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Anti-mad cow steps at trial-error stage

November 21, 2001 The Daily Yomiuri (Tokyo)  by Fumio Tanaka Yomiuri Shimbun
A month has passed since it was announced that all cattle in the nation would be tested for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. A system has been established in which only meat that passes inspection proceeds to market. However, a new problem has surfaced--how to prevent contamination during the slaughtering and butchering process.

In particular, experts point out the possibility of meat and internal organs being contaminated by the scattering of dangerous parts of the brain and the spinal cord at two different stages of the butchering process:

-- When a wire is pushed into the brain to paralyze the animal.

-- When the carcass is sectioned by cutting it in half along the backbone. In October, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry issued guidelines on protecting against contamination from the potentially dangerous brain and spinal column. While each meat-processing facility has made efforts to secure safety, traditional labor practices and a shortage of equipment have become obstacles to implementing the government-led measures.

A room for butchering beef at a slaughterhouse in the Tohoku district looks like a corridor made of walls of beef hanging from hooks on a track suspended from the ceiling. The room is filled with steam used to sterilize the meat.

After cattle tied with ropes are sent into the room, a machine shoots a slender bolt into their foreheads. After the animals are felled by the shock, workers lose no time in pushing a steel wire into the hole in the skull to sever the spinal cord and paralyze the animal. This stage of processing is called nerve destruction.

While the cattle are paralyzed, the workers hang them upside down from the hooks on the track and drain the animals' blood. The aim of nerve destruction is to secure safety for the workers in this later stage of the process.

However, there is a possibility of the brain and the spinal cord spilling out from the body if workers carelessly insert or pull out the steel wire. For that reason, the ministry issued an official notice on Oct. 17 recommending that this method of nerve destruction be discontinued.

Since the government's notice, the workers at the meat-processing facility have changed the process so that the steel wire is not inserted as deeply and is carefully drawn from the forehead. However, without inserting the wire deep into the skull, it cannot reach the spinal cord and cattle are sometimes not fully paralyzed.

"There are cases in which cattle move violently and the workers are put in a dangerous situation. We've become more nervous than before," one of the slaughterhouse managers said.

Next, the workers skin the cattle, cut off the head and remove the internal organs from the body, leaving only the meat and bones. In the final step of the process to prepare the animal for shipping to market, called "back dividing," workers cut the carcass into two half or "sides" along the center of the backbone.

The workers use large, heavy, electric saws suspended from the ceiling on cables to cut the backbones.The workers cut down the length of an animals backbone in about 15 seconds along the center line from the base of the tail to the neck, using small knives to strip the spinal cord off the center of the backbone.

There are two points in the process at which contamination is a possibility:

-- When spinal cord fragments are scattered as the workers cut along the backbone.

-- When spinal cord fragments stick to the blade of the saw.

The ministry, in its official notice, told slaughterhouses to wash the blade after each carcass is divided, but it allowed them to continue the back-dividing method because it is necessary to maintain the shape of the carcass.

At the slaughterhouse in the Tohoku district, the workers wash the saw blades and change them after every 10 carcasses to limit contamination in case mad cow disease is later detected in tests. However, the financial burden on meat packers has been increased by the need to purchase the additional blades.

After mad cow disease was found in Japan, the slaughterhouse lost customers in metropolitan areas. According to the facility, the number of cattle butchered at the facility decreased to about 50 a day, one-third of the average number. The operating days also decreased to three days a week and some of the employees were ordered to stand by at home. European methods

Some European countries where rampant cases of mad cow disease have been reported have taken aggressive steps to prevent the contamination of meat at slaughterhouses.

French authorities decided in July to introduce a vacuum cleaner-like piece of equipment that sucks the spinal cords from cattle carcasses at slaughterhouses, thus reducing the risk of contamination that comes with opening the backs of cattle. The use of the equipment will become mandatory in January. Spanish slaughterhouses will also be obligated to use the equipment next year.

Some slaughterhouses in France electrocute cattle to destroy their nervous systems. In the United States, cattle are hung by their hind legs immediately after being shot in the forehead with a bolt, and the nervous system is not destroyed. The process is mechanized to secure the safety of workers.

The Japanese government quickly responded to the mad cow scare by banning the distribution of meat and bone meal, which was considered to be the cause of the spread of the disease in Japan. In addition, it tested all cattle with standards as strict as those used in Europe. However, the government has been slow to take measures to reduce the risk of contamination when cattle are slaughtered.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry held a meeting in mid-October, hearing opinions from specialists on whether the practice of opening the backs of cattle can be halted. Although slaughterhouses were instructed to clean used saw blades and collect and burn spinal cords, the ministry stopped short of banning the practice.

"If they stop opening cattle from the back, the meat will fall off the backbone, which makes the shape of the carcasses ugly and difficult to sell," an official of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said. "There are cases in Europe (of slaughterhouses) that were forced to give up plans to stop opening cattle from the back."

The meeting also concluded that the practice of destroying the nervous system using wire should be stopped, but did not propose an alternative method and only a few slaughterhouses accepted this advice.

Some slaughterhouses have taken their own precautionary measures to stop the spread of the disease.

Takasaki Shokuniku Center in Gunma Prefecture will soon introduce the same equipment that is used to suck out spinal cords in France.

Although the equipment costs about 4 million yen per unit, the center hopes to secure the safety of meat by purchasing the equipment despite its financial difficulties as it is believed to remove 70 percent to 80 percent of the spinal cords from carcasses.

Matsubara Meat Plant in Osaka Prefecture developed a system that blows out spinal cords from the back of cattle carcasses by blowing high pressure air through a hose into the center of the back. "The process takes less time than that required with the suction equipment and it only costs 2,000 yen, which is the price of the hose," the slaughterhouse official said.

The nation's largest wholesale meat market, the Tokyo Wholesale Market, has introduced the system on an experimental basis, but said it is less effective in removing spinal cords than the suction equipment.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry officials plan to observe individual measures taken in different parts of the country, which could lengthen the duration of the meat safety debate.


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