Focusing on the ‘right stuff'
The egregious acts of animal cruelty depicted in an undercover video released this past month certainly doesn’t mark the first time someone from a special-interest group infiltrated an operation where livestock and humans interface. An Iowa Select Farms sow farm in Kamrar, Iowa, was the latest to find out how animal-rights groups use deception to get behind the scenes and make sweeping conclusions based on the ignorance of a few bad actors. Unfortunately, this supplier of hogs to high-profile processors and their retail and foodservice customers likely won’t be the last to be targeted.
Using deception during the hiring process to get in the door, undercover footage is typically collected over time, often for months, until enough damning evidence is gathered. As do most companies where livestock handling is part of the operations, Iowa Select Farms requires new employees to sign an agreement to immediately notify supervisors if they witness any acts of animal cruelty during the course of their work. The fact that for months, these passive activists routinely ignored such stipulations by being willing, closed-mouth witnesses to acts of cruelty is as unthinkable as the sights and sounds portrayed in the footage. It doesn’t diminish, however, the unacceptable behavior of the workers committing the acts of cruelty. What these isolated incidents do make evident is the need for having the right people in the critically responsible positions of handling animals.
Watching and listening to how some of the best animal handlers in the industry do their work isn’t unlike watching a potter throw a vase – it is indeed a craft. As Jerry Karczewski pointed out in the June 15 “Welfare Matters” column (available at www.meatpoultry.com), a team of top livestock handlers is critical to every facility’s animal handling program.
“The stakes are higher than ever to find and develop the right people for these areas, and companies are focusing more efforts to find employees with the ‘right stuff’,” writes Karczewski, a former operations manager with Cargill’s Taylor Packing Co. “This includes looking at work experience, attitude toward animals and in some cases, a personality profile. The goal is to identify candidates with the highest potential for success.”
In 2010, I watched in awe at the quiet efficiency demonstrated by the animal handlers at Agri Beef Co.’s Washington Beef Plant in Toppenish, Wash. Driving cattle from the holding pen to the stunning area of the plant – without electric prods or yelping yard workers – was artistically conducted by two brothers who worked methodically, in silent lockstep to calmly drive cattle from the plant’s holding pens to the slaughtering area. Those brothers and hundreds of other dedicated workers like them are part of a network of livestock handlers that should be celebrated and their techniques shared and taught throughout the industry. People working on the frontlines of the country’s hundreds of slaughtering facilities and their livestock-handling brethren preceding them in the food chain should receive at least as much publicity and recognition as the very few perpetrators of animal cruelty caught on tape. The level of training and technology dedicated to animal-handling operations is something to be proud of, but ignored by animal activists’ cameras. As Karczewski says, “The pursuit of the perfect handler is alive, well and yielding good fruit.”