KANSAS CITY (B)--Improving a technique to remove hair from cattle hides immediately after slaughter spells good news for tanneries, has the potential to reduce bacterial contamination of meat and is friendlier to the environment than conventional methods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service says by removing the hair from the hides before they are skinned significantly reduces the threat of meat contamination.

Animals enter the slaughterhouse with many microorganisms on their hides, some of which are pathogenic to humans. If present, bacteria such as Escherichia coli O157:H7, Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes can contaminate meat and meat by-products.

The de-hairing method, developed more than 10 years ago by former ARS researcher David Bailey and industry cooperators, has only now been successfully engineered.

One reason this de-hairing process hasn't been adopted is the projected high cost of waste treatment associated with it. Recent improvements, developed by researchers at the ARS Eastern Regional Research Center, Wyndmoor, PA, in collaboration with Future Beef Operations, a start-up beef-processing company, permit recycling of the sulfide, recovery of the removed hair and an overall reduction in the effect of the process on the environment.

This patented method starts with spraying a solution of sodium sulfide onto the carcass hide. The substance breaks protein bonds within hair fibers so they can be removed. A sulfide-neutralizing agent is then applied to complete the process.

The tanning industry benefits immensely, according to Andrew Gehring, a research chemist in the Hides, Lipids and Wool Research Unit at ERRC. It allows the packer to remove the bulk of the hair, split the hide and send the top (grain) layer for tanning and the rest (corium) for other uses. This saves time and expense compared with the traditional handling of the entire hide. It also permits early-stage inspection of the hide's grain layer, reducing shipments of low-quality hides to tanners.

This technology will be utilized by Future Beef Operations in its first Kansas meat-packing facility, opening this month.

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