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Cattle and sheep farmers’ opinions on the provision and use of abattoir rejection data in the United Kingdom
  1. James Hanley,
  2. Amelia Garcia-Ara and
  3. Wendela Wapenaar
  1. School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, University of Nottingham, Sutton Bonington, UK
  1. Correspondence to James Hanley; svyjrh{at}nottingham.ac.uk

Abstract

Background Communication between farmers and veterinary surgeons is reported to differ when involving abattoir rejection data on cattle or sheep.

Methods Using surveys, distributed online and on paper at livestock markets, this study describes the interest and positive opinion of a sample of UK cattle and sheep farmers in receiving abattoir data.

Results Forty-nine per cent of respondents always received abattoir data (n=37/76). Over 80 per cent of respondents were interested in all suggested rejection conditions and particularly liver fluke and respiratory conditions. Eighty-two per cent of farmers were willing to share data with their veterinary surgeon as the information could be used to inform health plans.

Conclusion The study findings indicate that having an accurate and consistent data system, which is easily accessible to farmers and veterinary surgeons, appears an essential next step to improve the use of existing abattoir data and enhance animal health, welfare and production.

  • abattoir rejection data
  • health plans
  • official veterinarian
  • farmer opinion
  • cattle and sheep welfare
  • communication
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Introduction

Cattle and sheep entering the human food chain must pass through an abattoir; they are therefore excellent locations to collect information on livestock.1 These data are primarily used to quantify meat that is not suitable for human consumption, but can also be used to estimate the prevalence of diseases2 or highlight animal welfare problems.3

In the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) inspectors in abattoirs record the results from inspection and make them available for food business operators (FBOs), who can pass them on to farmers.4 Only animals which have passed the antemortem (AM) inspection by the official veterinarian (OV) will enter the processing line. A postmortem (PM) inspection will then be carried out by a meat hygiene inspector (MHI). After PM inspection meat can be passed as fit for human consumption, rejected as unfit for human consumption or detained for further examination. The MHI records all rejections and passes this information on to the OV.5 Data collected from the AM and PM inspections are then entered by the FSA into a centralised system.5 European law states that any disease identified at AM or PM inspection that affects animal health and is of farm origin must be reported to the farmer and veterinary surgeon for that holding.6 However, this feedback is carried out inconsistently,7 which raises concern and warrants further investigation into the reporting of abattoir data.

The Meat and Livestock Commercial Services (MLCSL) provides independent services and equipment on a commercial basis to the meat and livestock industry and published a report in 2013.8 This report was commissioned by the FSA with the objective to evaluate the implementation of food chain information and the collection and communication of inspection results (CCIR) for all species in the UK. This was part of a wider review by the FSA of the current official control on meat to identify potential changes that would support an improved system. According to this report, there is poor CCIR between the abattoir and cattle and sheep farmers; over 50 per cent of cattle and sheep farmers in the UK did not receive regular abattoir rejection data and 73 per cent of OVs did not think data were sent back to beef farmers.8 However, for the pig and poultry sectors, this is different as both industries are highly integrated; pig farmers registered with their levy board receive regular feedback via email regarding their abattoir rejection data, whereas poultry abattoirs have established internal communications allowing for the efficient exchange of information between production and slaughter.4

These data can be highly valuable to farmers and their veterinary surgeons as these can highlight diseases affecting animal welfare and production.7 Detailed abattoir data were routinely received with whole cattle and sheep carcase rejections.8 The four most common causes of whole carcase rejection in cattle are emaciation with generalised oedema, septicaemia, pyaemia and generalised tuberculosis.9 Emaciation is also the most common cause of whole sheep carcase rejection.10 The same data set lists liver fluke (Fasciola hepatica) as the most common cause for partial rejection in cattle,9 with economic losses estimated at £25.5 million for English beef farmers for 2017.11 Other common partial rejection conditions in cattle were pneumonia, abscesses and bruising.11 In sheep, common causes of partial rejection were Cysticercus tenuicollis, liver fluke, abscesses, pneumonia and C ovis.10 11 The farmer in collaboration with their veterinary surgeon can manage many of these causes of rejection conditions. By being more aware of the reasons for and prevalence of rejections, farmers may be motivated to improve livestock management to reduce endemic diseases.

The relation between veterinary surgeons and farmers is widely researched; however, there are contradicting views on how successful this relationship is. Dairy farmers highly valued their veterinary surgeon’s opinion,12 and sheep farmers wanted veterinary surgeons to engage more in flock health management and valued their input in establishing health plans.13 On the other hand, Kaler and Green14 found that sheep farmers do not think that veterinary surgeons are an important part of flock management. Veterinary surgeons stated farmers would only share abattoir rejection data with them if there were significant rejections.8 An improved understanding of cattle and sheep farmers’ interest and ability to receive abattoir data can provide veterinary surgeons with knowledge to optimise their advice and strengthen the veterinary surgeon–farmer relationship.

The aims of this study were to describe the opinions of UK cattle and sheep farmers regarding the provision of abattoir data and which rejection conditions they would be most interested in, and to determine the role of the veterinary surgeon in this process.

Methods

This study was reported following the Consolidated criteria for Reporting Qualitative research and the Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology guidelines.15 16 Online (SurveyMonkey, San Mateo, California, USA) and paper-based surveys were used to collect qualitative and quantitative data. The target population was cattle and sheep farmers in the UK. The study population was a convenience sample of the target population. The survey was piloted at one local livestock market, where 10 farmers were asked to complete and critically evaluate the survey. Following the pilot, the survey was shortened and the order of questions altered to achieve a more intuitive flow of questions.

The survey (online supplementary appendix 1) comprised three sections: (1) demographic data, (2) farmers’ views on the use of abattoir data and the veterinary surgeons’ role, and (3) farmers’ views on livestock markets (this section was used for a different study). Demographic data included livestock type, age, years of experience and the first four digits of postcode. In order to aid comparison and assess representativeness of the data, age was defined as <35, 35–44, 45–54, 55–64 and >65 as used by Defra.17 The postal code was used to divide respondents’ location into one of six regions of the UK: Southern England, Midlands, Northern England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The English regions were taken from the Defra government office regions.18 The second section consisted of 12 questions: two open questions and 10 Likert scale questions.19 Two Likert scale questions had the option for further free-text responses. Seven Likert scale questions asked participants how interested farmers were in receiving information on seven conditions: respiratory conditions, joint lesions, liver fluke, other liver conditions, carcase contamination, whole carcase rejection and abscesses on carcase. These conditions were the most common rejections reported by the FSA in cattle and sheep.9 10

The survey was distributed online and in person at livestock markets. The online survey was open from October 3 until November 12, 2017, and was distributed via Facebook, Twitter, email and Farmers Weekly. To distribute the paper-based survey, five local livestock markets were visited by the first author: Louth, Leek, Melton Mowbray, Market Drayton and Bakewell. Paper-based respondents were therefore local to the University of Nottingham in the Midlands. A draw for two cash prizes was used as incentive for participation.

No sample size calculation was performed before the study as the aims were descriptive in nature. Responses were collected using Microsoft Excel 2010 (Microsoft, Redmond, USA) and quantitative data were analysed using EpiTools epidemiological calculator.20 Chi-squared tests were performed on relevant associations, mainly significant associations were reported; statistical significance level was defined as P<0.05. If not all respondents answered a particular question, the total number of respondents answering the question was reported and considered as the denominator for calculating a proportion. Answers to open questions were categorised by the first author into themes using thematic analysis methodology.21

Results

Eighty respondents answered the survey. Three surveys were discarded as the respondents were pig farmers. Seventy-seven responses were used for analysis, consisting of 47 (61 per cent) online and 30 (39 per cent) paper-based surveys.

Thirty per cent of respondents were farmers who had both beef cattle and sheep (figure 1).

Figure 1

Percentage of different types of UK livestock farmers who responded to the survey (n=77).

There were significantly more respondents under 35 years of age who completed the survey online compared with the 35–44 age group (P=0.0378; figure 2). There was no significant difference in the number of responses between the different age groups (P=0.6588) even though the under-35 age group represented the largest group of respondents (n=19/76, 25 per cent). One respondent did not provide their age.

Figure 2

Age distribution of respondents when responding to the survey online or paper-based (n=76).

Forty-nine per cent of respondents (n=38/77) reported more than 30 years of experience in the livestock industry, 28 per cent reported to have 10–30 years of experience (n=21/77), and 23 per cent had less than 10 years of experience (n=18/77). Thirty-nine per cent of respondents (n=26/67) were located in the Midlands (figure 3). Ten respondents did not provide a postcode.

Figure 3

Respondents’ geographical location in the UK, based on a four digit postal code (n=67).

When asked ‘How often do you receive abattoir data?’ 49 per cent of respondents (n=37/76) indicated they always receive abattoir data. Twenty-eight per cent (n=21/76) of respondents did not receive any data, and 23 per cent (n=18/76) reported to sometimes receive data. Respondents who sometimes received abattoir data had the opportunity for further comments. This highlighted two themes why cattle and sheep farmers sometimes receive abattoir data:

1. The abattoir irregularly sends data.

‘Only if I chase the abattoir’. (paper: respondent 24)

‘Information is inconsistently provided’. (online: respondent 41)

‘We use a small family run abattoir that just aren’t into providing this information, they don’t employ a grader and sometimes we get condemned notes for offal passed on to us’. (online: respondent 43)

2. Respondents sold their livestock through markets and did not expect to receive any abattoir data.

‘I get them when I go direct to abattoir but not when I sell at market’. (online: respondent 25)

‘I don’t always sell through abattoirs’. (paper: respondent 12)

The majority of farmers ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with the statement ‘I trust abattoir rejection data’ (67 per cent, n=50/75). Twenty respondents (26 per cent) were ‘neutral’ towards this statement, and five respondents (7 per cent) either ‘disagreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’.

Over 80 per cent of respondents ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ with wanting to receive abattoir data on the six rejection conditions in the survey (figure 4). Although the differences between preferred rejection conditions were not significant (P=0.2267), liver fluke (56 per cent, n=42/75) and respiratory conditions (55 per cent, n=41/74) had the highest frequency of ‘strongly agree’ responses. Carcase contamination was the only category with more ‘agree’ responses compared with ‘strongly agree’ (figure 4).

Figure 4

Responses to ‘I would be interested in feedback from the abattoir regarding any liver fluke (n=75), respiratory conditions (n=74), joint lesions (n=75), liver conditions other than liver fluke (n=75), carcase contamination (n=75), abscesses (n=75) found in my stock’. ‘Strongly disagree’ was not answered by any of the respondents and therefore not reported.

Ninety-two per cent of respondents (n=68/74) wanted to receive abattoir data on any cause of whole carcase rejection; the remaining 8 per cent of respondents were neutral (n=6/74).

When asked ‘Is there any other information on your animals that is not currently available to you, that you would like to receive from the abattoir?’ 27 per cent of respondents (n=21/77) provided free-text answers. The most common requested type of information was more information on diseases found in their livestock (n=9/21; table 1). Eighteen respondents (23 per cent) answered they would not like to receive more information.

Table 1

Categories of information respondents were interested to receive when asked ‘Is there any other information on your animals that is not currently available to you, that you would like to receive from the abattoir?’, collected by free-text answers (n=21)

When given the statement ‘I would be willing to share abattoir data with my vet’, 82 per cent of respondents ‘strongly agreed’ (n=26/76) or ‘agreed’ (n=37/76). Fifteen per cent of respondents (n=11/76) were ‘neutral’ to sharing abattoir data with their veterinary surgeon, and 3 per cent of respondents either ‘disagreed’ (n=1) or ‘strongly disagreed’ (n=1).

Forty-five per cent of respondents (n=35) gave examples of how they and their veterinary surgeon could use abattoir data. The two most common uses were for herd or flock health plans (n=15/35) and to control liver fluke (n=10/35; table 2).

Table 2

Categories of information respondents suggested when asked ‘give an example of when you and your vet could use abattoir data to improve herd/flock health’, collected by free-text answers (n=35)

Although differences of agreement between the type of farming groups were not significant (P=0.2431), figure 5 suggests that sheep farmers were the group of farmers who most strongly agreed (47 per cent) to sharing abattoir data with their veterinary surgeon.

Figure 5

Responses to ‘I would be willing to share abattoir data with my vet’ by livestock farmer type. ‘Strongly disagree’ and ‘disagree’ were not answered by any of the respondents and therefore not reported.

Discussion

This study supports the opinion that significant improvement can and needs to be made in the collection and communication of abattoir rejection data to cattle and sheep farmers and their veterinary surgeons in the UK, as less than half of the respondents (49 per cent) were always receiving abattoir rejection data. The percentage of farmers always receiving abattoir data in this study appeared higher than that reported by MLCSL,8 which found that only 15 per cent and 6 per cent of FBOs were sending consistent data for every animal back to cattle and sheep farmers, respectively. The MLCSL report8 highlighted the lack of electronic systems for recording rejection conditions in medium and small abattoirs, which could be a reason for poor feedback of abattoir data; many OVs and MHIs still record rejection conditions on pieces of paper and enter this information into the FSA database at the end of the day. The Food Control Consultants report4 suggested a lack of a standardised system for cattle and sheep farmers to retrieve abattoir rejection data to be responsible for the limited feedback. Cattle and sheep farmers in this study who irregularly receive abattoir rejection data thought the abattoir was mainly at fault as they either did not have the technology to record and send rejection data or they did not send rejection data routinely unless prompted by the farmer. Other respondents mentioned they sold their stock through livestock markets and therefore never expected to receive abattoir data. In contrast, the MLCSL report8 stated that over 75 per cent of poultry farmers were receiving abattoir rejection data. Poultry inspection results were the only data being entered in the FSA’s system and consistently being made accessible to poultry farmers and their veterinary surgeon. For pig farmers in the UK, there are several monitoring schemes, such as Wholesome Pigs Scotland and the British Pig Health Scheme, which store abattoir data accessible to farmers and veterinary surgeons.22 Other countries which have centralised data collection systems have created schemes where farmers and veterinary surgeons sign up and are given direct access to the inspection results for their livestock.23 It appears there is an opportunity for similar information to be made readily available to cattle and sheep farmers in the UK either through making the current centralised FSA data system available or through schemes that collect abattoir data and provide online access for farmers. A recent pilot by the FSA used blockchain technology in a cattle abattoir; this technology collates inspection data into interchained blocks creating block chains that can be used as a ledger by anyone with the appropriate permission (ie, farmers, FSA and FBOs), providing more transparency along the food supply chain.24

One-third of respondents answered ‘neutral’, ‘disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ with trusting the rejection data provided by abattoirs. This finding is supported by the reported dissatisfaction among cattle and sheep farmers with the accuracy and consistency of inspection results.4 There is also concern among pig farmers regarding the consistency and detail of PM inspection25; consequentially, a lack of trust of farmers across multiple livestock sectors appears a challenge to the industry. Ipsos MORI26 reported that FBOs were dissatisfied with the consistency of decision making of OVs, with one FBO stating ‘Some [officials] are in for an easy life but others follow the rulebook very closely’. Therefore, a reason for the lack of trust of inspection results could be the inconsistency in the abattoir. This lack of trust has further drawbacks; for example, if the FSA would fully implement the current piloted blockchain system, it would be questionable as to how much farmers and veterinary surgeons would use the newly available data if they do not trust the accuracy of it. To improve accuracy, taking the poultry industry as an example, the FSA uses ‘condition cards’ in poultry abattoirs to standardise meat inspection.4 Twenty-one condition cards exist for the major rejection conditions at PM, which are designed as guidance for inspection teams.5 Along similar lines, the creation of cattle and sheep condition cards could support standardisation across PM inspection by FSA staff. Another way to improve consistency would be through improved data collection. Currently the method of collection of inspection results is determined by the MHI, with only a few large abattoirs having predetermined conditions recorded on touchscreen terminals.4 Although implementing touchscreen terminals throughout all UK abattoirs could improve consistency and accuracy, the reality of the smaller abattoirs being able to afford these is doubtful. Nevertheless, an improved standardisation of cattle and sheep carcase inspection through condition cards, plus an improvement to the way inspection data are collected, could increase trust of farmers regarding abattoir rejection data. Farmers themselves can improve feedback of abattoir data by being proactive and requesting rejection data for every individual or batch of animals sent to slaughter. This proactive farmer approach, together with field-based evidence from veterinary surgeons of how abattoir rejection data were used successfully on farm to improve herd or flock performance, can help to increase the perceived value and trust of abattoir data among cattle and sheep farmers.

The present study’s findings corroborate several reports stating liver and lung rejections to be the conditions of most interest to cattle and sheep farmers.4 8 13 The results also indicate an interest to receive more detailed abattoir rejection data, as these will allow cattle and sheep farmers to determine the most suitable treatment and control plan for their farm. Further research has been carried out by the FSA and Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Beef & Lamb to update the list of PM rejection conditions and relate each condition to either public or animal health.27 The advantages of collecting and sharing more detailed rejection data are supported by van Klink et al7 as the benefits can be significant for zoonotic and notifiable disease monitoring.

The majority of farmers were willing to share abattoir data with their veterinary surgeon. This is supported by the MLCSL report8 which found that the majority of farmers who received abattoir data would consult a veterinary surgeon to discuss the findings. However, when veterinary surgeons were interviewed in the same report, they stated that those farmers who received rejection data would only provide the results occasionally. Veterinary surgeons have also been found to not maximise the use of available abattoir data and only briefly look at the data for upcoming health plans.13 Considering the literature it appears both farmers and veterinary surgeons could benefit from further information on the effective use of abattoir rejection data. Encouragingly, respondents indicated that health planning was a key area to increase the use of abattoir data. Health plans are used across all types of livestock farming and are a valuable tool for veterinary surgeons and farmers to focus on their herd or flock health.12 28 29 Health plans made with a veterinary surgeon are a requirement across seven major farm assurance schemes in the UK,30 and the incorporation of abattoir data into health plans will strengthen their value to the farmer.

The more critical perception of sheep farmers towards veterinary surgeons14 was not observed in this study, as sheep farmers were equally as positive as cattle farmers about sharing abattoir data with their veterinary surgeon. The differing outcomes cannot be explained by the design of each study; however, sample size and several types of bias may have influenced this. Further work may help elucidate this veterinary surgeon–farmer relationship.

The small sample size and sources of bias31 in this study warrant care when extrapolating the findings to the target population (cattle and sheep farmers in the UK). Where significant associations were not found, this may have been due to an insufficient sample size. However, further work to increase the sample size will take considerable effort as the farming population is challenging to engage in survey-based research. The limited sample size needs to be considered in relation to other study limitations, such as potential volunteer bias. For example, the study results indicate a strong interest from respondents in abattoir rejection data; this is true for this study population but may be overestimated for the target population, as respondents may have been generally more interested individuals. This bias could have a more significant impact on the results compared with the limited sample size. Likewise, although less significant, the predominant geographical location and age distribution of respondents may have introduced a bias. A sufficiently large sample size would be able to determine the actual impact of geographical location and age, but this was not deemed imperative to the aim of this study.

It was surprising to note the lack of peer-reviewed literature in this field; the grey literature, produced by organisations outside of the traditional academic publishing and distribution channels, provided the majority of information. Considering the importance of abattoir rejection data to ensure animal and public health, more published research to provide a stronger evidence base is highly recommended.

Conclusion

To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study investigating UK farmers’ opinions on the feedback of abattoir data and indicates most cattle and sheep farmers are interested in receiving all available abattoir rejection condition data and are willing to share these data with their veterinary surgeon for use in health and treatment plans. The study results support MLCSL findings and recommendations,8 in particular their recommendations on improving the extent to which CCIR happens in the beef and lamb industry and the review of the system for the verification of inspection results, so that the consistency of results within and between abattoirs ensures accuracy of PM information. Implementing these recommendations and providing easy access to the information would facilitate veterinary surgeons in supporting their clients with evidence-based advice. These improvements can also address the lack of trust some farmers have in the currently collected data and will enable farmers and veterinary surgeons to work together using abattoir data to improve animal health and welfare.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank all participants for their contribution to the study, the five livestock markets for welcoming them, and Mr Romero for his contribution regarding ongoing project developments at the FSA.

References

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Footnotes

  • Twitter @wenwapenaar

  • Funding This study was funded by the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, University of Nottingham, UK.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethics approval Ethical consent was received from all respondents before completing the survey, and ethical approval was granted by the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, University of Nottingham, UK, before data collection (project ID: 2797190729).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data are available upon request.

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