Inspected Meat Remains Safe as bTB Outbreak Continues
By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor
With concern about bovine tuberculosis (bTB), which has rapidly spread across livestock herds in central and west Molokai this year, some residents have wondered, is it safe to eat meat slaughtered on Molokai? The answer is yes.
“The Molokai Livestock Cooperative would like to assure you, our community, that the procedures of how we handle every single animal, whether it be cattle, hogs, deer or sheep, must go through a stringent inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, also known as the USDA,” wrote Randy Cabreros, interim manager of Molokai’s slaughterhouse, in a social media post last week. “We do have a certified inspector here on island. The duties of this inspector are to certify and assure you, the consumer, that your food is safe from all potentially hazardous contaminants. Food safety is the number one priority of the USDA FSIS [Food Safety and Inspection Service].”
Jamie Ronzello of Sust’ainable Molokai, whose Mobile Market sells Molokai meat from the Livestock Cooperative, said the organization has received a flood of recent concerned calls with questions about the meat’s safety with regards to bTB.
“I want everyone to know that it’s a safe source of meat and I think it’s important to continue to support our local beef industry,” she said. “If you’re purchasing meat from a USDA-inspected meat facility, there should be no concern. That’s what the inspector is there to do.”
Ranchers and farmers are already getting hit hard by the effects of bTB, she said, and it’s quickly trickling down to businesses like the Livestock Cooperative. Meat sales from the Mobile Market have recently dropped significantly, she added.
Despite any concerns, meat from the Cooperative remains safe.
Cabreros said in a phone interview that each animal goes through a stringent inspection process on site before being processed, and if there are any red flags, his policy is to immediately discard the whole animal. The inspection process, by a USDA inspector on Molokai, includes checking the animal for overall health, as well as close examination for swelling of the lymph nodes, which could indicate any kind of infection, not just possible presence of bTB. Cabreros said the same stringent, inspection policy was in place long before the bTB outbreak.
“Meat from cattle, swine and deer that clear USDA FSIS inspection at slaughter are safe,” confirmed Dr. Jason Moniz, veterinary program manager for the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Control Branch, at a meeting on Molokai on April 18. “The slaughter inspection process was developed to look for TB back in 1917, that was its purpose… When they finish with those carcasses, they are wholesome and safe for human consumption.”
A quarantine order was issued on April 8 for ungulate animals on Molokai in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease. A permit is required to move any cattle, sheep, goats, pigs or deer, which includes taking them to the slaughterhouse, “just to keep track,” said Moniz.
At the April 18 meeting, which last more than two hours, Moniz said testing and depopulation is continuing for infected or suspected herds. Hundreds of animals have already been culled.
“This outbreak appears to be highly contagious and widespread and may have multiple sources,” he said.
Those sources, however, all appear to have originated on Molokai, and not come from off island, according to genome sequencing that has been performed.
“We’re currently looking at three separate outbreaks,” he said, pointing to three distinct genomic DNA sequences recently found on Molokai. “All detections in the 2021-22 outbreak are of a Molokai TB strain and we can safely say they are not from a new introduction outside of Molokai.”
More testing needs to be done to determine the extent of the outbreak, according to Moniz.
“We’re basically going to end up testing the whole island,” he said.
All infections in the past year have been found in central and west Molokai, and most of west Molokai animals have already been tested or depopulated.
And though feral pigs have tested positive for bTB on Molokai in the past, Moniz said deer have not been shown to infected so far.
“No infected axis deer have been found over the past 15 years of inspection of several thousand deer at the Molokai slaughterhouse,” he said.
Farmers and ranchers at the meeting expressed frustration and concern over both the devastation to their herds as well as the Dept. of Agriculture’s response to the outbreak.
Moving forward, the DOA is seeking legislative funding for additional positions on Molokai, including a veterinary officer and livestock inspector, as well as infrastructure and equipment to speed up response and assist in quarantine efforts.
Moniz said the DOA also plans to “ramp up testing of hunter-collected wildlife carcasses” with the assistance of hunters, who may be asked to bring in the animal’s head, trachea and both lungs – the most common sites to find infection – for testing.