When having conversations about meat, there's often language that people adopt to make things sound a bit less harsh. Excuse me if you prefer that language because this post is just plain honest. I'm not going to insert the word harvest instead of saying slaughter because I believe you harvest corn and you slaughter cattle and I'm just going to say it like it is! I also believe that if you are a consumer interested in engaging in conversations about where your meat comes from, you'd rather hear it first hand than have an edited "family-friendly" version come across.
So there is my disclaimer, there's nothing pretty about slaughtering animals for human consumption. It's necessary in my mind and it should be handled humanely and with an appropriate amount of respect.
Beyond making sure animals are handled humanely I also think consumers really want to make sure that the food they are getting is safe. After spending a week mentoring with a USDA Veterinary Medical Officer in Dodge City, KS, I have become even more aware of how safe our food supply in the US is. As a USDA Vet in a meat packing plant, food safety and public health is a number one concern. We spent most of our time at National Beef and some at Cargill. I was very impressed with the plants I toured and Vets I learned so much from. These are a few things I wanted to share:
- Utmost respect. Bottom line, there is nothing pretty about death and the process of taking a live animal and moving it through a system to become food for people. Just because it isn't pretty doesn't mean it isn't handled with a high level of respect. Feel good about the process that takes place in the US because I saw first hand how much respect these animals were treated with. They were given more than enough room in the holding pens to lay down, move around and drink clean water. As they moved closer to the knocking box (where they are rendered unconscious to pain) it was a very quiet and smooth process. Workers moved cattle along calmly, taking advantage of the natural behaviors of cattle and herding them through the alley ways.
- Stringent standards. Rendering animals unconscious to pain is a process taken very seriously in packing plants. Cattle are stunned with a captive bolt that humanely euthanizes each animal and screwing that process up is pretty much zero tolerance. There is a plant employee whose only job is to closely monitor each calf that comes through after being euthanized to make sure that the stunner did it's job.
- Visible pride. The plants that I visited employ a lot of people. It takes a large number of people to make everything work in a shift. The resounding feeling I got from the employees I got a chance to interact with is that they are all very proud of what they do. Feeding a growing population is a noble sector of the work force and meat packing plants in SWKS are in large part providing the world with beef. The employees should be proud, National Beef and Cargill are two outstanding companies that are literally helping to feed the world.
- Integration for success. If you think the cattle business isn't integrated, think again. There are so many factors and sectors of the cattle industry that go into a steak on your dinner plate. One thing I was very impressed with from a Veterinary standpoint was that before cattle even get to a slaughterhouse, the feedyards and cattle producers are just flat doing things right! From what I saw, a lot of credit should be given to the feedyard and cow-calf man when a steer or heifer enters the food chain. Cattle were in good condition, health and physical. Cattle were also overall very uniform which traces back to the genetics that producers have adopted and implemented.
- Hurdles for safety. If you think a carcass is given a once-over and deemed either safe for human consumption or not, think again!!! Carcasses in US meat plants are inspected so many times that I lost track for the first few days. There are so many opportunities for USDA trained inspectors and veterinarians to check for anything that might deem a carcass unsafe for human consumption. This is a wonderful system and is the reason we have the safest food supply in the world.
There's a reason I was impressed this past week by our food system. We are doing things right in the United States. There are a lot of hoops to jump through and a lot of eyes watching to make sure these hoops are jumped through. I'm sure glad it's that way. It keeps the integrity of agriculture in tact and more importantly it keeps our food safe. As a farm girl from Kansas in vet school, I was pretty excited after leaving the packing plant on Friday. I was proud of what people in my part of the country are doing to make sure that people in other parts of the world have beef available to eat. Did you know that 25% of the beef slaughtered in the US comes from SWKS? Feel good about it, folks, because I have personally spent time in 3/4 of the plants in that part of the state and they are doing things right!