There are auditors who spend hours on farms observing the behavior of cows and calves. They monitor from the minimum and maximum temperature that must be in a poultry farm to the destination of the pig manure. Every step that an animal takes from the field to our tables, even before it is born, is closely monitored by health authorities. In each and every one of the phases of the food chain. It is the message that the livestock and meat industry repeats over and over again, outraged by the criticism of Alberto Garzón, Minister of Consumption, of large farms and the intensive production model.
“This is a complex debate that cannot be simplified. Intensive farming does not
it has to negatively affect the quality of the meat that is marketed. In Spain we have a wide range of legislative provisions that
regulate all food products guaranteeing their safety. In addition, meat companies have implanted different quality certification systems, which are periodically reviewed”, explains Rosario Martin de Santos, Professor of Nutrition and Bromatology at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the Complutense University of Madrid, who cites European Regulation 178/2002, drawn up after the ‘mad cow’ and dioxin crisis, as the great turning point in the matter of food safety. Sometimes, the ranchers say, “you learn from mistakes.”
The farms are the base of the whole system, the first link in the chain. “Awareness in the livestock sector has improved a lot. They are the first ones interested in everything working, because in the end it is to their own benefit,” he points out. Arturo Hernangomez, livestock technician from Asaja (Young Farmers Agricultural Association). The regulation of poultry farms was updated in a royal decree published in 2021, and that of pig farms is from 2020. Currently there is also a draft royal decree for the management of cattle. Simplifying this regulation, Hernangómez maintains, regulates issues related to the feeding of animals, their health and well-being, facilities and transport to the slaughterhouse.
«In relation to feed, for example, they are controlled when they leave the factory to verify that there are no fungi or bacteria. Each animal has a certain type of feed and some substances that it cannot eat. The level of antibiotics is also monitored, if they are medicated feed, “says this expert. Likewise, the farms have a reference veterinarian who is responsible for carrying out health checks, in addition to Administer mandatory and optional vaccinations. Blood, urine, and stool tests are also done. “Everyone has their own DNI, called DIB, which accompanies them on all transfers and explains the farm they come from, the autonomous community, their vaccination card…”.
The royal decrees for the management of farms, says the Asaja spokesman, also set the minimum dimensions of the facilities in which the different species must live, as well as issues related to the hygiene and disinfection of said ships: “You have to register what it does with animal waste and manure, which is almost always used for fertilizer, in order to avoid contamination of the soil». The hours of travel and the conditions in which the vehicles that take the cattle to the slaughterhouse have to be are even regulated.
In 2020, according to data from the National Program for Official Hygiene Control in Livestock Farms, 2,431 farms of all kinds were controlled, 1.4 percent of the more than half a million in Spain. In total, irregularities were detected in 876 establishments and disciplinary proceedings were opened against 133 (15 percent).
“Of course there are people who don’t do things right and we are the first to condemn these irregularities that harm the entire sector.
But you can’t generalize», points Ignasi Pons, attached to the address of Fecic (Business Federation of Meat and Meat Industries). “Quality is offered by both intensive and extensive production, which, on the other hand, in Spain is unfeasible for all meat production of all species. Both models offer the necessary guarantees so that your production is in the best possible conditions. Another thing is that the consumer prefers or is willing to pay for meat from extensive livestock. Or organic. That’s another discussion.”
As an example, Pons points out, the exhaustive surveillance that exists in slaughterhouses: «It is the only industry in which there is a veterinarian from the administration present throughout the process. The companies have made significant investments in their quality departments, but without the seal and official authorization the meat cannot be marketed». In these, in addition, an inspection of the animals is carried out before slaughter (clinical examinations, verification of information on the agri-food chain…) and afterwards (laboratory tests, marking and labelling…).
Although part of the meat later passes to other industries to be processed, traceability methods (monitoring) have been greatly improved. «Since the ‘mad cow’ crisis, cattle have been the most controlled. It has perfect traceability. In the event of any health alert, it is immediately known what animal it is, where it comes from… In other species with more heads of cattle, larger batches are made, but it is also known where it came from, in which slaughterhouse it was slaughtered, who has handled it … There is documentary evidence of all this”, insists Cecilio Folgado, general secretary of Agemcex (Association of Exporting Meat Companies).
But the surveillance chain does not end here if the final destination of the meat is outside the European Union. Something that is not anecdotal: Spain is the fifth country in the world that exports the most meat (worth 8,451 million euros in 2020, according to data from the International Trade Center) and the first if we talk about pigs (more than 32 million euros). “Each country has its own requirements and request specific permits and certificates. Then there are markets, like the Asian one, where veterinarians from the importing country come to audit the companies authorized to export before giving the final approval. Then there are also particularities depending on the species. China, for example, does not buy beef from us, but it does buy pork,” continues the spokesperson for Agemcex. In addition to the legal minimums, many supermarkets also ask their suppliers to comply with international food safety standards such as ISO 22,000 and the BRC. “In any case, Spain is one of the countries that offers the most guarantees in the world and in Europe. And we will continue to improve. The objective is to implement the ‘blockhain’ technology throughout the chain, a QR code that can be placed on the labels of any sausage so that the consumer scans it with his mobile and can see all the tracking of the animal. In a couple of years this will be a reality.
food safety and animal welfare They are subjects that, in my opinion, the sector has already overcome, ”says Pons. Consumer demands are advancing and, with them, the industry. “The challenge now is sustainability and circular economy. We have been working for years to modernize farms and achieve, for example, take advantage of slurry to produce energy through biogas, promote electric mobility, use alternative energy sources and reclaimed water…».