Wild about welfare

by Joel Crews
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Inspired by Dr. Temple Grandin, Jason McAlister (right) is committed to learning and sharing his passion for improving animal handling.
 

An avid motorcyclist, Jason McAlister took a pleasure trip last month riding his Kawasaki Vulcan Nomad along California’s picturesque Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back. The director of animal welfare with Triumph Foods spends precious little time away from his work at the St. Joseph, Missouri-based plant and when he does, he’s usually attending an industry event or learning more about improving animal handling and sharing what he learns with the industry. He admits during his vacation last month he even took time out to visit a packing plant.

Proof of McAlister’s commitment to his profession was perhaps no more evident than when he took a very different ride down a very different road several years ago. In the name of researching one aspect of livestock handling, McAlister arranged to ride in a pot-belly trailer full of pigs headed to the Triumph plant during a commute of well over four hours in the dead of winter. During his ride with the hogs, he recorded video footage, observed the animals’ behavior and logged temperature and air-flow readings throughout the trailer. The adventure was unprecedented and McAlister anxiously shared his findings with attendees of the 2015 Animal Care and Handling Conference.

Room for improvement

McAlister’s career path is an eventful one that has afforded him the opportunity to work with some of the most respected companies in the processing industry and learn from legendary pioneers in the arena of animal welfare.

He grew up in Visalia, California, and moved to the Midwest when he was about 18, and worked at a family owned butcher shop based in Iowa. In 1999, he went to work for IBP in Iowa as a livestock handler, before the company was acquired by Tyson Foods.

When it came to livestock handling in the 1990s, “the training at that time was almost non-existent,” he says. “Animal welfare training was: ‘Here’s your equipment. Here’s your boots. This is your area.’ That always bugged me; it bugged me a lot.” Within a few months of working at IBP, someone McAlister had never heard of named Temple Grandin visited the plant. He didn’t meet her at the time but he watched her and listened to what she said as she observed and made recommendations about the plant’s practices.

Looking back, that visit had a big impact. “It got me thinking, and some of the things she was saying actually worked,” McAlister says. “It started to change the way I thought about how we handle livestock. It really started with a corner. Moving pigs around a corner was kind of the breakthrough for me; when I saw that a handler’s bubble was a thing and that it worked, I started teaching that to other people.” He embraced Grandin’s now-universally adopted approach and used it as a springboard to learn more about livestock handling through online research and networking with others in the industry. He practiced what she preached for the next eight years or so at IBP. Soon after Triumph Foods built and started up its massive pork-processing plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 2006, he got the opportunity to bring his talents and his passion for developing and implementing animal welfare programs at slaughtering facilities to that facility. Uprooting his family and moving them from Iowa to St. Joseph wasn’t a decision McAlister took lightly, and the first three times he was approached by Triumph to come work there, he declined. He agreed to make the move after being convinced that the company was taking an all-in approach to animal welfare.

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