of Veterinary Medicine
We started off the morning not knowing exactly what to expect. On our way to a slaughterhouse south of Hanover, I wondered how it would compare and contrast to the abattoirs I had seen in the States.
I worked as a veterinary student trainee for USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service the previous summer, so I was somewhat familiar with the process. We learned upon arrival that this slaughterhouse only processed hogs and were greeted by Dr. Carsten Werner in the business office of the plant. We got all suited up, scrubbed our hands, and headed in.
Immediately, we encountered pork carcasses hanging in the cold rooms. Many members of the group had never been in a processing plant such as this, so there was certainly a period of adjustment and some anxious faces. We made our way slowly from the end product the plant produces back to the live animals. First, we entered a room that rinses carcasses for a second time before cooling. In contrast to the chemically treated wash that is employed in US plants, German plants use only water to rinse carcasses. In fact, this lot was being rinsed twice because the company who owns the meat requires it.As we moved into the evisceration room, I found a very different environment than plants in the US. An entire wall was made of windows, so workers had the benefit of natural light and seeing outside during their shifts. As hogs came down the line, each person did his or her part to turn them into pork. First, someone removes all the internal organs. Then, another person cuts the carcass in two pieces with a large saw. As the organs are removed, a veterinarian inspects each one for lesions and signs of disease. FSIS inspectors do the same in the US, but a major difference in German plants is that each inspector must be a veterinarian himself. Another contrast that struck me was that hard hats were required to be worn by everyone in each US plant I spent time in, but many workers in the German plant were not wearing head protection.After that, we went closer to the kill floor. On the way, we chatted about meat recalls. The scenario in Germany is different to the US where, when contamination is confirmed, the government can only strongly suggest the plant issue a recall but cannot mandate it. In Germany, it is the duty of the meat (or meat product) producing company to recall any contaminated food. If the company does not comply, the local authorities (Kreisveterinramt) can confiscate the meat or meat products. We did not actually see the knocking box where animals were stunned before exsanguination, but we did see the steps in the process immediately following. While seeing some of this first hand can be a bit startling, its important to really think about how our food gets to our plate. We had a good conversation about how vet school has taught us quite a bit about agriculture and food production in addition to treating hyperthyroid cats and lame horses. As we left the abattoir, I thought about how much larger a role veterinarians play in meat inspection in Europe than in the US. To be qualified, one must seek further training after veterinary school, while only a DVM degree is required in the US (not even a license).
After a lovely lunch break and visit to a local market in Hildesheim, we headed to Hochschulgut Ruthe: a modern university farm worked by veterinary students. It seemed that agricultural issues are just more focused on in German veterinary education. This struck many of us as very wise and certainly turned us a bit green with envy after spending time at the university farm.Greeted by Dr. Suerie on a beautiful campus of farm buildings, we were immediately taken with the place. It was beautiful and offered vet students an intensive, two-week rotation where they contributed to all aspects of running the farm. Dr. Suerie began his tour by challenging us to think about the future of food production, emerging diseases, and environmental conservation. He made a point to discuss the three aspects of a truly sustainable farm: economic, social, and environmental.After our introduction to Hochschulgut Ruthe, we ventured out first to the chicken houses. We learned that, while free ranging birds often sound more naturalistic to consumers, chickens are actually quite stressed out, peck at each other, and do not produce as many eggs. As we learned earlier in the week, animal welfare policies are much more influential in Germany than in the US, so farmers are no longer legally allowed to house laying hens in small enclosures as they had been. When it comes to housing, the university farm and other chicken producers are attempting to reach a compromise between public opinion and what works best for the birds.
Similarly, the swine building houses pigs being raised different ways. Many people are opposed to farrowing crates, but without them the sow may crush several of her piglets. Or is the problem that we have genetically selected for too many piglets per litter and a sow cannot support more piglets than she has teats for? This was just another interesting topic we learned a little about. After the pigs, we saw several Limousin beef cattle, a breed we see less often in the US, on pasture. Could we afford to raise grass-fed beef on a large scale? Could concentrated animal feeding operations actually be more environmentally friendly because they concentrate waste and do not disseminate it all over? The university farm definitely got us all thinking about the many ways to convert sunlight and plant energy to animal protein.
Another contrast to conventional dairies in the US was Hochschulgut Ruthes robotic milker. This machine allows cows to go in to be milked based on a computerized schedule, and decreased the demand for extra help on the farm. It also may lessen the prevalence of mastitis in a herd, as each inflation detaches individually (instead of all four at the same time when the average milk flow rate decreases). Apparently, these machines are more expensive to purchase in the US, which may be one reason more dairies do not use the technology. Also, one robot can only support approximately sixty or seventy cows, so it may not be practical for dairies with hundreds or thousands of cows.
Finally, we visited a recently built poultry facility on the farm. Each massive enclosure housed a different species of meat birds: ducks, turkeys, etc. The impressive pens all had elevated viewing areas and innovatively designed access points to facilitate disinfection after each lot of birds. All in all, Hochschulgut Ruthe was remarkable; we found ourselves wishing we had a similar opportunity in veterinary school. Good news for those just starting out in their veterinary education, though: they accept externs for their two-week program if you can speak German! After visiting the farm, we enjoyed dinner in the courtyard of Marienburg castle a perfect end to the day.
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