One Needle is Too Many

When you think about what affects your pork operation, you tend to think of big things, like feed efficiency or pigs per litter. But something as tiny as a single needle can have a major impact on your reputation and profits.

Imagine if you or your family bit into a piece of pork and found a needle. You would certainly never buy that product again, and most likely encourage all your friends to avoid the product. Then you would probably contact the supplier to express your anger as well. That's exactly what would happen if a needle made it into a pork chop that you produced.

That is the basis behind the National Pork Producers Council's new "One is Too Many" program.

The program works to help ensure that you are aware of how to prevent broken needles and what to do if one happens.

"A minority of producers have heard from packers about how a hog should be marked if it is carrying a broken needle," says Paul Sundberg, NPPC's vice president of veterinary issues. "We need more communication between the farm, the plant and all the links in the chain."

Sundberg likens needle detection to a four-legged stool, with producers, packers, needle manufacturers and detection equipment manufacturers all balancing to keep the program upright.

Nearly 75 percent of producers have their own methods in place to prevent broken needles, but often they are not written down for anyone giving injections to refer to, according to an NPPC study. Yet, it would benefit the entire industry to have more continuity because it would offer security and a consumer-confidence selling point.

"The most important thing I can emphasize is that if a producer bends a needle, he should throw it away," says Sundberg. "Needles don't break unless they are bent, straightened and then reused."

A study on needle strength has been part of NPPC's fact-finding effort. In a test with a mechanical pig used to simulate movement, aluminum-hub needles bent but did not break, while plastic needles broke every time.

In the static test, where constant pressure was applied with no animal movement not one needle broke when loaded and used a single time.

"Restraining the animal is one of the more important things you can do to reduce needle bending and the risk of broken needles," says Sundberg. If restrained properly, the injection site and age of the hog are not considered to be large factors in frequency or likelihood of needles breaking.

NPPC's "One is Too Many" program intends to increase awareness of producers' responsibilities with a variety of promotional material. A written standard operating procedure also will become a part of the Pork Quality Assurance Program, and NPPC will encourage more communication between producers and packers.

Sundberg says NPPC has formulated standard procedures and factors to consider for producers to develop operating procedures appropriate to their situation. He adds that no one set of standards can be applied industry wide, the procedures will be operation specific. (See sidebar for more details.)

Packers have some responsibilities as well. Specifically, they must maintain equipment so that it can consistently find needles and other foreign material in meat. Training to ensure that compliance is met in terms of maintaining and handling the product, falls to the packers as well. Communication between packers and producers is a two-way street and is the responsibility of both parties. Specifically, producers must tell packers if an animal is at risk of having a broken needle, and packers must communicate how they want animals with a broken needle to be identified and delivered.

One of the program's goals is to make sure that a producer and packer communicate their policies with each other. NPPC is encouraging packers to pay full market price for animals at risk of having broken needles.

All major packers have metal detectors for needle detection right on the processing line. Once a machine detects a needle, the product is pulled from the line. But the metal detectors are not foolproof. In NPPC's study, one specific machine failed to detect a needle placed in a cut of pork 90 percent of the time.

There are three reasons for the unacceptable needle detection rate, according to Sundberg. First, the needle is made of a metal that is difficult to detect. Next, the angle of the machine and the angle of the needle affect how easily it can be detected. Packing plants need to have two detection machines, placed at different angles to the line, to be able to detect needles lodged horizontally and vertically. Lastly, packing plant workers who deal with detection equipment need better training.

NPPC's program calls for manufacturers to have clear communication regarding equipment abilities and limitations, proper placement on packing lines and regular maintenance and repair schedules.

The fourth leg of the stool involves the needle manufacturers. NPPC has encouraged them to improve designs, so that all needles have the strength of aluminum-hub needles. Also, the design should be such that if the needle bends, it should bend at the hub, not at the needle shaft – like plastic hubs do. Finally, manufacturers need to improve needle detectability, and to label needle packages with warnings against straightening a bent needle.

The frightening potential of a needle finding its way on to a consumer's plate is not exclusive to the United States. In fact, an incident in one country could have a backlash on the pork industry worldwide.

So, NPPC is working with the Canadian pork industry to address the issue. Sundberg says Canadians have the same type of initiatives and detection methods as those in the United States. Since the two countries are so similar in production and so closely associated with each other, a negative incident in one country would impact pork industries in both.

The total number of needles that have made it through a packing plant is extremely small. But as Sundberg points out, even one is unacceptable. The "One is Too Many Program" sets a zero-tolerance standard. What are you doing on your farm to keep your nose and your pork clean?