Tag Archives: Meat Inspection

Somebody Else’s Slaughterhouse

Sunrise/sunset: 03:04/22:29 Daylength: 19hr24min

A quick warning – this post contains details of the workings and meat processing in an abattoir, so if you don’t want to read about that, this probably isn’t for you!

The year is sliding on by at a great rate now. It’s only a couple of weeks until we will have twenty four hour daylight, though there is still snow on the ground and no sign of any plant life growing. It was lovely then, to fly down to Rogaland in south west Norway: my old stomping ground, where I lived for twelve years before moving north. I had a wonderful feeling of nostalgia when I saw the green fields and gently rolling landscape as we flew in to Sola and then later as I travelled down to Egersund by train.

A peaceful scene, taken from the platform at Klepp Stasjon on the journey between Sandnes and Egersund

There was a degree of nostalgia in visiting the abattoir in Egersund as well. I worked in a temporary, part time post with Mattilsynet in Rogaland, and though I never worked at Nortura Egersund, I had colleagues who worked there, and other colleagues from the area came along to take part in the audit, so it was lovely to catch up with a few old friends as well.

You have probably gathered from my posts over the past few months, that my entry into the world of responsibility for the goings on in Nortura Målselv (where I currently work) have been somewhat chaotic. There are things I am in charge of (including legal EU requirements for certain inspections and audits) that I still feel I am wading into, as they are not set out as clearly as I would like. It was good then, to see how my colleague, Inna, runs her abattoir, and I have returned home with a whole raft of new ideas and paperwork, that I will have to present to my colleagues in the north, so that we can work out what is useful and how we can implement it.

The key activity I was there to observe was a hygiene audit, and that was very interesting. I have carried out a lot of inspections, which examine how things are working on the ground, and whether any laws are being broken. An audit takes a step back from that. It examines the management processes within the slaughterhouse, firstly to check whether there are clear processes in place which, if followed correctly, would properly ensure hygiene is adequate, and secondly an assessment of whether those procedures are actually being put into practice. Obviously there’s no use in having wonderful paperwork, outlining how everything should be done, if that information is not then disseminated to the people doing the job.

I felt like there was a very thorough examination carried out. There was a lot of intensive reading of the operating procedures, which required those carrying out the audit to have a firm understanding of the laws underpinning the functionality of the abattoir, as well as a good knowledge of how things were being done along the line. I can see that the oversight of the latter is something that I am lacking at the moment. Inna told me that she had been advised by an earlier boss, that she should take a tour along the line most days and just observe what was being done at the different stations. I guess most people have never seen this process, but after the animal is killed, the carcase is hung up and travels along the line, where at various stations, removing the skin is followed by removing the inner organs, and gradually along until the carcase has been fully cleaned and is ready to be cut up for meat. There are lots of points in this where the meat could be contaminated, from contact with the skin at the beginning, to contact with the floor (generally with very oversized animals, such as large bulls) towards the end.

Any contamination, whether through soiling with gut contents or from an unsterilised knife, could mean that the meat ends up with too many bacteria on it, which could make the difference between a joint that is safe to eat and one that isn’t. As well as there being instructions on how contamination can be minimised, there also has to be recognition that sometimes, it does happen, so then there must be procedures for how to handle those affected carcases as well. This can include trimming of obviously soiled areas, wrapping and treatment of the surface with steam, or throwing away any parts that are considered not suitable for human consumption. Intermittent tests are also carried out for the presence of certain bacteria, such as salmonella, and if those are found, then the entire batch might be cooked (which kills the bacteria) and sold as a finished product, rather than sending out raw goods that might pose a public health risk.

It was also a treat to stay in Egersund. It is a pretty little town, partly made up of narrow streets lined with painted wooden houses. The hotel I stayed in had been created from some of those wooden houses, which were now integrated as part of a more modern building.

This is my room, with its lovely sloping ceiling. It was on the top floor of the green house on the outdoor picture – what looks like a row of houses has now been integrated inside into a medium sized hotel. The photo on the right, with its green walls and false windows, is part of the original external wall of the green house, which now makes up the decor in the inner well of the hotel within a glass walled stairwell, which winds around a lift.

Egersund is quite well served with good restaurants, and it was difficult to choose between Indian food, sushi and good quality pizza for the one evening meal I ate there. I chose Indian, in the end, as the nearest Indian to me in the north, is in Tromsø. Andrew is moving down to Stavanger in the summer though, so I think we will take a tour around when I travel down with him. Egersund will definitely be on the list of places to revisit.

On my way back, I stayed overnight with Wivek, who owns Triar’s mum. It was lovely to catch up with her and her family, who made me feel very welcome.

Triar’s mum, Trifli

All in all, it was a very useful visit. I have a much better grasp on what an audit entails, and specifically on how a hygiene audit should be carried out. I’m still not sure that I’m ready to have overall responsibility to carry out our own audit, but whether I will have to carry out the audit with help from knowledgeable local colleagues, or whether I can ask for support from one of my more experienced colleagues from the south west, will be up to my boss.

Tree blossom in Wivek’s garden. Spring has definitely arrived in Rogaland

The Art of Killing

Sunrise/sunset: 05:15/ 18:33. Daylength: 13hr 17mins

I started this week with a farm visit with Thomas. We were collecting cow poo to check for paratuberculosis (Johne’s disease). I had arrived prepared with some of those long orange gloves I used to use years ago in practice for calvings and pregnancy diagnosis, but in the event, Thomas simply scooped up dung from behind the oldest cows in the herd with a green plastic spoon. Don’t tell me my job isn’t filled with glamour!

I also spent part of the week at the abattoir, where on Tuesday I stood on the pig line by myself for the first time, and yesterday when I stood in for a colleague on the sheep line. Meat inspection of pigs is more difficult than inspecting sheep. This is partly because they are prone to abscesses in unpredictable places and partly because of their thick skin which remains in place rather than being removed, as is the case with other species. I have never been particularly fond of pigs, though my biggest veterinary claim to fame is that I once helped one of the stars of Emmerdale Farm (as it was then) to give birth to a very fine litter of piglets. As I work in the abattoir though, they are starting to grow on me as I become more familiar with handling them.

Compared with cattle and sheep, pigs are both noisy and noisome. Unlike the others, pigs are omnivores, which means their dung smells way more unpleasant than the digested grass or hay that herbivores produce. They are also descended from forest dwelling foragers, rather than being herd animals living on grasslands. They have a tendency to squeal very loudly when you try to get them to do something they don’t want to and when I first started to examine them in their pre-slaughter check, I would often find them squealing at the top of their lungs as I encouraged them to stand up. They mostly come into the abattoir the afternoon before, and when I arrive to check them at about six thirty in the morning, most of them are sleeping.

To carry out a thorough check, I have to go into the pen and wake them. I want to see them all walking about and check them more thoroughly than I can if they are lying flat on their sides. Obviously waking them up is never going to be particularly popular. Indeed sometimes when the whole pen is deep in slumber, I will check the other pens first, where at least one or two of the pigs are already up and rooting around. But I have learned, from experience, that most of the squealing comes when I disturb them unexpectedly and they want to get up but can’t due to a lack of space, or because another pig stood on them in the flurry of rising. So now I go through very gently and try to ensure that when I start to nudge a pig to get up, it has space around its head so that it can do so without panic. There are still occasional squeals when they come up against each other, but more often I elicit a rather pleasant grunting.

Controversial though it might be, I have also found myself watching the slaughter process with increasing fascination. As a very young vet, I once shot a sheep and was so horrified that I have never done it since. I suppose it’s cowardly to have taken that path as there are times when it is necessary and somebody else had to do it, but I wanted to mention it in light of my monitoring the pigs at the abattoir. It’s part of my job to check that the stunning and bleeding process is done properly, so that the animals do not suffer. I had no choice in the beginning, but I no longer worry about what I might witness. I have discovered that they are so efficient with the pigs that I now see it as being close to an art form. They bring them in in small groups, manoeuvre an individual into position without stress (the slaughter men encourage them to wander around the pen until they end up in the right place) and then stun them with a carefully placed tong that sends an electric current through them. There is no squealing and no sign that they are distressed by the smells in the pen or anything they can see. I can’t speak for any other systems, but I genuinely believe that the pigs in the abattoir where I work meet their end in a way that doesn’t cause distress. I take no joy in killing, but in doing it humanely? That is of the foremost importance.

Manic Meat-inspector

Sunrise/sunset: 08:36/ 16:26. Daylength: 7hr 50min

The slaughter season for lamb is almost over. I can’t pretend to be unhappy about that. With three technicians out of action and a vet colleague limited to inspection of live animals, I’ve ended up working in the abattoir every day for the past couple of weeks and it will continue for a week and a half more. I’ve decided to write a bit more about what I do… though it will be tongue in cheek. I have the typical dark humour about my job that I think many vets share. The life of a vet has some grim moments alongside the joy that working with animals often brings, and so it pays to laugh about it all now and then. So if you’re squeamish, you could just look at the photos and ignore the text altogether… otherwise, feel free to join me.

I’ve said before that the abattoir is a dangerous place. We have to wear a lot of PPE ( I no longer have to explain what that means – thanks Covid!). I generally work for an hour, then have half an hour off, but during the break, I have to strip off the outer layers of protective clothing, then put them back on again, which takes five minutes or so off each end.

Everyone in my section wears white trousers and a T-shirt as standard, and as I go into the sluice to get ready, I add a hair net, a white cotton short sleeved shirt, some rather fetching chain mail, a blue plastic apron, a helmet with ear protectors, a Kevlar glove on my left hand, a cotton one on my right, and finally a pair of waterproof latex gloves on top of the first pair. It’s important to put it all on in the right order. It’s hard to get a chain mail shirt over your helmet and harder still to tie your apron behind your back with two pairs of gloves taking away most of the fine sensation. I’ve managed to arrive in the hall missing every single item, including one head-scratching moment* when I reached up a hand to grasp something and realised that although my right hand was fully gloved, on the left I was wearing only the Kevlar glove. Goodness knows how I managed to remember the first and not the second, but there it is.

The line often stops while we are working. There’s a long succession of people, each one playing a small part in the process, and if any stage a problem occurs, then it is possible to stop the line while it is overcome. Most of the time, I have no idea why everything has come to a standstill as much of it is out of sight. I imagine generally, it is something mundane: one of the shearers hasn’t completed the job, or some item of equipment has lost power. But the other day, as I was leaving the hall for my break, I heard loud yelling. When I turned round, someone was running to stop the line. With a sense of shock, I saw one of the engineers was up in the rafters. His shirt was entangled in one of the meathooks and he was being dragged towards the edge of the inspection platform. Luckily the line stopped in time and someone else began to climb up the ladder to free him. Which is fortunate for me as if it had ended differently, I would definitely not be including this part of the story.

As I said earlier, I will be glad when the season is over. There are good things about the work. I could wax lyrical about my wonderful colleagues and the simple pleasure of a really good sharp knife, or even the unexpectedly entrancing swirl of a chainmail shirt as you stride across the floor. But as I walked back into the hall on Wednesday, checked to see that nobody was hanging from the roof, then dodged between a pair of swinging pig carcasses, both decorated with one of the big red tags that means the vet has seen something dodgy that needs attention, it struck me** that you could make the most wonderful platform game based on the production line.

If you’re young, you probably won’t remember Manic Miner, who rushed around underground trying to avoid spiders, slime and at one point being pursued by angry toilets with flapping seats that I could never get past as I was laughing too hard. But for those of us old enough to remember the pleasures of a good platform game, I hope you’ll agree that the slaughterhouse holds loads of possibilities. As well as pork dodging, there could be ladders up to the ceiling with moving hooks to avoid, a run through the flaming hot section where the hair is burned off the pigs, and a section with slippery bits of fat lying on the floor, just waiting for you to put your heel on them and slide into oblivion.

Anyway, enough of that. Back to the real world. It did snow a little, as you can see from the pictures of the frozen pond halfway up the page. But before that there were a few days when the temperature dropped fifteen degrees overnight. The resulting hoar frost was the best I have ever seen. Everything was sparkling, each blade of grass and tree branch wonderfully decorated: white on blue. I stopped half way home to take some pictures, one of which is at the top of the page. The rest I will add below. So while work is less than perfect, I am still marvelling every day about the fact that I get to live somewhere so beautiful. And as the winter arrives in full, I very much hope to share it all with you.

* Head-scratching is neither advisable with gloved hands, nor really possible with a helmet on. ‘Twas only a figure of speech.

**It was the thought that struck me, not a lump of pivoting pork. Just so we’re clear!