When we go to the shops for the holiday season shopping, we are usually taken up by long lists and demands, hoping we will remember everything we need lest we have to take the dreaded Christmas Eve’s last trip to the supermarket! No wonder if we looked on the shelves or butchers’ trays and couldn’t find what we wanted, it would be a major source of disappointment. Would Christmas still be the same without the beloved turkey or pigs in blankets? So why is there (in some places) a shortage of meat this Christmas? Where did it all go, or rather why hasn’t it made it to the shops? 

The UK does after all have millions of farm animals. Is it a case of the meat not being available, or is there some other bottleneck in the processing? 

Enter shortage of vets

But why, one should wonder, are vets needed for meat shopping? 

You might have heard that the vet profession is currently in a state of turmoil. This is partly due to the vast expansion of pet ownership during the pandemic, putting strain on clinics nationwide. But also because unsustainable working conditions are driving many out of clinical work. Brexit also played a large role in the current shortage of vets; as the stream of European and overseas vets seeking work in the UK dried up. The British vet contingent cannot cover all the roles alone. 

When it comes to making sure the meat we buy is safe to eat, vets are very much in high demand. And even more so near any holidays when retailers expect peaks in sales. (Be it a summer bank holiday bbq or Christmas dinner). All the meat for sale for human consumption is required by law to have been signed off by an official veterinarian, who is an inspector, and will have carried out ante mortem (i.e. pre-slaughter) and post mortem (after slaughter, before butchering) inspections. 

What does a meat inspection vet do?

These vets are – like all vets – highly skilled professionals. They have to work in challenging conditions every day to make sure we can enjoy the meat we want to buy. With very early starts, often after long drives to get to the abattoir they are booked to work at, meat inspection vets must make sure that all the animals arrived and awaiting slaughter are in good health. Any animal that does not appear in less than perfect conditions will be turned away and not sent down the chain of human consumption. 

Sick and diseased animals usually do not enter any part of the food chain at all

Although it does depend on the severity of the condition, so these vets have a lot of thinking and many decisions to make “on the hoof” (pun intended!); so that the workings of the abattoir are not delayed. Not very many people have entered an abattoir, and know how fast everything has to move. It is not only a matter of economy; it is also, most importantly, a matter of animal welfare and meat hygiene and safety. 

Once the animals are channelled and getting in line for stunning, a clock starts ticking. 

They need to be slaughtered within the shortest possible time to cause the least distress. Once the animal is dead you don’t just walk away for a cup of tea. The next steps of the process require prompt transfer and refrigeration of the carcass as quickly as possible. This is to avoid contamination and spoilage.

Usually the vets who were present at the ante mortem inspection will then move down the processing line in order to make sure they can inspect the internal organs and carcasses as they move quickly down conveyor belts. Vets will have some assistant meat inspectors. They all need to be sharp eyed and really prompt in stopping the line if something is not up to standard. They can and will request tests on the meat (for diseases and medicine residues). And if necessary for whole animal carcasses to be “parked” in isolation units until released – or destroyed. 

Vetster option 01 (Blog)

The job of an official veterinarian working in the meat industry is one of high responsibility for public health

These vets feel the pressure every single day. I cannot think of one single colleague who wouldn’t go home at night hoping they managed to spot all the animals that should not enter the food chain. Life as an abattoir vet can be rewarding, but it comes at high costs, physical and psychological. It is no wonder that many decide to move into other areas of veterinary medicine after a few years of being a meat inspector. 

Christmas turkeys and chipolatas…

The higher demand for certain types of meat prior to the holiday season is somewhat expected. If there were an unusually low number of vets available to cover the abattoir shifts, the whole meat chain would have to slow down, and sometimes grind to halt. With processors having to stop producers from sending animals down “until further notice”. This is deeply damaging to most parties involved in the meat sector. Vets are not immune to trying their best to help; often doing back-to-back shifts in abattoirs hundreds of miles apart, to try and keep the flow going.

So, when you next go to the shop and are debating which cut of meat to buy, please take a minute to think of all the people that have tried their best to keep the shelves full. Starting from the farmers who reared the animals; all the way down the line to the vet who had the immense responsibility to decide whether the meat in front of them was safe to go forward into the chain and onto your plate.

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