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New Tanning Process Good for Industry and the Environment

By Jim Core
August 15, 2001

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.

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

A method developed more than 10 years ago by former Agricultural Research Service researcher David G. Bailey andindustry cooperators--and only now successfully engineered--removes hairs from the hides of cattle before they are skinned, significantly reducing the threat of meat contamination.

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, LLC, a start-up beef-processing company, permit recycling of the sulfide, recovery of the removed hair and an overall reduction in the impact 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 G. 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 to 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 FBO in its first Kansas meat-packing facility, opening this month.