Meat Packing Industry Term Paper

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Safety and Health Issues in Meat Processing Industry

In the meat processing industry, health and safety issues are of vital importance, in view of the several risks arising out of microbial contamination of meat and the occupational hazards faced by workers. Past experiences have shown that microbial reproduction in meat and meat products can reach alarming proportions traversing across countries and even continents. The infamous mad cow disease and the foot and mouth disease in cattle has rattled the British meat industry for a considerable period, resulting in loss of image, confidence and erosion of profits. North America's main problem is the widespread prevalence of eschericia coli in meat, more commonly known as the hamburger disease. It is well-known that meat is highly susceptible to attack of bacteria and virus and hence there is a constant need to address this risk. When microbial activity sets in, the quality of meat is affected and the consumer suffers from food poisoning or infection.

According to Dr. Linda Saucier of Canada's Food Research and Development Centre (FRDC), every year about 5 to 10% of the global population is inflicted by some kind of food poisoning; of which one out of three cases of food-poisoning is due to contamination in meat or meat products. (Brodeur, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada). Since the animals brought for slaughtering will have microbes in one form or the other, the risk of infection is invariably high while processing the meat. Another major issue in meat industry is the safety and health of workers carrying out the processing operations. Meat processing involves a great deal of physical activity and the compulsion to work in environmentally hostile conditions. The nature of work requires workers to manually handle heavy equipment on a repetitive basis and this can lead to serious physical injuries and illnesses. Unsafe working conditions will lead to lower productivity and increase the risk of losses. Lack of hygiene and safety in the meat processing units can lead to major quality problems with respect to the final quantity of meat. Once meat shows sign of infection, it will face market rejection, cannot be sold and may have to be destroyed.

Sources of meat:

The main sources of meat are cattle, pig, sheep and poultry. Cattle include cow, calf and bullock. Cow beef is manufactured from cows that are typically near or past their useful period of milk production. Such cows are generally 5-8 years' old, although regulations in UK do not allow extraction of meat from cattle, aged more than 30 months. (Ranken, 2000, p.23). When the population of male and female calves is in excess of the milk cattle demand, then the surplus is diverted for meat manufacture. Bullock meat is manufactured from breeds having weight of 450 kg or more. Pig meat comes from bacon pig, heavy hog, continental breeds and boars. Pig meat is valued for its rich fat content and used for making fresh pork, bacon, and sausage and pie meat. In poultry, chicken is the main source of meat. Chicken meat is made from hens (which are past their egg laying time), broilers (birds suitable for grilling) and broiler breeder hens (parents of broilers). Turkey meat is also popular and is characterized by its heavy weight and yield of meat.

Pre-slaughtering of animals and birds:

The risk of microbial infection is present right from the stage of rearing the animals. Handling of animals in the period before slaughtering can determine the quality and hence the commercial value of the finished meat. Poor handling of the animals and birds in the pre-slaughtering stage such as rough transportation and cramming large number of animals in small cages, may lead to unwarranted stress and state of agitation in animals. Stress leads to softening of pig meat and dark cuts in cattle, affecting the quality. Under stress, birds and animals tend to defecate more, thus posing risks of contamination. Stress has been known to promote growth of salmonella in pigs and even shedding of E-coli in cattle. (Varnam and Sutherland, 1995, p.44)


The Health and Safety Executive of the UK has identified meat and poultry slaughtering as the major contributors of injury to workers in the UK. Over a three-year period, injuries per 100,000 workers were 3845 for meat slaughtering, 2943 for poultry slaughtering and 2081 for meat and poultry products. These incidence rates were much higher compared to the entire manufacturing industry average of 1190 injuries per 100,000 workers over the same period (Health & Safety Executive). This is a striking evidence of the high risk of injuries of workers in the meat processing industry. The methods employed in slaughtering will have an impact not only on the quality and quantity of meat, but also on the safety of workers and the well being of the ultimate consumers of meat. A typical slaughtering house will use animals from a variety of sources and hence the risk of animals having diseases and microbial infection is always present. Symptoms of certain diseases such as rabies or tetanus may be more evident in live animals than in the carcass. Certain infections need to be detected without loss of time as they may reach epidemic proportions if left unchecked. Examples include the dreaded anthrax and food and mouth disease. Anthrax is caused by a bacterium bacillus anthracis, which produces infective spores. It has the ability to spread rapidly in animals and humans and can be fatal. Foot and mouth disease is caused by a virus, which creates blisters in the mouth and feet, inducing drooling in the process. While this is not fatal, it contributes to reducing the efficiency of the body organs.

Before slaughtering, the animals are generally subjected to the process of 'stunning; wherein the animals are immobilized to facilitate quick severing of the blood vessels. The advantage of stunning depends on the fact that animals are saved from feeling the pain of being killed. Animals are stunned in three ways - use of mechanical instrument such as captive bolt pistol, passage of electric current through the brain and inducing unconsciousness by subjecting the animals to anaesthetic gases such as carbon dioxide. In these methods, the objective is to traumatize the brain, so that the animal becomes unconscious and the animal can be killed without resistance or reaction. However, not all meat processors follow the practice of stunning. For instance, the methods adopted by Jews, Muslims (halal meat) and Sikhs do not incorporate stunning prior to slaughter (Warriss, 2000, p.56). The animals are generally killed by a single stroke of the sword. This exposes the workers to the risk of suffering injuries due to the handling of heavy sword repeatedly and dealing with animals, which are conscious and hence having the capability to react in some form.

Pithing is one of the commonly used processes in slaughtering adult cattle. The objective of pithing is to destroy the brain and spinal cord, so that the animals do not react involuntarily during slaughtering. A long flexible rod, called the pithing cane made of plastic or stainless steel is inserted into the skull of the animal through the hole created in the head by shooting with captive bolt pistol and physically moving the cane to damage the brain parts. The cane is also slid down the vertebral canal to destroy the spinal nerves. Pithing poses grave risks as the opening up of internal parts of the animal can become an easy target for microbial infection. With the blood circulation system still functioning at the time of brain destruction, there is every possibility of the microbes spreading to other organs. Another method is the severing of spinal cord at the point where it enters the skull by using knives. (Jones, 1992, p.12)

While this method may cause instant paralysis, it does not render the animal unconscious and hence is generally not a favored method. Apart from the risk of microbial attack, pithing can cause accidents, illnesses and traumatic disorders in workers due to the frequent lifting and handling of heavy equipment and repetitive nature of work involved. In modern meat processing systems, the trend is to discard the method of pithing, which provides comfort to the consumers that the risk of microbial contamination is greatly reduced. In another operation, sticking, the animal's arteries and veins are cut to ensure brain death. Here again knives are used and immediately after cutting, bleeding will result from to the fractured arteries and veins. The blood oozes out of the wounds and is thus exposed to the risk of infection from external sources. Repeated sticking operations involving the physical use of knives exposes the workers to the risk of injuries and cumulative traumatic disorders. (Jones, 1992, p.13)

Another major occupational risk involves carcass dressing. Outer skins of even healthy animals can be contaminated with dirt and bacteria. This is more prevalent in animals, which have plenty of hair on the skin. The hair layers can also be a breeding place for insects and flies, often carriers of…[continue]

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