• Tuesday, November 12, 2013

    Meat inspection: Pass or Fail.

    I have seen a few urban-myth stories about “Grade D” meat sold in fast food restaurants. These stories make it sound like the meat is barely edible, just a step above dog food. This would imply that meat is categorized on safety with letters like A, B, C, D. That is simply not the way things are done in this country.

    When meat is evaluated for safety and wholesomeness, it either passes and is sold for human consumption or it fails and cannot be sold for human consumption. Pass or fail: there is no middle ground.

    To be legally sold in the US, meat must be inspected by a USDA inspector. In some states (27), if the meat will not cross state lines for sale, an inspector from a state inspection agency may inspect the meat. Meat that will be sold across state lines or exported must be inspected by USDA.
    USDA logo

    If animals are to be slaughtered, the USDA meat inspectors must be there and observe the entire process. They have to inspect the live animals before they are slaughtered. At that point, they qualify as passed, suspect, or condemned. Animals that are considered ‘suspect’ are held for a time and reevaluated before they can be passed. Sick and dying animals do not pass inspection. Only healthy animals that can walk on their own are allowed to be harvested for food. 

    USDA inspectors observe the slaughter process and make sure the animals are humanely harvested. The animal is required by law to be stunned and rendered insensitive to pain, before the animal dies by massive blood loss that it does not feel. Dr. Temple Grandin has made it her life’s work to ensure that animals are handled and slaughtered humanely in meat processing plants. Meat companies use her methods and advice for humane handling in the plant and humane slaughter. If you are interested, she has made videos of humane stunning of beef and pork that you can watch.

    After the animal dies, inspectors observe the entire slaughter process and will look at the carcass and all of its parts and pieces to make sure it was truly healthy and is safe to consume. They look at the head and lymph glands, the heart, lungs, liver and other internal organs. They make sure the carcass is clean and was not contaminated during the slaughter process. I have a blog post about all the steps in the slaughter process that help to make sure the carcass stays as clean as possible.

    Once the slaughter process is complete, the inspector will declare each carcass as pass, retain, or condemn. Animals that need further diagnosis are held in a locked area of the plant.  They are “retained” for further testing. Any carcasses that are condemned are deemed inedible and removed from the food supply.

    Carcasses that pass inspection are stamped with a purple, edible ink. This stamp will contain a number that corresponds with the plant where the animal was slaughtered. These are called ‘establishment numbers.’ Each USDA-inspected meat processing facility has a unique number given to them by USDA. These are for slaughter and processing plants. You can visit the establishment number page on the USDA website and find where a particular item was processed, or you can look up the numbers of plants by searching where they are located.
    Inspection stamp
    This picture came from Jenny Dewey Rohrich and
    her blog at Chico Locker and Sausage.
    Beyond slaughter, inspectors work in all types of meat plants to oversee the daily processes. They may work in the non-slaughter areas of a slaughter plant or in other types of meat plants that do not slaughter animals, such as sausage plants or grinding facilities. They watch all the aspects of production and work to insure that the meat is processed in a safe manner. They may check temperatures of meat or production rooms, make sure everything is stored properly, watch that employees follow all the food safety regulations, take samples of meat or food contact surfaces for pathogen testing, or check that all the food safety paperwork is filled out correctly.

    Side note: Inspectors work for the US government and are paid with tax-payer dollars for their 40-hour week. If they work overtime, the companies have to pay for their hours. Many of them work in shifts just like the plant employees do.

    A meat product has passed several levels of checking and rechecking to ensure that it was produced safely and labeled correctly before it reaches the consumer with its inspection stamp. Any product that has passed inspection and been stamped or labeled with the USDA inspection stamp is edible and fit for consumption. If it’s not, it failed.

    There is no barely-edible or partially-passed meat under USDA inspection.

    Here are a few more resources about meat inspection:

    ·         A video with Dr. Chris Raines about meat inspection

    ·         Facts and a history of Meat Inspection from Texas A&M University

    ·         A blog post about meat inspection from Chico Locker and Sausage Co, Chico, CA.