organs.
    He is not on a moving conveyor,
    but you can see how clean his
    boots and aprons need to be.
    Removing the internal organs. In the videos, you may have seen the workers removing the stomachs and internal organs from the carcasses. These workers are some of the most highly skilled in the plant. This is a very important job because the contents of the stomach and the intestines can be just as dirty as the outside of the hide, and one slip of the knife can result in the contents of the stomach or intestines spilling on the carcass. If that happens, all the meat with gut contents on it must be trimmed away and sent to inedible products. Because this job takes more time and skill, there are several workers doing the same job at once. They actually stand on a big conveyor belt and travel down the line with the carcasses. You may have noticed that the guts and organs are in very close contact with the workers boots and aprons. Once they are finished with a carcass, they will walk back up the line to their next carcass and in the plant I recently observed, they walked through a foot bath with 180°F water and wash their aprons, gloves and knives. So they are essentially sanitizing themselves every few seconds all day long.

    All the little details. You may have noticed in the videos that large pieces of equipment are used to remove the feet and huge saws that split the carcasses. Those are also sterilized in 180°F water between carcasses. The tail is often wrapped in a plastic bag to keep it from touching the meat. The large machine that removes the hide is constantly being washed with 180°F water. Places on the carcass where the initial cuts were made are the most susceptible to contamination, so the plants have a steam vacuum machine to sterilize those areas and vacuum any possible contaminants away.

    Final carcass prep. The last step in the slaughter process is a final cleaning of the entire carcass. It is actually passed through a steam tunnel or a wash cabinet to kill bacteria that may have found their way onto the carcass. Some plants spray the carcasses with an organic acid rinse to kill bacteria on the surface. Then, the carcass is moved to a very cold room (called the hot box because the carcasses are hot when they go in there) with high air velocity to chill it as fast as possible. It is actually below freezing temperature in the hot box because meat freezes at 28°F. The cold temperatures control the growth of bacteria.

    Meatingplace.com has a great spotlight of Greater Omaha Packing and the steps they take to ensure the meat is as clean as possible.

    Cleaning the slaughter floor. Large slaughter plants may operate as many as 16 to 18 hours per day (two 8-hour shifts). At the end of the work day, the slaughter floor is usually a pretty dirty place. That’s when the clean-up crew comes in. Each and every night, a third shift of workers will come to the plant and clean the entire place from top to bottom. Every piece of equipment, every surface, every knife, even the floors and the walls are cleaned with soap and 180°F water and sanitized. Every day. Before operations begin the next day, quality control workers will inspect and swab areas of the kill floor to ensure that the cleaning was thorough. USDA inspectors also evaluate the cleanliness of the facility prior to start up. Similar procedures are used to clean the rooms in the plant where the carcasses are cut up, too.

    If you ever have the chance to visit a slaughter facility, beef, pork, or lamb, take a few minutes to notice all the steps and procedures that workers use to help to ensure that the meat is processed as safely and cleanly as possible. It is really awe-inspiring. I learn something new every time I visit a facility.
    I’m sure this post has generated lots of questions, please feel free to ask. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone that does.


    1. Thank you for your blog!! I check in once in a while and soak in your intelligence :) There are so many "news" articles out there that aim to sensationalize, but not educate the public. I am greatly appreciative of you sharing your knowledge on this topic.

      1. Thank you for the nice comment.

        That is my goal, to provide facts so people can feel good about the food they feed their families.

        Have a good day!

    2. Nice post! I too am in awe of all the steps taken to make our meat supply safe. Everytime I hear someone comment on the filth of a meat packing plant, I immediately know they have never been inside one.

      Keep up the good work!

    3. My Long post disappeared when I hit publish? Ok, here is my condensed version. How does anyone know for a certainty that u will get ur animal back after processing? Would they throw everyone's meat into a bin,grind it all up for the sausage or ground beef & weigh out enuf for each customer?

    4. Thank you so much for your blog. I've referred to it several times. I love that you know the science, yet are also a Mom who cares about what you feed your kids just as much as the rest of us. It's great to have you as a resource.

    5. It seems like everyday I see more skewed and erroneous facts spread through social media, geared towards harming production agriculture. Education is how we fix this and work to insure our livelihood. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge.