Posted on June 15, 2006

A kinder, gentler meat packing plant?

Reducing cattle stress fattens the bottom line

It pays to treat cattle nicely.

Feedlots and meat packing plants lose money if cattle are stressed, particularly in the hours before slaughter, because physical changes caused by stress create "dark cutters," the name given to cattle whose meat is a dark, burnt red, rather than the bright, cherry red seen in supermarket packages of tenderloin, filet and T-bone steaks.

The $30 billion industry nationwide loses about $81 million a year because of dark cutters, which make up about 1.5 percent of all 32 million cattle slaughtered, said Dee Griffin, a veterinarian and professor of beef production at the University of Nebraska.

Feedlots and packinghouses in Nebraska’s $6 billion industry lose more than $15 million in value each year because dark cutters do not bring the premiums of cattle that carry higher-quality grades, Griffin said.

Feedlots can lose about $160 on each 800-pound "dark cutter" carcass, Griffin said. An average carcass of that size might demand about $1,024 while a blemished carcass would bring $864, Griffin said.

Meat packing plants take the loss if they are to blame for a dark cutter, Griffin said. Meat packing plants also take into account some portion of cattle likely to have blemished meat when they purchase cattle by weight instead of by carcass, Griffin said.

People don’t want meat that looks odd or spoiled, said Darrell Busby, a livestock specialist with Iowa State University. Meat from dark cutters can be less tender, but the flavor generally is not affected, Busby said.

"If you cook it and not look at it, you do not know the difference," Busby said.

Shoppers make choices with their eyes, however, and beef from stressed cattle often is put into precooked and processed meats like frozen dinners, hamburger and bologna, Busby said.

Dark cutters are created when stress depletes glycogen in the muscles of cattle, leading to abnormally high pH levels that result in darker, tougher meat.

Animals with the problem made up about 3.5 percent of all cattle slaughtered in the 1980s, and at least two things have helped reduce that percentage, Busby said.

More people are paying premiums for specially labeled, high-quality meats like certified Angus beef — and cattle with darker meat don’t make the grade, he said.

In addition, while most cattle owners treat their animals well, animal welfare activists campaigning for humane treatment of livestock have prompted closer scrutiny and better training at meat packing plants and feedlots, Busby said.

Nebraska Cattlemen spokesman Mike Fitzgerald said it clearly pays to treat animals well. "It’s a combination of the right thing to do, but it also affects the bottom line," Fitzgerald said.

Several things can contribute to stress in cattle, including aggressive use of growth hormones, quick changes in the weather, rough handling by workers, long rides to slaughterhouses and long waits before entering a meat packing plant, and even inherited aggressive traits, Busby said.

Many stress factors can be controlled, Busby said. For example, feedlots and meat packing plants do not use electric cattle prods unless absolutely necessary, favoring fiberglass rods filled with noise-making pellets, he said.

Colorado-based meatpacker Swift & Co. has curved walking areas for cattle in its plants that eliminate sharp turns that once brought cattle up short. Swift also blocks out bright lights that can startle the animals.

Swift’s director of food safety and regulatory compliance, veterinarian Jerome Lawler, said the company also discourages shouting, whistling and use of electric cattle prods. 

Copyright 2006 The Omaha World-Herald Company






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