Slaughterhouses in Europe have to abide by rules set out in EU law such as the regulation on the protection of animals at the time of killing.
The slaughterhouse has a crucial position in the meat chain. At the slaughterhouse, the work of the farmer stops and the processing stage to consumer begins. Virtually everything in a slaughterhouse revolves around animal welfare, hygiene, food safety and control, both from the cattle and then from the meat.
Upon arrival at a slaughterhouse, the animals are first examined for health and well-being by a veterinarian. This is the ante mortem inspection (AM). Animals that are sick or unable to walk should not be slaughtered and used for human consumption. The medical officer issues a slaughter permit for each healthy animal.
And there are many other strict processes in the slaughterhouse operations, including:
Animal welfare officers
According to the Council Regulation (EC) No 1099/2009 of 24 September 2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing,in the slaughterhouse ‘ animal welfare officers ‘ ensure that the animals are treated with care. The officers provide advice on improvement opportunities where necessary. These officers are present at the unloading, driving, stunning and killing of the animals. They also monitor welfare in the temporary reception area.
Unloading and stunning measures
The slaughterhouse takes measures to prevent animals from becoming stressed. For example, pigs go to a stable on arrival where they can relax, the unloading itself shall not be done in a manner stressing the animal. Slaughtering must respect EU rules preventing stress and suffering as much as possible. Before the animals are slaughtered, they are first stunned,after which they are cut in the neck and bleed out. Slaughter of animals is a profession for which you must have a special education.
Animals may only be slaughtered in an approved slaughter location.The company must comply with (construction) requirements in the area of the accommodation and transport of the animals, food safety, hygiene, the environment, animal welfare, animal health and the storage and removal of the residual and by-products from slaughter. Slaughterhouses that do not meet the requirements run the risk of having to close their business. This also applies to companies that endanger food safety and public health.
Butchers and slaughter
The slaughter process is surrounded by administrative rules. Partly for that reason, there are very few butchers who slaughter themselves. Slaughtering an animal is also labour-intensive work. Almost all butchers buy a carcass, parts of a carcass or boned parts or meat from a meat wholesaler and then they process that into the meat products and / or sausage and meat products that they sell in their butcher’s shop.
After the animal is slaughtered, a check is carried out on the carcass, on organs such as the lungs, liver, spleen, kidneys and lymph nodes. An approved carcass is stamped. The carcasses are sold to meat processing companies at home and abroad. Rejected carcasses are destroyed.
Quartering the carcass
The liver, spleen and kidneys belong to the parts of a slaughtered animal called the fifth quarter. The other ‘quarters’ are the longitudinal carcass. By-products that are counted up to the fifth quarter are the blood, skin, lower part of the limbs, head, tongue, brain, bones, other organs of the abdominal cavity (tripe / gastrointestinal tract) and chest cavity (heart, lungs, the ‘thymus’ at the calf).
Testing the meat
Judges who check the carcass can read from the organs whether there are abnormalities. When in doubt, the organ is further examined in a laboratory. In addition, blood samples are taken for testing to ensure that only approved meat comes into circulation.
Meat cannot contain remnants or residues of a medicine. Animals treated with medicines may only be presented for slaughter after a mandatory waiting period to prevent residual veterinary medicinal products from remaining. This is checked to make sure withdrawal periods and maximum residue levels are respected.
(See questions under animal health for more info)
Food chain inspection
The Food Chain Information is used for the meat inspection. It contains information about the livestock farm, where the animal comes from. It provides information on the health status of the company’s herd, and on which farms the animal was before it came to the slaughterhouse.
The Food Chain Information also contains information about the use of veterinary medicines and other analysis data on food safety and public health. Results of meat inspections from previous slaughtering of that company can be found there, as well as the name of the responsible veterinarian.
An inspection report is drawn up for each carcass. Every approved carcass is obliged to weigh shortly after slaughter and receives a quality assessment based on a general classification system. We look at the fleshiness, the fatness and the meat colour. The conformation of calves is indicated by one of the letters EUROP. For adult cattle, that is SEUROP. The fatness and meat colour are indicated with a number. In pigs, conformation is indicated by AA, A, B and C.
The NVWA checks whether companies have their records in order, so that measures can be taken if something is wrong with a product and there are risks to public health. The NVWA assesses the performance of the quality systems. It is examined whether procedures are effective enough for food safety. Inspectors also look at whether a company can take adequate corrective and preventive measures. Certifying organizations check whether the slaughterhouse works according to the requirements of the certificates. At slaughterhouses and meat-processing companies that export outside the EU, veterinarians and inspectors from those exporting countries often look at quality assurance.
Hygiene is very important during the slaughter process.The slaughterhouse takes precautionary measures, such as protective clothing for those who want to go into the slaughter room, compulsory disinfection of footwear and mandatory disinfecting hands with soap after every break or after visiting the toilet. In addition, there are rules for slaughtering itself. The intestines and organs are removed in such a way that the carcass is touched as little as possible. Storage and transport from the slaughterhouse is subject to hygiene rules. Only employees who slaughter may enter the slaughter room. The hygiene protocols are laid down in the company’s Hygiene Code. Every employee must adhere to it. Everything is focused on clean slaughter.
- Knives and machines
Knives used for slaughter are regularly disinfected during slaughter to prevent any bacteriological contamination of carcasses. The storage of knives is bound by hygiene rules. Machines and slaughter rooms are cleaned and disinfected at least daily. This also applies to the trucks that transport meat.
- Slaughter line stops
Bacteriological research is being carried out at the slaughter line to rule out possible contamination. Systematic checks on cleaning and compliance with hygiene rules also include checks on the quality of the water used in production. At a slaughterhouse that does not work according to hygiene rules, the inspector can temporarily stop the slaughter line. The company must first disinfect the slaughter line or the slaughter room before further work can be carried out.
- Protective clothing
Slaughterhouse employees wear hair nets, helmets, ear plugs and overalls with a rubber apron and boots or footwear with steel toe caps. The latter depends on the type of work they do. Jewellery, piercings and makeup are forbidden. Employees who work with knives wear a protective glove made of stainless-steel links to help prevent accidents.
Some parts of an animal’s body are destroyed as a precaution because they may pose a risk to public health. This is the case with BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). Eating products with a BSE infection can have health consequences. Parts of an adult bovine animal that pose a risk may under no circumstances be processed into food for humans and animals. Brain and the spinal cord of a slaughtered adult bovine are so-called Specific Risk Material (SRM) that must be burned. Disposal is mandatory by law. The risk material includes the spleen, the skull, the tonsils and the colon that are destroyed as ‘animal waste’. The SRM rules apply to adult cattle, but also to ruminants such as sheep and goats.
The law makes a distinction between Low Risk Material (LRM), High Risk Material (HRM) and Specific Risk Material (SRM). LRM consists of meat products whose expiry date has expired or whose meat structure differs.
Slaughterhouses and the circular economy
Slaughterhouses play an important role in the circular economy. Almost all animal parts rejected as human food products are used for many other purposes:
Residual and by-products from the slaughterhouse go to specialized companies for further processing and valorisation in a different sector than the food or feed chain. The cattle hide and calf skin, as well as the skins of other animals (sheep, goats, pigs, rabbits, etc.), become leather for all kinds of applications.
The intestines are processed into strings for musical instruments and tennis rackets but are also used as sausage casing.
Brushes and brushes are made from a by-product such as pig bristles. The pig’s bladder is suitable for covering lampshades. The bones provide raw material for glue, gelatine and buttons. Animal fat is a raw material for the oil and fat industry (soap). Animal fat is suitable for the production of biodiesel.
Other parts of the animal are raw materials for pet food or for the pharmaceutical and / or cosmetic industry. Everything is usable.
Water and energy
A slaughterhouse uses a lot of water. Not only because animals have to be cared for on arrival, but especially because slaughter rooms and machines are frequently sprayed and disinfected.
The companies have taken measures to reduce water consumption. This can be achieved by collecting used water and making it suitable for cleaning commercial vehicles and stables. Water used in the slaughterhouse (‘process water’) contains meat proteins, fats, blood residues and carbohydrates. This water is first purified and disinfected. This also happens with waste water that goes to the sewer system. Slaughterhouses save water with saving spray nozzles and by reducing the water pressure when cleaning with a high-pressure sprayer. Water consumption is also limited by the use of evaporative condensers on cooling machines and by limiting the rinsing frequency and rinsing time.
Energy (electricity, fuel) is required for the cooling of carcasses and the transport of livestock and meat.Freezing meat for longer storage costs a lot of energy. Slaughterhouses take all kinds of measures to limit the consumption of water and energy, but also to reduce the use of mineral fuel in order to reduce CO2 emissions.
To use energy more efficiently, slaughterhouses have invested in energy-efficient equipment and in alternative energy sources, such as solar and wind energy and biogas. The manure for these biogas plants comes from the stalls where animals for slaughter are temporarily collected. The biogas is used as fuel for the trucks. This is especially possible for larger slaughterhouses. Furthermore, investments are being made in the construction of cogeneration installations. These ‘CHPs’ use gas to generate electricity and, at the same time, to heat water for the disinfection of business premises and the heating of buildings. Energy saving is finally achieved with new cooling and freezing techniques.