How safe is our meat? Article on Meat

Last week’s photograph in an English daily of three workers – without proper sanitised apparel and ungloved hands – struggling with a bovine carcass lying on the bloodied floor of the twin cities’ only municipal abattoir at Sihala speaks volumes about the adherence – or rather non-adherence – to hygiene principles in the slaughterhouse.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, one of the principles of hygienic bovine slaughtering is the lifting of carcasses off the floor – usually mechanically – at the earliest possible stage, preferably beginning with the bleeding.

Important issues of food safety and consumer protection have thus been raised by the above and other recent reports about conditions at slaughterhouses – both recognised and unrecognised ones – in the vicinity of Islamabad.

Moreover, other reports about the alleged sale of diseased and culled animals in butcher shops in and around the city have not helped to build public confidence about the quality of the meat they are buying and eating.

These reports are not surprising as the shortcomings in our meat trade – including the absence of stringent inspection of animals and clearance by veterinarians before slaughtering, lack of proper slaughtering and by-product handling facilities and problems of bacterial contamination – are well documented.

According to a 2006 consultancy study commissioned by the Planning and Development Division in connection with a new livestock development policy, not only are sick or parasite-infested animals sometimes slaughtered for meat-selling, animals are also slaughtered in places frequently polluted with blood, intestinal contents and dirty effluents, and are not protected against insects and germs.

The study said that the meat produced under such conditions loses its keeping quality and can become a source of bacterial infection and food poisoning, particularly in summer months.

Blame for the shortcomings in the meat trade have been attributed to the low priority which was accorded to this sector by policy makers in the past as well as to the lack of regulation in this sector (with the exception of meat prices which are fixed by municipal corporations in the urban markets).

According to FAO, as well as to the above consultancy study, resistance by meat traders or butchers in changing their traditional practices of meat production in the country have played a major role in hindering technical and hygienic improvements in the sector – much to the detriment of food safety and consumer protection.

Many of our slaughterhouses are still sticking to the old, inefficient and unhygienic ‘booth’ or ‘batch’ slaughter system. The latter allows for the simultaneous slaughtering of a certain number of animals in ‘booths’ or ‘batches’, whereas FAO recommendations on the design and equipment for small- to medium-sized abattoirs regard the use of the line-slaughter system as the ideal abattoir operation.

According to the 2006 consultancy study, Sihala slaughterhouse was the first modern industrial abattoir in Pakistan completed in 1969. It has a slaughtering capacity of 600 sheep and goats and 60 cattle per shift and it is fully equipped with chill rooms, by-products processing units and ancillary services.

However, plans to operate the then new plant were opposed by butchers who refused to deliver their stock to the abattoir authority for slaughter and dressing, says the study.
Now local butchers are only using part of the premises, slaughtering under their own arrangements.

The study reveals that similar improved municipal slaughtering facilities established later in Karachi and Quetta met with a similar fate.

The argument that mechanical slaughter of animals does not conform to halal laws and is therefore unIslamic does not quite hold water. Countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Brunei, etc., have established modern mechanised abattoirs producing halal meat for local consumption as well as for the fast growing global halal meat market.

In fact, the world’s biggest slaughterhouse is a state-of-the-art facility in Mina, Saudi Arabia. It is able to slaughter 200,000 sheep a day utilising some 10,000 workers working in two 12-hour shifts.

If the hundreds of small meat traders and butchers in Pakistan are wary about modern state-of-the-art abattoirs and meat processing plants, could the real reason be because of fears that some of them wouldn’t be able to compete and survive under a system which is usually associated with corporate or bulk production?

This may explain why butchers here – backed by powerful established interests in the meat trade, including associations/unions – prefer the traditional ‘batch’ slaughtering system because the latter allows them to control and identify their own animals, which is difficult to do in the modern line-slaughter system.

All this begs the question: is it right or ethical for public health to be compromised because changing and improving slaughtering and meat production practices might eliminate some stakeholders from the market?

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