I am often asked what I do for a living and when I reply that I am a Meat Hygiene Inspector, I am usually met with blank looks. Does that mean you go round looking at butchers shops? is normally the next question. “I work at the primary end of the meat industry”, is normally my next comment, “in the abattoirs”.
This inevitably leads to me explaining in very loose terms what we do to ensure the production of safe meat, and that Environmental Health Officers are the people that visit butchers shops. The conversation usually ends along the lines of “well, it’s not a job I would fancy doing”.
All this indicates two things very clearly;
1) That people generally do not realise that MHI’s actually exist,
2) That when people are informed that we exist, they are more than happy that someone else does the job on their behalf.
If asked, most folk will freely admit to not actually having given the safety of their meat much thought at all. Basically, they take for granted that the meat they buy is safe to eat.
So what exactly does a Meat Hygiene Inspector do? What are his /her obligations, duties and responsibilities?
The Role of the Meat Hygiene Inspector (MHI)
The first obligation of the MHI is to get up and into work at a time when most other folk are still in the land of slumber. Traditionally, the workers in the meat industry have always been early risers. An efficient MHI will be changed and ready for work by the time plant staff are ready to start slaughtering.
Although not an official duty any longer, a good MHI will take a quick walk around the slaughter hall prior to production and carry out a visual pre operational hygiene check, just to verify that the plants cleaning schedule is operating as it should and that the plant is clean. This is also the time to confirm that all the sterilizers are operational and that soap dispensers and hand towels have been replenished.
It is often the case that the plant cannot start without the presence of the MHI. For example, the need to mouth sheep at the point of slaughter (POS) or the verification of cattle passports, so it really is an obligation to be prompt in this aspect of the job.
Although ante-mortem inspection is now the exclusive preserve* of the Official Veterinarian (this was not always the case) the MHI will still cast an eye over the animals at unloading or in the pens of the lairage. He will also look at the haulier’s vehicles to satisfy himself that animal welfare is not being compromised and check that there are no welfare issues with the animals themselves.
The MHI will then monitor the movement of animals to the POS, particularly where the use of electric goads is employed, again to verify the preserved welfare of the animals.
At slaughter, the MHI will monitor the effectiveness of the stunning, the stun to sticking times and ensuring that the minimum bleedout times are strictly adhered to. Again, all for the benefit of preserving animal welfare. In the case of cattle and sheep/goats this is generally done whilst carrying out the mouthing of the sheep/goats or the verification of the cattle passports/reading of eartags and dentition checks.
Until the carcases are then presented to the MHI for post-mortem inspection, he will watch the standards of carcase dressing and evisceration. Should there be a problem, an experienced MHI will generally be able to pinpoint where/why the problem has arisen and offer some informal advice that will lead to the rectification of the problem. A good working relationship with plant staff is invaluable in this aspect of the job.
At post-mortem inspection, the green offals, red offals and the inside and outside of every single animal is inspected to a prescribed set of instructions. The Meat Hygiene Inspector will have a detailed knowledge of pathologies, parasites and conditions that allow him to make a judgement as to the fitness of the presented carcase for human consumption. He will then make one of three judgements;
1) Fit for human consumption.
2) Detained-the carcase will be in need of further investigation in order to reach the correct judgement, or is in need of reworking to allow a favourable judgement to be passed.
3) Rejected as unfit for human consumption.
Just occasionally, a case will present itself where the decision is “borderline”. In such cases, or where any shadow of doubt exists, then the consumer must receive the benefit of such doubt, and the carcase, offals and blood should be rejected. For it should be remembered that the consumer and the protection of public health is the paramount reason for the role Meat Hygiene Inspectors.
In the case of cattle and sheep above prescribed ages, additional Specified Risk Materials (SRM) needs to be removed as a legislative requirement, and in some cases, brain stem samples need to be taken for testing , to rule out transmissible spongiform encephalopathy’s (TSE’s) and the MHI will check that these requirements have been met. When he is satisfied that the carcase has been produced in a manner that complies with the regulations, the MHI will then apply the health mark that means that carcase is permitted for sale for human consumption.
When production has been completed, the MHI will check that all unfit meat and SRM is disposed of in a manner that complies with the regulations. This generally means that the different categories of waste are stored in their corresponding receptacles, and that all SRM is stained with a blue dye, and all unfit meat is stained with a black dye, in order to further make it unpalatable and therefore unmarketable. He will also keep a weather eye as to the strength of dilution of the dye.
As with most jobs these days, there is the inevitable paperwork to deal with;
At the end of production, the MHI will write up a list of the meat he has rejected; figures that he is quite likely to have held mentally for the duration of his stint on line. These figures will be recorded on forms that will be collated centrally to try and form a national picture of diseases/conditions and parasites, so accuracy is essential.
These rejections will then be written up as rejected meat receipts that will be distributed to each individual producer (if they are interested). The MHI will also record the declared figures for the numbers of animals slaughtered. These will again be used centrally for charging purposes. Specified Risk Materials and their controls will be recorded and filed away for two years, as will all paperwork generated. All cattle passports will have been verified, checked that they are signed and dated and then stamped as reconciled when the MHI is thus satisfied. These will then be sent to the British Cattle Movement Service, via the post office, which the MHI will generally do on his way home.
Throughout the course of the day the MHI will record various things in the daybook, such as kill numbers, species and the times of kill, problems that arise and their solutions, breakdown times and their resolution etc.
Fridge checks will also be undertaken, to maintain a watching brief as to carcase compliance, and to check that nothing has been missed as regards health marking, detained carcases that have not been re-worked and re-assessed etc.
At the end of the day, the MHI will ensure that his kit is thoroughly washed down and sterilized, ready for the next shift, ensure that his health mark is returned to the safe and signed back in and then input his daily timesheet into the computer.
As well as the tasks carried out routinely throughout the course of the day, there are occasions when the Meat Hygiene Inspector will be involved in the collection of RIM (Residue in Meat) samples, where a strict protocol must be followed. There might well be a similar exercise in beef plants where the MHI will be involved in the collection of samples from TB Reactor cattle, and where breeding pigs are slaughtered, Trichinella sampling will be undertaken.
Also, the MHI’s and in particular, the teams that exist and the co-operation that arises from working together has proved very important in the control of animal diseases. My experience of the second foot and mouth outbreak was that the teams knew exactly what was to be expected of them as soon as suspicion of the disease arose, and that they rose to that challenge immediately.
There is also, of course, the obligation to make sure that all paperwork is ordered in sufficient quantities to ensure that it doesn’t run out, as is the same for all the other consumables; sample bags, seals, health marking ink, hair nets/snoods, gloves etc.
The MHI also has an obligation to keep abreast of amendments to the Legislation and the Manual of Official Controls.
On top of the aforementioned tasks/duties, this particular Meat Hygiene Inspector is also a designated First Aider and all that it entails should there be an incident, together with the maintenance and replenishment of the first aid kits.
I believe that Meat Hygiene Inspectors do far more that just stand on line and incise lymph nodes, and that the job that they do is very often a seemingly endless and thankless task, performed in conditions that ever so many people that don’t even realise MHI’s exist would most certainly baulk at. It can sometimes be a hostile environment to work in (when enforcement has been necessary), often without fixed hours, and often long hours. Throughout, the MHI must remain impartial in his judgement, firm, fair and consistent in his method and always have the best interests of animal welfare and the consumer in mind.
* although Ante-Mortem inspection in the UK is now the exclusive preserve of the OV, under EU legislation the MHI is permitted to assist. In the not too distant past, the MHI was permitted to pass as fit to kill juvenile animals that appeared fit and healthy. In these cost conscious climes, surely the current legislation could be extended to once again permit the MHI to carry out AM inspection, with the proviso that the OV is called to AM adult or suspect animals.
Thanks to Ian Robinson for this article.