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. 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|
(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.)
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.|
He is not on a moving conveyor,
but you can see how clean his
boots and aprons need to be.
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.