NCDA&CS inspector Codi Brandon’s office is located at Piedmont Custom Meats, a slaughter and processing plant in Gibsonville. And at this facility, inspecting the animals is her job. She is one of about 85 inspectors located across North Carolina whose job is to supervise the humane slaughter of animals and to make sure the processing plant is in compliance with state and federal laws. Some inspectors have a few facilities they must visit daily for inspection. Facilities that slaughter must have a state inspector on site at all times. Inspectors are required to inspect animals before and after slaughter.
As soon as an animal enters the gate of a slaughter facility, it is the responsibility of the plant. The area where the animal is held must be free of slips, trips and falls. Each animal must also have access to water and, if kept overnight, food. The pre-slaughter inspection includes watching each animal at rest and in motion. Inspectors are looking for any unusual behavior in the animal that may make it unfit for slaughter.
The inspector also watches for humane-handling techniques in getting the animal to where it is slaughtered – the goal is to keep the animal as calm as possible during the process. The animal must be rendered unconscious with one shot. For cows, this is usually done with a captive-bolt stunning device. “They get one shot to effectively stun the animal,” Brandon said. “If an animal is not rendered unconscious with one shot, a second shot is required to render the animal unconscious and regulatory action is taken by inspection personnel and slaughtering activities are suspended.” The suspension action is used to determine whether the cause was faulty equipment, the animal not positioned properly or other causes. The plant is not allowed to slaughter until the cause is determined and corrective action is taken.
After the animal is bled out, the head, internal organs and lymph nodes are removed and inspected. The inspector is looking for signs of disease or other abnormal conditions that may have not been outwardly obvious from observing the animal pre-slaughter. If a problem is found, the inspector can reject that meat or call in one of six field veterinarians located across the state to examine the animal. “This is not a personal opinion on if we would eat it or not,” Brandon said. “It’s through extensive training we learn what animals are allowed in our food supply.”
After the organs are inspected, the carcass is split in two halves and weighed. After weighing, a food-grade USDA mark of inspection stamp is placed on the carcass. This stamp is the sole custody of the inspector in charge at the plant and is locked up nightly. Also included is a paper tag with a number and letter that will identify the animal and carcass side throughout processing. The entire process from slaughter to hanging in the cooler can take 20 to 45 minutes depending on the animal’s size.
Piedmont Custom Meats slaughters cattle, sheep, hogs, goats, bison, ostrich, emu and water buffalo. It provides slaughter and processing services to registered meat handlers. Meat handlers are farmers who raise their own animals and then take them to a facility to be slaughtered and processed under inspection. The meat is then returned to the farmer to sell to restaurants, retailers and directly to customers.
In addition to being on hand for each slaughter, Brandon is responsible for making sure the plant is in compliance with all other state and federal guidelines. This includes checking the processing rooms and even the labels on the packaged meats. Labels must include the product name, ingredients in descending order of predominance, net weight, inspection legend, safe handling statement, plant/producer and a special label for the farmer. Included on each label is the number and letter corresponding to the carcass the product came from. Claims such as grass-fed, no-added hormones, local or others must be substantiated before being included on the label.
Even as the product is picked up by the farmer, it is subject to the inspection process. Inspectors can ensure that each meat handler has proper equipment to keep the meat products cold during transport.
Inspectors receive extensive on-the-job training. They are also required to go to a month-long training program on USDA inspection methods and two weeks of training, called slaughter school, in Raleigh. Prior to working for the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division, inspectors generally have experience on the farm, slaughter plant work or an animal science degree. Inspectors continue to learn on the job through online training. Brandon has a four-year animal science degree from Ferrum College in Virginia.
“Being an inspector at a slaughter facility is a difficult job but extremely important,” said Dr. Beth Yongue, assistant state director of the Meat and Poultry Inspection Division. “These inspectors are on the front lines of protecting our food supply.”
This job is not for everyone though, Yongue said. The turnover rate for meat and poultry inspectors remains relatively high. “Because of the amount of training that goes into each employee, it is frustrating to lose one to private industry or even the federal government,” Yongue said.
North Carolina is one of nine states that operate under the Talmadge-Aiken act of 1962. This law allows trained inspectors that are state employees to staff meat-packing plants with USDA inspection privileges. A TA plant, or federally inspected plant, means that meats from the facility bear the USDA inspection label and can be sold across state lines. Meat from a state-inspected plant may be sold only within state lines.
Meat handlers in North Carolina, and processing facilities, operate under a lot of state and federal rules. Inspectors such as Codi Brandon ensure they are following them. “Inspectors go where consumers can’t go,” said Brandon. “And ensure safe handling of meat products from slaughter to sale. I am often asked how I can watch the slaughter and processing of animals every day. I actually love animals, and part of my job is to make sure that the animals that are being used for food are slaughtered humanely.”
For more information on Meat and Poultry inspections and a complete list of inspection guidelines, click here.