We received several letters like this one from JM in Kentucky, who wrote: “We want to kill and butcher our own livestock but don’t know how to tell if the animal is safe to eat. Can you give us guidelines?” To answer JM’s question we turned to Janice Sondag, DVM, who raises livestock with her husband, Bob Bradford, also a veterinarian, at their farm in southern Oregon. Keep the questions coming. If you have an idea to share or have specific topics you’d like us to cover, please email new [email protected] with the subject line “You Asked For It.”

I suggest that people follow a procedure similar to that used by USDA meat inspectors. They determine the safety of our meat before, during and after the slaughter process. There are basically three steps in USDA inspection: pre-slaughter (ante-mortem) examination, carcass and organ (post-mortem) evaluation along with laboratory testing, and finally packaging and handling at the facility.

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How do we as small livestock producers help to ensure that we are butchering and preserving a relatively safe final product? Here we are discussing only pre- and post-slaughter evaluation, although sanitary handling of the meat and the packaging of it are equally as important to its safety.

BEFORE SLAUGHTER: Ante-mortem inspection begins before the animal is slaughtered. Your initial impression of the health of a single animal compared to other healthy animals in the herd or flock is going to be the primary basis for evaluating the actual health of that animal. Ask yourself these questions as you look at the animal.

Is the animal bright, alert, responsive and coordinated like a normal animal or dull, listless, unthrifty, limping, wobbly and/or staggering?

Are there any signs of vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, sneezing and discharges like blood or pus?

Are the eyes bright and open or glazed and staring fixedly?

In general, you are looking for anything that indicates a red flag for generalized illness or unhealthiness that would make the meat less than desirable or unfit for human consumption, causing you to condemn that carcass.

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AFTER THE KILL: Immediately after or during the slaughter process, the animal should be drained of as much blood as possible to prevent pooling of blood in the meat and blood vessels.  Post-mortem inspection begins with examination of the head.

Check lymph nodes, eyes and tongue both visually and palpably for abnormalities. Look for firm areas, abscesses and for discolored or enlarged lymph nodes, which are the filters for disease that are distributed all over the body. They are the places where fluids from specific organs drain, helping to indicate where a problem or disease began.

After examining the head, look at the viscera, which include the pluck (heart and lungs), air sacs in poultry, the stomach, spleen, liver, kidneys, lymph nodes and body cavities (thoracic, abdominal and pelvic). Look for the following problems.

Is there any fluid in the chest, abdomen, pelvic region or around the heart?

Or are there signs of tuberculosis (a reportable public health disease) or infiltrative disease in the lungs or metastatic disease in any of the organs, all of which are cause for condemning the carcass?

Are there parasites in the body cavities or are they restricted to the intestinal tract where they are not contaminating the meat?

Are there any tumors, infiltrates (substances not normal to it or present in excessive amounts), scars or other lesions in the body cavities or organs?

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A localized lesion that does not indicate systemic disease can usually be removed, leaving the rest of the carcass for consumption. All filter organs like the liver, kidney, spleen and lungs with lesions or abnormalities in texture or feel should be discarded.

Lastly, evaluate the color, texture and appearance of the carcass itself.

Is there jaundice (a yellowish cast), an abnormal redness to the skin and tissues, melanin deposits (dark spots) or abnormal paleness to the muscle? All may indicate systemic disease and are cause for probable carcass condemnation.

Are there any scars, abscesses, hemorrhages, bruising or injection site discolorations? If these are a localized problem, they can be trimmed from the meat. 

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The neck, shoulders, back, legs and joints should be palpated for abnormalities. Arthritis in a single joint or bone fractures that have healed may only need to be trimmed out of the carcass. If an animal has multiple joints affected (polyarthritis), systemic illness is a concern.

MASTER CLASS: For many beginners fear of making a mistake when trying to distinguish the healthy from the unhealthy in a carcass keeps them from killing and butchering their own meat. The best way to learn  is  to watch a professional butcher go through the evaluation process and ask him or her to show you what healthy organs and tissues look like before you attempt your first farm kill.

It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the internal anatomy and physiology of the animal you are butchering so you can identify its major organs and understand their function. A good book to use as a picture anatomy reference for most of the major farm animals is  Spurgeon’s Color Atlas of Large Animal Anatomy: The Essentials.

Remember the golden rule of meat safety: When in doubt, throw it out! 

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This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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