Code of Practice for the Harvest, Transport, Processing, and Export of Seal Products Intended for Human Consumption
Appendix II: Assessing Suitability of Seals
1.0 Harvest of Healthy Seals that are Suitable for Human Consumption
Seals that are harvested and processed must be healthy and suitable for human consumption. To achieve this, each harvester must be adequately trained to recognize signs which might indicate that the seal is not acceptable for human consumption. Controls to ensure that only seals are that are suitable for human consumption are harvested and processed begin with evaluation of the live seals. Any seal displaying abnormal signs indicating that it may not be healthy and suitable for human consumption must not be harvested for entry into the food chain. Controls to adequately evaluate harvested seals to ensure they are healthy and suitable for human consumption also include appropriate evaluation of the eviscerated animal, and the gut/organs of the animal.
1.1 Each harvester who slaughters, pelts, and eviscerates seals must be adequately trained. Records of delivery of training to each harvester/crew member must be maintained to document that the appropriate training has been delivered.
1.2 Training material developed to ensure that harvesters can identify healthy seals that are suitable for human consumption must be documented. All methods and personnel involved in the development and delivery of the training material must also be documented. All documents must be maintained and provided to CFIA upon request.
2.0 Guidelines to Identify Healthy Seals that are Suitable for Human Consumption
The following information is intended as a guideline, and reflects the training material generated to identify healthy seals that are suitable for human consumption.
A carcass of good quality that is suitable for human consumption is dependent on the health of the seal. If the animal has a disease or infection, this can affect its whole body. Some diseases known as zoonotic diseases can be transmitted from seals to humans, especially if the meat is not cooked properly.
It is very important that animals displaying abnormal signs indicating potential presence of disease do not enter the human food chain. A seal must not be included in the harvest if the sealer is at all unsure about its health.
There are various degrees of disease or infection. For example, disease can be seen in only one organ of the body and may not necessarily affect the overall health of the animal.
However, in order to ensure that products of the highest possible safety will be brought back to shore during seal harvest, the carcass and fat from seals with even minor disease or infection in a single organ must be discarded.
If a harvester notices signs of disease in a seal at evisceration/pelting, he shall immediately notify an observer from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) so that samples can be taken for evaluation.
The carcasses of all seals harvested must be subject to a complete examination. This can be done without interfering with the efficacy of the harvesting process.
Seals and other wild animals typically live in a very harsh environment that does not allow the survival of most diseased or injured animals for any length of time. Therefore, a large proportion of the seals harvested will likely show no evidence of disease, and abnormalities will likely be obvious in those that suffer from a significant disease process.
The purpose of this section is to provide guidance regarding the normal external and internal appearance of animal carcasses and on the different ways in which diseases can be recognized in seals. This information will allow harvesters to identify carcasses with any abnormality such that the carcasses will be segregated and discarded.
2.1 External Examination
2.1.1 Nutritional condition
A good state of nutrition is shown by a plump, round body. The seal should not be skinny. Poor body condition is shown by a thin blubber layer which causes the seal's shoulder blades, hips, and back bone to stick out and be easily recognized. Seals that are in poor body condition must not be harvested.
2.1.2 Skin and haircoat
Hair loss in seals can be normal and simply result from rubbing against surfaces. However, it may also be associated with disease, in which case bald patches may be in a few scattered locations, or the entire body may be affected. If a seal is mostly bald, it is a sign of being unhealthy and is considered unfit for harvest.
In addition to hair loss, seals with skin problems may have a crusty skin surface and sores on the skin and/or around the mouth.
External parasites, such as lice, may be found on the skin. Parasites are common in all wild animals, and usually do not cause disease. However, animals that have a large number of parasites visible on the skin may be unhealthy and must not be harvested.
2.1.3 Eyes and nose
Sealers should watch for thick fluid coming from the eyes and nose, especially if it is yellow or green which indicates a bacterial infection. However, small amounts of clear fluid discharge from the eyes may simply be caused by irritation from blowing dirt.
A decision about the fitness of the animal for harvest should not be based only on the presence or absence of discharge from the eyes and nose. The amount of discharge and the appearance of the rest of the body should also be considered.
2.2 Internal Examination
Experienced sealers who have opened hundreds of seal carcasses have a very good idea of what a normal seal looks like. If a carcass is opened and the sealer notices something abnormal, he may not know the exact cause, but will recognize the abnormality. The carcass and fat of seals showing any abnormalities must be discarded.
2.2.1 Blubber (fat)
Seals store most of their body fat as blubber under the skin. Therefore, the thickness of this blubber is a good indication of the nutritional status and overall health of these animals, although this can vary a lot according to the time of year.
In healthy young harp and grey seals that have just been weaned, the blubber can easily be 4-5 cm thick but some of it will be used up as the animal fasts before going into the water. A very thin blubber layer means that the seal is either starving or suffers from some chronic disease. These animals must be discarded.
Normal blubber is white. In some cases, it may have an abnormal colour. In particular, yellow fat throughout the carcass may indicate a serious disease such as chronic liver damage, and the carcass and fat must be discarded.
Rarely, people have reported blubber with a bright orange colour in harp seals that otherwise appeared normal. The cause of this change in colour was not determined. To be safe the carcasses and fat of these seals must be discarded.
2.2.2 Organ surfaces and internal surface of body wall
The animal's internal organs and body wall should have a shiny surface. Organs should not stick to the body wall or to each other. Very firm attachments that have formed between organs or with the body wall are caused by scar tissue which is formed as a result of a chronic disease. These carcasses and their fat must be discarded.
If the surface of an organ looks dull or is covered by a layer of whitish or yellowish material, even if this layer is very thin, the animal is diseased, and the carcass and fat must be discarded.
Normal joints contain a small amount of clear yellow syrupy fluid which is responsible for lubricating the joint surfaces. A diseased joint will be swollen and filled with, or surrounded by, variable amounts of thick, cloudy, white or yellow fluid or firm but crumbly material.
2.2.4 Lymph nodes
A lymph node is a small round mass of white or grey tissue. It filters fluids that have leaked from blood vessels and will return to the general blood circulation. Lymph nodes are part of the body's immune system responsible for fighting infections.
When there is an infection in an area of the body drained by a lymph node, the node gets bigger (enlarges) especially when the infection has been present for some time (roughly one week or longer). Lymph nodes that are enlarged are good indicators of disease.
The lymph node enlarges because cells within it multiply as they attack the microbes within the fluid filtered by the node.
Lymph nodes are found throughout the body, more or less in the same locations in all species of mammals. Most are small and difficult to find in normal animals. The tonsils are an example of lymph nodes in our throat.
The most important nodes for quick diagnosis of disease can be found under the jaw and close to the lungs, liver, digestive tract, and kidneys.
If, during pelting, the sealer notices large lumps near the jaw, lungs, liver and kidneys, this suggests that the seal has enlarged lymph nodes and may be diseased. However, the lymph nodes near the digestive tract are normally larger than those found in the rest of the body.
Animals have both lymph nodes and salivary glands below their jaw. These glands should not be mistaken for enlarged lymph nodes. They are generally larger, feel firmer than lymph nodes, and on cut surface look like they are divided into small portions, in contrast to lymph nodes which have a more uniform texture.
In seals, the lymph nodes associated with the intestine are normally quite large, typically forming a long, thick mass of tissue.
The adrenal gland is a very important structure which produces hormones. It is located just above each of the two kidneys and can be confused with a lymph node. However, it is flatter, and on cut surface it has a pale outer zone and a dark red or brown centre.
Enlarged or otherwise abnormal lymph nodes in only one area suggest that this area is infected and, therefore, the carcass must not be used for human consumption.
The disease problem in the affected area is usually easy to see. In domestic animals at slaughter, the diseased area may simply be cut away, depending on the severity of the disease problem and the condition of the rest of the carcass. In seals, however, the whole carcass and fat must be discarded if even one area of the body shows evidence of disease.
Enlarged lymph nodes throughout the body indicate that the whole carcass is diseased and must be discarded.
Normal lungs are pink, have a shiny surface, and feel soft and spongy. Any large lump or firm, darkly coloured area within the lungs is abnormal.
The lungs of seals that have been clubbed or shot in the head may contain dark red areas caused by bleeding. This may be caused by a sudden change in blood pressure and is a common finding in animals that have died from severe acute injury to the head. As long as the lung tissue in the dark red areas is spongy, the lungs are normal.
The heart muscle should be of a dark red colour on cut surface. The outer surface may have some white streaks because of the presence of fat. A diseased heart muscle may have irregular areas that have either a lighter or darker colour than normal.
When the heart is removed from the rest of the organs, it should be cut so that the heart valves are visible. The heart valves should be thin, white and shiny. Diseased heart valves may be discoloured and have a rough surface or have lumpy, cauliflower-like growths on their surfaces. This is an indication of serious disease. The heart valves move constantly, and parts of the lumpy growths can break off into the bloodstream, contaminating the entire carcass with bacteria. The carcass and fat of these seals must be discarded.
A normal liver is uniformly dark brown and has a smooth, shiny surface. Small white dots either on its surface or within it indicate disease, which can result from infection by bacteria or viruses. If these white dots are present, it is likely that the rest of the body is also infected, and the carcass and fat must be discarded.
Parasites that are in the liver or have moved through it can also cause white spots, but these are generally bigger than those caused by bacteria or viruses.
In domestic animals at slaughter, it is often possible to determine whether white spots on the liver are caused by parasites or by bacteria or viruses. Livers damaged by parasites are discarded, but the rest of the carcass can be kept if no other abnormalities are found. In wild animals, however, it is not possible to be sure of the cause of white spots in the liver. As a result, the carcass and fat of seals with a diseased liver must be discarded.
2.2.8 Digestive tract (stomach and intestine)
The surface of the stomach and of all loops of intestine should be shiny and smooth and of a pale colour. Loops of intestine should not stick together or to the body wall.
Any obvious abnormality in the appearance of the digestive tract means that the large number of bacteria present within it may have contaminated the rest of the body. The carcass and fat of these seals must therefore be discarded.
Normal seal kidneys have a brown, shiny surface. They are actually made up of multiple miniature kidneys, like a densely packed bunch of grapes. Because of this, their cut surface shows multiple whitish areas, each surrounded by brown tissue.
Kidneys with an irregular colour on the surface or which contain lumps or cloudy fluid when cut are likely infected, and the carcass and fat must be discarded.
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