More than a decade ago, as you might remember, mad cow hysteria swept across the U.S. beef industry. Thanks to the discovery on a dairy farm in the little town of Mabton in eastern Washington of a single cow (born in Canada, by the way) that tested positive for the presence of the prions responsible for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, USDA closed the border with Canada. It imposed strict controls on the removal (and disposal) of central nervous system tissue from all cattle, and triggered a wave media overreaction that lasted for years.
Eventually, it became clear that, for a variety of reasons, the U.S. beef supply was not infected with BSE, Unlike the situation in England and much of Europe, eating a hamburger was not going to put people at risk of a gruesome death from what was identified as a variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or “human mad cow.” Even still, hundreds of supermarkets and restaurants destroyed thousands of tons of ground beef, in “an abundance of caution,” to quote the operative wording that became the catchphrase of the controversy.
In the wake of the media-fueled panic over this non-existent threat, the leadership of the industry’s major beef companies decided to put together a proactive campaign to educate key media people, most of whom were clueless as to the dynamics of why the U.S. was not facing anything remotely resembling an epidemic such as Europe had endured.
One of the tactics used in that campaign, as controversial at the time as the threat of BSE itself, was the recruitment of media members to go inside an actual beef slaughter plant. A fair number of people involved in planning that effort were highly skeptical about the potential impact of such a move.
What happens when people who have never been inside a meat plant watch animals getting stunned, eviscerated and eventually butchered, they asked?
That can’t be good, the reasoning went.
But stronger voices prevailed, and an initial group of journalists went on a two-day “excursion,” witnessing feedlot operations and even spending time in a university classroom learning about the origins of BSE and its mode of disease transmission. The highlight, however, was an in-person tour of a Texas beef slaughter plant, including a stop at the stunning station.
And guess what? Far from causing a negative reaction, or irreparably turning influential reporters against the industry, a subsequent debriefing of the journalists — and a review of the stories that got published — showed that the outcomes were decidedly positive.
“I expected a lot worse,” was a typical comment. “I had no idea that the process was so professional, and so sanitary,” several others echoed.
Point being, the scenarios so many people imagine about what goes on in a meatpacking plant or in processing operations are cobbled together from the descriptions of anti-industry activists, whose florid prose about the “horrors” of harvesting food animals have been seared into the public consciousness.
But when people see for themselves what actually goes on in a meat plant — the way animals are handled, the care taken to enforce sanitary standards, the biosecurity that envelops the operation, and the precision with which end products are portioned and packaged — the perspective on the industry changes dramatically.
Pictures Tell the Tale
That vignette is relevant because a high-profile photographer just published a photo essay about the production of Tulip Pork Luncheon Meat, Denmark’s answer to canned SPAM.
Tulip, by the way, is one of the world’s biggest processed meat companies, having made major acquisitions of meat and poultry operations in Denmark, Sweden and Germany over the years. Its processing plant in Vejle, Denmark, produces more than 130 million cans of Pork Luncheon Meat a year.
That is of interest, because a well-known British photographer, Alastair Phillip Wiper, recently went inside the Vejle plant and captured an in-depth photo essay on how the Danish canned luncheon meat is produced.
(Check out the story and the photo spread here).
Here’s what’s interesting: As was true 13 years ago, the results are quite the opposite of what the average consumer would assume if asked about the methods and materials used to manufacture SPAM.
The photos show a sparkling new plant, with walls, floors and machinery that look cleaner than the office kitchens or lunch rooms in most of this country — certainly far more sanitary than the inside of the microwave ovens in those thousands of break rooms in otherwise sterile office buildings.
Even the conveyors, belts, grinders, mixers, blenders and retort units display more gleaming, polished metal than those 1950s automobiles at a vintage car show.
And Wiper’s photos aren’t staged; I took a tour inside that very plant some years ago, and although I didn’t rub it in for the American industry managers who might have read my report on that visit, I was personally struck by how much neater, cleaner and more sanitary that Tulip plant (and pretty much every other European processing plant) was in comparison to a typical U.S. operation.
The point of all this is to suggest that every phase of meat production, from breeding, feeding, packing, processing and distribution, ought to be managed and maintained in such a way that a photo essay turns people’s perspectives, not their stomachs.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist, and do not necessarily reflect those of Farm Journal Media.