Tag Archives: Meat Inspection

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!