How a Slaughterhouse Works
With 15 people sickened as the result failed safety measures at the brooks, Alta., slaughterhouse run XL foods, there is new-found interest in how, exactly, a live cow becomes a vacuum-packed roast. The details aren’t for the squeamish-it’s not called a “killing floor” without reason. But knowing how meat is processed should help consumers push for better rules and safety checks. The truth is, the industrial slaughter house is already a miracle of modern engineering, efficiency and split- second timing. Large meat plants process an estimated 325 cattle per hour, or more than five cows every single minute. Yet E. coil contamination is rare. “Each time something is removed from the animal, an inspector examines it,” says Canadian meat council food consultant Merv Baker. Floor inspectors also do additional hygiene checks along the line, and equipment is sanitized between animals. -SARAH BARMAK
As the XL foods recall showed, mistakes can happen. But there are already a surprising number of safety checks in place.
Step 1: Pre-slaughter
Cattle are herded into pens of about 45 to 50 and hold for less than a day. They are given water, but not fed, and checked by a Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) member for signs of illness. Due to the close quarters, manure can stick on to the animals’ hides during this stage.
Step 2: Stunning
A cow is guided up a ramp into the “knock box”-a pen just big enough for the animal. A worker uses a pneumatic gun to release a bolt into the forehead. A wax plug is inserted in the risk of brain tissue contamination-a guard against mad cow disease.
Step 3: Bleeding
The cow is hung from its hind legs and its throat is cut to bleed it until dead. Its feet and horns are removed to ease dehiding. The hide is moistened to prevent smeared manure from drying and becoming airborne.
Step 4: Dehiding
With the cow suspended, a worker cuts the hide from the hind legs with a knife. Chains are attached to the ends of the hide, and a machine pulls away the rest. Manure from the skin can get on the meat, so workers must be vigilant. inspectors typically observe this stage to ensure the skin is removed properly.
Step 5: Decapitation
A worker uses a six-inch knife to slice between the animals first vertebra and its skull. In another protective measure against mad cow, a second knife is used to cut the spinal cord. After an inspector checks the head for signs of disease contamination, it is taken away and its tongue and cheeks may be harvested. The surface carcass is sprayed with an anti-microbal organic acid, often lactic acid. Areas where contamination is more likely, such as the hocks, are steam vacuumed
Step 6: Evisceration
After the cow’s sternum is cut through, it can be gutted, its viscera are sorted into organs that are edible (heart, liver) and organs that aren’t (lungs). There is a heightened risk of be removed carefully to keep forces from getting on the meat.
Step 7: Decontamination and refrigeration
The carcass is blasted by either steam or water hot enough to pasteurize the meat, or sometimes both. It is then treated again with organic acid and inspected. The carcasses are chilled for 24 hours . After chilling, one in 300 carcasses is tested for E. coli. Finally they get another acid treatment.
Step 8: Fabrication
The carcasses is butchered into various cuts and trimmings, which are destined to become ground beef. Fat is rendered into tallow and waste products discarded. The cuts are treated with acid ones again. Trimmings are tested specifically for E. coli 0157:H7, the kind found in XL food beef. CFIA inspectors oversee this stage
Step 9: Processing
Trimmings go into “combos”-bins that can hold up to 1,000 kilograms of meat. Then, they’re either ground into hamburger on site or taken elsewhere.
Step 10: Shipping
Cuts of beef are vacuum-packed for delivery to shops, where butchers may divide them into smaller cuts.
The Meat business
- The number of cattle large Canadian slaughterhouses process in one day, on average is 4,000
- That is an estimated 325 per hour
- 1 in 300 carcasses swabbed for evidence of generic E.coli before butchering
- The minimum number of times a cow gets inspected as it moves through the process is 6