Bus tour part 4: Tyson meat packing facility (and more)

One of the highlights of the bus trip was taking a tour of Tyson's Finney County meat processing facility (where live cattle are turned into boxed beef), located near Holcomb, KS.  For food safety and security reasons, it isn't easy to get into a plant like this.  I'm not sure if they did background checks, but we had to provide our driver's license number and full name to gain access.  We also had to sign an affidavit that we had not traveled to a foreign country in the past 30 days.  We were not allowed to take cameras or cell phones with us into the facility.  With all the people out there wanting to do a hit job "documentary" on what goes on in these plants, I can't blame them.  But I have some problems with their approach as well…more on that later.  As a result, I don't have any pictures to share with you in this post.

The topic of butchering is an uncomfortable one for many people.  I guess I can understand that.  However, the public's lack of knowledge of the path their food has taken to reach their dinner plate has caused some concerns.  It has opened the door for people with an agenda to present half-truths to convince people that their food is not safe or healthy.  More about that later too.  What I'm trying to do with this post, as well as this whole blog, is to give you an honest look at things.  Since I raise cattle I suppose I am a little biased, but I'm not afraid to call a spade a spade, and am always happy to field questions.

The Finney County plant has a 6000 head per day capacity.  They work two eight-hour day shifts doing the butchering, and one eight-hour overnight cleaning shift.  About 3200 non-union employees keep the wheels turning.  The hourly workers get from $12.50 – $18 per hour plus full benefits and a company-matched 401k.  It seems like they take care of their employees pretty well.  In fact, the union has tried to get into the plant four times in the past 20 years, and was voted down each time by the employees.

To get 6000 head of cattle killed and butchered each day is an impressive feat.  It begins with the coordination of the cattle arriving at the plant.  They schedule the incoming trucks so that the cattle don't have to stand on the truck longer than necessary.  They are unloaded into pens with fresh water and sprinkler systems to keep them cool.  If for some reason the cattle need to stay in the pens longer than 24 hours, they will get fed alfalfa hay.  Normally, cattle are put on the trucks with a full belly when they leave the feedlot.  The goal is to have them butchered just about the time their stomach is empty, so there is not as much undigested feed to dispose of.  Remember, these critters can eat over 40 lbs of feed each day.  However, adding undue stress from lack of feed, excessive heat, or improper handling increases the likelihood of meat quality issues.  So, keeping them happy and comfortable is, just like at the feedlot, profitable as well as ethical.  

The facility uses Temple Grandin's designs for moving the live animals.  We were not allowed to see the "kill box", but saw everything else starting just a few seconds after they left the kill box.  If you are squeamish about this stuff, skip the next paragraph.  If you want all the details, keep reading.

The cattle are rendered unconscious using a bolt gun, which shoots a retractable bolt into their head.  Their heart is still beating, but they feel no pain of course.  They are quickly hung up by their hind feet and the jugular vein is cut with a knife.  This allows the heart to pump much of the blood out of the body, making for better meat quality.  So, the actual cause of death is bleeding.  That was the only messy part of the whole process.  

The rest of it was surprisingly un-bloody, and actually very clean.  The head, hide, hooves, and guts are removed and the carcass is split, leaving a "side" of beef.  The side gets a shower to rinse off any contaminants that might be on the surface.  The animal has already been through a bath of some kind, though I'm not sure if it is before or after the kill box.  The carcass will hang in a huge cooler for three days to age a little before further processing.  Ageing is done to improve tenderness and flavor.  In plain terms, it is just controlled decomposition.  It is perfectly safe, just like aged cheese.  High-end steak houses often age their meat 25 – 40 days for even more flavor and tenderness.  This takes a lot of cooler space.  When you kill 6000 head a day, it is not practical to age it very long.  After ageing, the carcasses are evaluated by a USDA grader who labels them with a quality grade, such as Prime, Choice, or Select.  The carcasses are then sorted into their respective groups.

Next, they are sent to the cutting area.  This is where it gets busy.  Imagine half of your NCAA March Madness bracket.  That is what happens here, but in reverse.  Each piece gets cut into two smaller pieces, then those get cut again, and so on.  It seemed like no piece of meat stopped moving until it was vacuum sealed and put in a box.  Our tour guide said it takes about 40 minutes to go from a side of beef to having everything in a box – pretty amazing!  This is all done by hand – no automation, other than to move the meat from one place to the next.  There are a lot of sharp knives around there.

Each box gets a barcode and is sorted into pallets of like boxes.  The pallets are stacked in something like a huge boxed beef library.  A robot moves down the aisles, lifting pallets and placing them on the proper shelves.  The library can hold 120,000 boxes of beef at a time, and the inventory turns over every three days!  When a truck backs up to the dock, the robotic librarians fetch the proper pallets and workers then move the pallets into the trucks.

OK, so there were a couple things I said I'd cover later, and it's later.

While I was very impressed by the operation of the plant – efficiency, cleanliness, working conditions, etc. – I was disappointed in the way they presented it to us.  The tour actually started with a 10 minute video on how the Tyson corporation began, and although informative, it had nothing to do with the plant we were about to tour.  We watched the video on a 19" TV in what appeared to be a staff break room.  While in the plant, we had earplugs in and could barely hear the tour guide, if and when he tried to explain something to us.  In short, it was very apparent that giving tours is not something they are prepared for.  Which is a real shame, because they have a lot to be proud of with that facility.  It was a fair bit different than what I expected, and I would bet it's very different than what the average Joe would expect.  If I had it my way, there would be a nice visitor center with a video about what goes on in the plant.  Allowing the general public to walk through the plant might not be a great idea for food safety reasons, but having a viewing area where you can watch some of the process would be excellent.  In general, I would like to see more transparency in the process.  I think it would go a long way towards giving the public a truthful idea of what happens in a packing plant.  Instead, the only thing many people get is "hit-job" documentaries – outdated or undercover video put out by people with an agenda.  More transparency would eliminate the damage these half-truths would do to the whole cattle business.  I am not saying they should have allowed us to bring cameras in.  They just need to make the process more accessible to the public.

To illustrate how easily the public is led astray, consider the recent "pink slime" controversy.  Here's the clip many of you saw when you first learned about it:

Pretty convincing, huh?  Throwing meat in a washing machine and then dumping jugs of ammonia on it.  Creates quite the mental image, albeit a false one.

The following video gives a more balanced view.

While I still would like to actually see the process, Mr. Oliver's depiction seems unlikely.  And he leaves out the benefits of the product.

But that's the world we live in, isn't it?  It seems obvious to me that more transparency in the process would render videos like the first one ineffective.  

I'll get off my soapbox now.