24 May 2002

Dirty animals hitting UK profits all along the line

By Wendy Owen

North-east correspondent

DIRTY livestock are reducing incomes to producers, tanners and causing hassle at abattoirs, as well as increasing risks of bacterial contamination which can put public health at risk.

During winter up to 0.9% of cattle and 2% of sheep presented at the abattoir are rejected for dirty hides and pelts, according to Meat Hygiene Service data.

ADAS Rosemaund livestock researcher Mervyn Davies says dirt and dung on hides and skins is costing UK tanners about £20m a year. But dirty animals also take money out of producers pockets. Some abattoirs are already passing the expense of clipping and cleaning back to producers.

Carcass value may also be reduced because of excess trimming. In extreme cases, when dirty animals are returned to the farm, extra transport and labour costs must be met before the end price is realised.

But these are not the only reasons which prompted the Food Standards Agency to fund an ADAS study of the problem. "The bacteria, E coli 0157 is excreted in dung of infected animals and this can be transferred from dirty hides to the carcass in the abattoir," says Mr Davies.

"This type of bacteria and other pathogens are dangerous, and children and old people are most at risk. One dirty animal entering the slaughterhouse has the potential to contaminate the rest.

"We realise that it is not always possible to eliminate dirt from animal hides and skins, but there are ways producers and haulage contractors can keep it to a minimum." Mr Davies says many factors are known to influence the visible cleanliness of animals, including diet, straw bedding and clipping.

He suggests a drier diet for two to three days before transportation may reduce the incidence of dirty animals presented at the abattoir. But the full effect of diet change on the faecal shedding of bacteria has yet to be clarified.

A number of slaughterhouses are already demanding that livestock be introduced to a straw-based system 48-72 hours before slaughter. Liberal amounts of straw can keep animals cleaner, but this can be expensive when prices are high.

In a survey of animals arriving at abattoirs it was found that keeping travelling times to a minimum also improved cleanliness. But Mr Davies admits that the closure of many smaller abattoirs makes this difficult for some farms to achieve.

The study also revealed that cattle from cereal beef systems were cleaner than those reared on silage-based diets. Longer-haired cattle were also harder to keep clean, although clipping was found to be an effective way of reducing the problem. &#42

Dirty animals can be costly, but altering feeding and bedding can reduce problems, says Mervyn Davies.

&#8226 Straw-based systems help.

&#8226 Drier diet prior to slaughter.

&#8226 Short travelling times.