Bread and Butter

13 July 2007

Our bread and butter is the raw hide and skin and a number of factors influence their value. Except for a few people, everybody knows that the hide is a byproduct of the meat industry in more than 90% of cases. In short the hide, being a byproduct, has in the best of cases a limited value while it is still securely attached to the animal. The hide gains value only from the moment it's taken off the carcase of the slaughtered animal, when it starts its life as the main product of the leather industry. Many studies have been made about pre- and post- slaughter defects. Many projects and programmes have dealt with this matter, but with extremely limited and disappointing results. I have been hammering a lot about the efficiency of many organisations, and I stick to my criticism, but in all fairness, it's not the organisations that are 100% at fault. It is also those who push for projects as a purely theoretical (money devouring) exercise and, last but not least, the beneficiaries of projects are not always as cooperative as one may wish. The major debilitating factor for hide and skin improving projects is in most of the cases the neutralising effect of prevailing market conditions in spite of the efforts and good will of participants. As a byproduct, the hide is generally treated very badly. Many have tried to do something about this, but very few have succeeded. Whole programmes have been dedicated to abolishing brand marks in certain countries but to little avail. There are cultural matters and traditions involved, which are extremely difficult to break. For instance Masai actually decorate their cattle with artistic representations by cutting the hides to form big scars which can cover as much as third of a hide. How can you prohibit the Masai from exercising an important part of their culture? You can seduce them into improvement, but you have to pay for that in hard dollars otherwise it won't work. A cattle ranger needs to distinguish his cattle from that of his neighbour if freely roaming in the field. If he wants to make quick and easy checks from his horseback or through the window of his helicopter, he needs a rather large sign, not just an ear label which is used in stables and feedlots. The brand mark is usually applied on the most visible part of the animal, the butt. The brand can be small, medium, large and extra large. The brand can be single or multiple. The only thing that is sure, is that it ruins the hide right where it is most valuable and reduces its overall value dramatically. Branding is practiced more or less all over the world, except in Europe and Oceania, which are practically free of brands. A cattle ranger doesn't care about the hide. All he worries about is finding and identifying his cow. The merchant who buys the cow doesn't care either because he buys the animal for its meat, so he wouldn't give the ranger a premium if he got a cow without a brand. When the animals are being sold and brought to an abattoir whether in herds, by truck, railway etc, it is THE opportunity to add some extra damage to the hide by packing the animals in tight in order to keep the pro-capita transport cost as low as possible. Off-loading of the cattle from trucks is an event in itself. Some abattoirs have ramps, others expect the cattle to jump 5-6 feet. Many break a leg and must be presented for emergency slaughter. In some places animals are virtually beaten into the slaughterhouse and develop huge haematoma. Nobody cares. It isn't the hide that's being sold but the meat. When the animal is lucky it is being sold for processing in a professional slaughterhouse with a proper production line where it remains unaware of its fate. In a professional slaughterhouse animals and hides are treated well and are considered for their value. In the majority of cases outside the developed world, cattle finish up in killing grounds, where live animals roam around bleeding carcases lying in their own blood and that of other animals in their death throws. Carcases are being dragged to open spaces for processing, leaving, if the hide is unlucky, drag marks. Here is where the hide becomes an autonomous entity. Flayers bend over the carcase and take off the hide. Depending on how quick the butcher wants his meat in his market stall or shop, flaying is done fast or slow, bad or properly. The value of the hide is unfortunately still not an issue. It's not an issue because in the commercial value chain there is nobody prepared to give the flayer a premium for a properly flayed hide. In some places the contrary is actually the case. In several countries hides are being traded for human consumption. For human consumption it is absolutely irrelevant whether a hide is with or without flay cuts, with or without holes, shaped or misshapen. People eat hides because they like them, but also because a kilo of wet salted hide is cheaper than a kilo of meat. Hides for human consumption as a substitute for meat are fetching better prices than hides that enter the market for the leather industry. Therefore, unless there is an economic incentive for the flayers to perform a proper job and for the hide collector to make a proper selection, quality will never improve in places where human consumption takes the lead over the leather industry with less quality demands and higher prices. You can launch any quality awareness programme wherever you want but you can't expect results in terms of better hide quality and economic improvement of the prices unless you take care of social economic issues. You can teach flayers, and they will understand, but why should they actually do the job as taught when it makes no difference whether they do a sloppy job or not. It is, therefore, the market that determines whether a country will produce good quality hides or not. As long as there are buyers who take everything without distinction, there will be no improvement of hides, at least as long as hides are produced in a traditional way. Only when abattoirs are converted from slaughter slabs into a production line system we can take a step forward. This would allow professionalism amongst the workers and organisation of the slaughterhouse, rather than the chaos that reigns in many places. One can install a mechanical flaying device, cheap like the SFF or expensive pneumatic/ hydraulic equipment in the production line and hides would automatically roll out properly flayed. Then one has to be vigilant that people don't flesh the hides randomly to bring back home a morsel of meat. The transformation of a slaughter slab into a production line unit is relatively cheap. All you need is a rail and wheeled hooks, an awareness meeting with the workers before you convert their slaughter slab to make them understand what improvements you are trying to make, rather than imposing 'Western' ideas which generally meet hostility rather than collaboration. Sam Setter [email protected]

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