Dishing the Dirt
The Secret History of Meat
PART THREE: THE DEATHS OF FARMED ANIMALS
In the slaughterhouse
Like farming, slaughter is an industrial process designed to minimise
the time taken to turn living animals into meat and by-products.
Today, abattoirs are highly mechanised and many abattoir workers
are still paid on piece work, ie by the number of animals they
kill and butcher. Over two-and-a-half million animals are slaughtered
in Britain’s 350 abattoirs each day, a rate that works out
at around 25 per second. Clearly, the speed and “efficiency” of
this process favours neither vigilance, thoroughness or care .
Numerous opportunities for contamination or the spread of disease
arise in the slaughterhouse – and the consequence is that
even animals free of infection when they enter the slaughterhouse
may leave it as infected meat. Animals from many different farms
pass through each abattoir, increasing risk of cross-contamination
of equipment. Frequently covered in filth from the transport lorry,
animals are supposed to be clean at slaughter but a superficial
hosing down is likely to be the very most that dirty animals receive – and
that may even spread infection. There is also nothing, of course,
to prevent animals from defecating and contaminating themselves
and others after any cleaning has taken place. In 2002/3, 128 sheep
and 52 cattle were rejected at abattoirs by official vets (see
below) for being too dirty  but no chickens, despite the fact
that they outnumber sheep and cattle by forty times, are the main
source of salmonella and campylobacter infections and, as we know,
they live and are transported in the most unhygienic conditions.
All animals are also supposed to be inspected by the official
vet to guarantee their health but on average, each vet is responsible
for over 6,000 animals per day.  Clearly, only the most superficial
examinations can be undertaken and the consequence is that only
the most apparent illnesses are diagnosed. Any animals showing
minimal symptoms or none will almost certainly pass the inspection
Prior to slaughter, animals are stunned using either the captive-bolt
pistol (in cattle), electricity or (more rarely) gas. In the case
of poultry, the electric shock is usually administered using an
electrified water bath: birds are hung upside-down on the mechanised
slaughter line and the line dips their heads into the bath as it
passes over it. The bath inevitably becomes fouled with excrement,
contaminating birds as they come through.
After stunning, animals are bled to death by cutting their throats
as they are suspended upside-down. Larger animals will drain copious
amounts of blood, contaminating clothing, equipment, walls and
floors. Although blood is unlikely to harbour bacterial infection
in healthy animals, animals with infection will undoubtedly face
slaughter and blood stains and splashes provide a medium for bacterial
growth in the slaughter area. After bleeding, many animals are
immersed in scalding tanks to loosen hair and feathers – vats
of hot water which inevitably become fouled with blood, dirt and
excrement, forming a medium for bacterial transmission and multiplication.
Witness Statement. A visiting
journalist describes the scalding tank in a chicken slaughterhouse:
“It was 3pm and, as at many factories, the water
was only changed once a day. It was a brown soup of faeces
and feather fragments, and, the hygiene inspector pointed
out, ‘the perfect temperature for salmonella and
campylobacter to survive and cross-contaminate the birds’.” The
Following the scalding tank, animals are butchered, the first
stage of this being disembowelling. In the case of poultry this
process is performed automatically by a machine but the gutting ‘spoon’ is
not sterilised between animals. In larger animals, an incision
is made in the belly by a slaughterman and the intestines hauled
out by hand: all animals’ guts are host to huge populations
of bacteria and intestinal contents may easily contaminate the
flesh at this stage. So toxic are these parts of the body that
an abattoir worker died recently when he was overcome by fumes
clearing out a tank blocked with entrails.
Specified Risk Material (or SRM) is also removed during butchery.
These are the parts of cattle, sheep and goats which are thought
to carry BSE/CJD: brains, spinal cords and parts of the intestines
and skeleton. If this procedure is not carried out efficiently
then there is a risk of contamination of the “meat” portions
of the carcase – something which undoubtedly still takes
place. Remarkably, despite the rules, the supervision and
the known risks, entire spinal cords are still occasionally being
left in place in abattoirs in the UK, while over a hundred
and twenty breaches of the SRM rules were uncovered in imported
meat in 2003.
Once the animal has been butchered for meat and the edible offal
removed, about half of it is still left. Little is wasted, however.
Once the carcase has been manually butchered, plenty of meat is
still attached to the bone and this can be harvested by blasting
the bones with high pressure water, producing what is known as
mechanically-recovered meat - or MRM. Effectively a meat slurry,
it is usually strained through mesh to remove bone fragments and
then used as a generic ‘meat’ ingredient in low-cost
products. MRM from sheep and cattle has been banned as a consequence
of BSE but it is still derived from pigs and poultry.
The remaining portions of the carcase still have considerable
value. Gelatine is produced from animal bones, hooves, skin and
connective tissue (like tendons) and used in products ranging from
sweets to low-fat yoghurts to photographic film. The skin of some
animals goes for leather while feathers may be used for soft furnishing
(UK slaughterhouses produce 150,000 tonnes of feathers per year).
Pet food manufacturers take a proportion of offal and also some
of the products of the final stage in processing – rendering.
Rendering essentially takes what’s left of the carcase, including
feathers, some organs, heads and other parts and melts it down
to produce concentrated fat and protein for use in various manufacturing
processes and to produce meat and bone meal. MBM derived from animals
deemed fit for human consumption is still used in pet food manufacture
in the UK.
Official responsibility for slaughterhouses is divided between
local authorities and the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) the latter
taking specific responsibility for animal health and welfare and
meat safety. The MHS employs a vet - known as an Official Veterinary
Surgeon or OVS - in every abattoir who is responsible for checking
the condition of live animals on arrival, monitoring their welfare
at stunning and slaughter and ensuring that meat hygiene rules
including those pertaining to SRM are adhered to. OVSs are effectively
based in the abattoirs they oversee and may consequently be reluctant
to challenge the practices of the people they associate with on
a daily basis. Indeed, in 1998 a survey of meat inspectors (who
support the work of the OVS in larger abattoirs) found that 75
per cent had been verbally abused at work, over half reported violence
or intimidation and 10 per cent had been threatened with a weapon
(presumably, often a slaughterman’s knife).
OVSs cannot physically monitor all the standards for which they
are responsible and may be reluctant to take action for a variety
of reasons: the result is inadequate regulation. An official
audit in 2003 concluded that the MHS had failed to meet its target “to
strictly enforce the hygiene requirements of the fresh meat, poultry
meat, and wild game meat hygiene and inspection regulations”.
The audit found 17 “major” non-compliances out of 159
audits, an average of more than 10 per cent.
Viva! Witness Statement: “We
visited an abattoir in south Wales. Of the 18 pigs we saw
killed, 3 became conscious after being knifed. They struggled
so violently they freed themselves from their shackles
and plunged into the bleeding pit below. They entered
the scalding tank covered in blood. The vet did nothing.”
Viva! has filmed at abattoirs across the UK.
Vice-President of the Association of Meat Inspectors, Peter Comrie,
was scathing about the MHS’ failings at a seminar in 2004.
Declaring that meat hygiene standards had declined in abattoirs
since the MHS took over responsibility for them in 1995, Mr Comrie
also criticised giving ultimate responsibility for food hygiene
to vets, who were not specialists in the subject. Referring to
the supposed continuity of the system, Mr Comrie said: “The
aim was from farm to fork. It is likely to be from farm to more
shit.” In a letter to the Meat Trades Journal in
October 2004, Stephen Lomax of the Association of Independent Meat
Suppliers went even further:
“There are those in government that are not blind to the
failure of the MHS and the farce of the OVS. Likewise, I have never
encountered a body which is held in such low esteem by its own
employees as the MHS.”
For further information on the slaughter of farmed animals,
see Viva!’s Sentenced to Death and Going
for the Kill reports.
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