Meat and Poultry inspectors help get catfish to the table

by | Jan 20, 2020

Pete Radford has been a meat and poultry inspector for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for more than 18 years. His job is to ensure the meat products produced by companies on his watch meet USDA requirements. He is one of about 85 inspectors located across North Carolina whose job is to supervise the humane slaughter of animals and to make sure the processing plant is in compliance with state and federal laws. Some inspectors, like Radford, have a few facilities they must visit daily for inspection. Other inspectors work at larger facilities that require an inspector to work at one facility full time.

In January of 2018, Carolina Classics Catfish in Ayden became a daily workday for Radford stop as catfish inspection moved from USDA inspection to state inspection under a TA agreement.

North Carolina is one of nine states that operate under the Talmadge-Aiken act of 1962. This law allows trained inspectors that are state employees to staff meat-packing plants with USDA inspection privileges. A TA plant, or federally inspected plant, means that meats from the facility bear the USDA inspection label and can be sold across state lines. Meat from a state-inspected plant may be sold only within state lines. Carolina Classics catfish is sold across state lines as well as to customers in Canada and Germany.

Inspectors go where consumers can’t go

Radford ensures safe handling, cleanliness of delivery trucks, correct temperature of product and that employees processing the fish wear the proper clothing (not street clothes) and hairnets. “When visiting the fish-processing floor I am checking that protocols are being followed and that the product is meeting safe-handling protocols. Catfish have their own special regulations and my job is to ensure these laws are followed,” he said.

Unlike cattle and swine inspections, ante-mortem and postmortem observation is not part of the inspection process.

Carolina Classics is visited often by other states and government leadership. As one of the closest catfish slaughter facilities to Washington, D.C., the plant is often shown as an example of this type of inspection program.

On the day that we visited, Carolina Classics was planning to process 8,000 pounds of catfish, the day before the facility had process 30,000 pounds. Each year, the processing facility produces about three million pounds of catfish.

Radford’s daily inspection typically involves a cleanliness inspection of the the truck that brings the fish from one of the dozens of catfish farmers that grow for Carolina Classics.

He then observes as fish are lifted by net and placed on a conveyor belt. Within an hour the fish are stunned, slaughtered, processed into catfish fillets or nuggets and boxed up for delivery.

“The process uses every bit of the catfish,” said Radford. “The parts of the fish that are not used for human consumption are saved for collection by Sun River Feed Mill for animal feed.”

Meat and Poultry Division Director Dr. Beth Yongue, Supervisor Becky Hill, Inspector Pete Radford, Supervisor Mike Holliday and Assistant Commissioner Joe Reardon

Industry-driven inspections:

Carolina Classics opened in December of 1987. Over the years it has gained a reputation for its quality fillets, nuggets and frozen products. The company, as part of the domestic catfish industry, requested to come under federal inspection in 2016 to help protect the industry from cheaper fish coming in for Southeast Asia.

The growers knew that foreign competition would have a difficult time meeting US inspection requirements. “While catfish do not carry a high food safety risk,” said Dr. Beth Yongue, director of the Meat and Poutlry Inspection Division. “Their desire for inspection was economically driven to protect growers in the states. Foreign companies must also meet the requirements laid out by USDA.”

“North Carolina currently has two catfish facilities under state inspection,” Yongue added. However, interest from other facilities is growing and we anticipate adding more companies.”

Currently, catfish accounts for 21 percent of the $59.5 million production value of aquaculture in North Carolina. “Our inspectors help protect this industry and ensure consumer confidence in our food supply. Whether the product is beef, poultry or catfish – we want to ensure proper labeling and a wholesome product.”

For more information on Meat and Poultry inspections and a complete list of inspection guidelines, click here.