In the heartland of Iowa locates a small town named Tama. Of the 2,830 population in the small town, over 800 work in the Iowa Premium Beef processing plant.
The plant is a bit excited recently: it has applied to export beef to China, and is busy preparing documents required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as well as by China.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at their Mar-a-Lago meeting in Florida in April to advance China-U.S. economic cooperation with a 100-day action plan. After intensive negotiations, and as the first results from the 100-day plan reached in May, China agreed to reopen its market to U.S. beef no later than July 16, with conditions consistent with international food safety and animal health standards.
China banned U.S. beef import in 2003 amid concerns over mad cow disease.
"They (the requirements) are achievable," Mikel Gager, Iowa Premium food safety manager, told Xinhua.
"At this point, it is basically around the approval process of getting our facility approved through the USDA and then likewise through the Chinese government so that our company will be on that approved plant list, and then at that point we can begin packaging, processing and moving forward with delivery of beef for China," Gager said.
People entering the processing area are all required to dress up like the workers do: removing all accessories, including earring, necklace and watch; using a mesh cap to capture all hair inside before having a helmet; putting on knee-high rain boots and a white uniform coat; and wearing a pair of goggles and gloves.
The processing zone is divided into two parts: normal temperature area and the refrigerated area, and crossing the two areas through a door feels like walking from summer into winter.
In normal temperature area, slaughtered cows are skinned and disassembled with different components going different directions on the production line. Skilled workers lined along the production line, doing the work of cutting, sorting out, sawing, or water spraying.
In refrigerated area workers focused on knifing the carcass into parts, packing, sealing and boxing. Grading of beef is also done in this area, where experts judge the marbling from a slice cut before giving the grade.
There are eight supervisors of the USDA stationed in the plant, supervising the whole process of the production lines every day.
When asked if the USDA supervisors may just ignore some irregularities occurred during the process after they get so familiar with the workers, Gager shrugged and said, "they will lose their jobs." Actually, these USDA supervisors won't accept a cup of coffee offered in the plant.
Gager is confident of the quality and safety of his products. "Our facility operates everyday under a very high level of food safety awareness. We have a very fine food safety record."
In fact, Iowa Premium's quality control has started from selection of animals. "We purchase our animals, our supply is from the local farmers within our area." The company has a working area within 100-150 miles (160-240 kilometers) of the plant, where a very high number of family farm raise corn-fed Angus beef.
"This facility only harvests black Angus, corn fed," Gager said, adding Angus cattle has higher quantity and quality of marbling than other breeds.
Marbling is the leading indicator of beef's flavor, tenderness and juiciness.
To date, Iowa Premium has purchased cattle from more than 1,000 farm families in Iowa and the surrounding Midwest neighbors.
Covering an area of 200,000 square feet, Iowa Premium processes 1150 head of cattle per day at present, and produces 5 or 6 production days each week.
Gager talked about certain specific requirements from China: the cattle need to be born in the U.S.; and have never been fed any growth hormones.
"We have the ability to demonstrate that, to show that these cattle were born in the United States." If they are imported into the U.S., there is a full traceability system for those cattle, Gager assured.
Iowa Premium is already in the process of reaching out and trying to build the business contacts with companies that are already doing business with China. "We're trying to build the relationships with those type of companies so that we can get our high quality beef right into the marketplace in China."
"We' re very excited about the opportunity," Gager said.