Track 'n trace at the slaughterhouse
Our chain works at the highest level of food safety, quality and traceability. We invited the editors of Nederland Voedselland to visit two links in this chain. The editors ended up in a world of track & trace, valorisation and zero tolerance: at Ekro and Oukro.
Every day, products like veal loins, shanks, shoulders and sweetbreads leave the VanDrie Group Veal processing company in Apeldoorn for Germany, France and Italy. The meat is processed with unprecedented precision: it is always known from which calf which cut is derived. Much like track 'n trace on your parcel: everything can be tracked with a number. Nederland Voedselland went to see for themselves how this works in the slaughterhouse in Apeldoorn.
We each put on oversized white trousers, a long coat and high boots. We tie our long hair in a hairnet, and finally we put a helmet on our head. It's red. Like a cherry on a cream cake. The whole group is dressed exactly the same. Our guide Peter Hoogenkamp, project coordinator at the VanDrie Group, precedes us, up a flight of stairs. The tour has begun.
View from the skybox
We start in the skybox. A term that we actually only knew from football, but in a slaughterhouse the space with glass walls has essentially the same function: we have an impeccable view of the scene a few metres below us. We are able to walk around, so we can see the work floor from all sides. Through the left wall we see large pieces of meat coming in, hanging from hooks in a single row. Employees at workbenches cut these pieces of meat into the correct cuts, after which they place them in white crates. ‘These are the cutters,’ says Hoogenkamp. These are experienced butchers who can cut all parts of the animal. ‘They receive instructions with customer requirements, which are on a physical label.’ Those instructions vary from a whole topside or tenderloin to a row of ribs or a single loin. All the small pieces of meat, the trimmings, are also kept. Unlike the other crates, which only contain the meat of one animal, the trimmings of different animals are collected in one crate. These go to specific customers, e.g. snack manufacturers. ‘The trimmings also contain high-quality protein, and are processed into, among other things, veal sausage, veal mince or veal sausages', explains our guide.
From workbenches to work suits, everything looks sterile and clean. The employees' outfits are as white as ours are. For the layman, it's hard to follow exactly what's happening, but even we can see the great precision and efficiency of the work.
The white crates continue their way along a conveyor belt. Each crate has a unique chip that corresponds to the chip in the hook on which the meat previously hung, which in turn corresponds to the ear number of the calf. Through the right wall of the skybox we see employees taking the pieces of meat out of the crates one by one, weighing them and picking up a label, after which the meat is returned to the same crates. Each label contains the same amount of information. ‘The basis in every phase of the production process is the animal’s individual earmark, the ID code, which remains associated with the animal and the meat’, explains Hoogenkamp. ‘Even when the size of the meat is reduced further here in the deboning plant.’ And that ear number contains a lot of information, which we will hear more about later in the tour.
Safety Guard monitors the entire chain
Every company in the meat sector is obliged to track and trace. Food safety comes first, emphasises our guide. To guarantee this, the VanDrie Group developed the Safety Guard quality system in 2002. Customers increasingly asked for information about the background of our meat, and we ourselves wanted to be able to offer quality guarantees. What distinguishes Safety Guard from other track and trace systems is that it has been implemented throughout the entire chain.' This means that every link in the chain of the VanDrie Group is obliged to register everything. ‘We therefore know which ingredients were used in the calf's feed, whether the animal has received medication and which these were.’ In addition to food safety and responsible use of antibiotics, animal welfare and environmental management are also recorded and monitored by Safety Guard. For the welfare of the animals, an Animal Welfare Code is included, which must be applied in all links of the chain. Dozens of animal welfare officers work throughout our chain to ensure that this code is enforced.’
We continue our tour to the next department: the area where the meat is vacuum packed and put in boxes, after which it is ready for transport. Here we see the white crates again. Each individual piece of meat from a crate has a label, which is directly on the meat and is therefore also vacuum packed. In this way, the information cannot be lost during transport. Hoogenkamp shows us a label. It’s covered in letters and numbers from top to bottom. Whole sentences, but also abbreviations. ‘This is the information from the chip in the crate, and contains all the information about the calf.’ Should something go wrong somewhere in the chain, this information can be used to trace where the meat comes from.
Everything is valuable, from head to tail.
An eye peeks out at us from under a thick layer of plastic - calves’ heads are also shipped. The tongue is a delicacy in some countries, and therefore also makes its way to customers. Neat stacks of hundreds of boxes of tenderloins, shoulders, shins, tongues and ribeyes are ready to be transported later that day to various domestical and international customers. The VanDrie Group supplies whole carcasses, backs or necks, as well as smaller pieces of meat such as schnitzels, entrecotes and veal escalopes. Less obvious parts of the calf are however also given a purpose, because there is a demand for them elsewhere in the world. This allows the VanDrie Group to derive value from all other parts of the calf, in addition to the meat. This includes organs, bones and fats (for sweets, sports drinks and cosmetics and care products), while the blood is also useful, for example in the pharmaceutical industry.
The skin is also used. Our guide takes us to the skins warehouse, where stacks of skins are stored, ready for transport to tanneries all over the world. This is also referred to as valorisation: the maximum valorisation of the calf. The meat, the bones, the fat and the organs - everything has a purpose.
Supervision in the slaughter hall
The walking route takes us criss-cross through the processes, with good reason; due to hygiene, we are obliged to walk from the end of the process to the beginning. We continue on our way and are brought to a large hall. Upon entering this room, we walk through a container with water and brushes, in order to rinse our boots clean and prevent the spread of possible 'contaminants'.
In this hall, too, work is clearly process-driven and efficient. The carcasses hang on hooks and move slowly from one side of the room to the other on a little train. ‘During the slaughtering process, each carcass remains on the same hook, which keeps the meat and the unique information chip together and ensures tracking and tracing from slaughter to packaging.’
Zero tolerance policy
The contrast with the previous rooms is considerable. While we were unable to recognise the original animal in the small cut pieces of meat, here we see whole carcasses. The ear number of the calf is scanned and copied to the chip on the hook on which the animal is hung. First the front legs are removed, followed by the skin and finally the head. The last bits of hair and manure are also carefully removed from the carcass to ensure that no contamination enters the process. This is part of the zero tolerance policy employed in every VanDrie Group slaughterhouse.
The basis in every phase of the production process is the animal’s individual ear number, which remains associated with the animal and the meat.
The skinless carcasses are then opened and the rumen, heart, liver, lungs and trachea are removed and hung on separate hooks - some of these hooks also each contain a unique code with information corresponding to the calf's ear number. All parts of the calf are then checked synchronously for irregularities by employees of the Animal Sector Quality Inspection Foundation (KDS), who are supervised by an NVWA veterinarian. This is compulsory: all large slaughterhouses in the Netherlands are under the permanent supervision of veterinarians of the NVWA, who must ensure that the live animals are treated correctly before slaughter and that food safety requirements are met in the slaughterhouses. The meat and organs are examined and felt separately. ‘Everything that the inspectors come across is then registered in the Safety Guard system,' says Hoogenkamp. Upon approval, the carcass is given an EC stamp, which indicates that it is safe to enter the food chain. By now we know that something is also done with the calf's organs, head, tongue and skin. These parts go to separate departments where they are further processed.
The train with the carcasses continues its way to the next station, where an employee is ready to trim the carcass. The meat is then classified by someone from the slaughter inspection ‘Centraal Bureau Slachtvleesdiensten’ (CBS), an independent body commissioned by the Dutch Veal Industry Association (SBK), to monitor compliance with the regulations in the slaughterhouse with regard to actual slaughter and administration. In the classification process, the quality parameters of the meat are determined, such as conformation (how much meat does it contain), fat cover (how much fat does it contain) and colour. 'This information is also linked to the individual animal.' When preparing an order, it is then used to provide the customer with certain desired qualities. After this classification, the carcasses enter refrigeration. The next day, further processing begins in the deboning room where we just came from.
Food safety from start to finish
The tour is over, and we return to the dressing room where we peel off the white suits. The things we saw made quite an impression on us. The production of industrially processed food is difficult to imagine - even if you have watched a lot of documentaries or Discovery Channel as a child. Food safety is the top priority in this slaughterhouse, and is meticulously recorded, monitored and guaranteed from the arrival of the calf to the loading of the boxes of meat into the transport trolley - and even afterwards. In addition, the slaughterhouse is under the permanent supervision of several independent (government) organizations. ‘Many organizations keep a close eye on us on a daily basis,' says Hoogenkamp. ‘This is important to us because it allows us to offer quality guarantees.’ And in the unlikely event that something is wrong with the meat, the information on the label and the Safety Guard system allows us to act quickly. Wherever in the world the meat is delivered, every piece that leaves the slaughterhouse can always be traced back to the original calf.
Would you like to know more about food production and supply in the Netherlands? Nederland Voedselland writes weekly about various companies and organisations in the Dutch food chain. You can read more about this at www.nederlandvoedselland.nl!