Telling the Stunning Story

by Dr. Temple Grandin
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One advantage of being in the meat industry for a long time is that I know its history. I can remember when stunning and handling in the 1980s and ‘90s was really terrible. In some plants, stunner maintenance was non-existent and cattle were shot multiple times with broken stunners.  

Dr. Temple Grandin
Dr. Temple Grandin
(Photo: Rosalie Winard)

Today, beef and pork plants are totally different compared to the bad old days. In fact, both my own observations and data in scientific literature indicate that many of the US plants have better animal welfare and more effective stunning than plants in Europe. The problem is that the public does not know about the excellent performers in the US. If somebody, who does not know about the bad old days, looks at the USDA/FSIS website’s list of suspensions, that person would think the industry is performing poorly.

When the audits by major foodservice and QSR customers began in 1999 and 2000, there were huge improvements. Restaurant audits forced plants to fix broken equipment and do a much better job of handling and stunning. Another reason these restaurant audits were so successful was that they used a simple objective scoring system that became the basis of the AMI (now North American Meat Institute) animal handling guidelines.

To pass the audit, a plant had to effectively render 95 percent of the cattle insensible with a single shot. If a shot was missed, the stunner had to immediately apply an effective second shot. Unfortunately, activist pressure on USDA/FSIS is forcing the inspectors to enforce the letter of the law of the Humane Slaughter Act, which contains the word “all” when referring to stunning. In order to be compliant, a plant has to be perfect. In real-world applications, it is impossible to be perfect.

I have been in a beef plant where the inspector stood next to the stunner and the plant was suspended and shut down if a single shot was missed. Current USDA directives state that missing a single stun is an egregious act. I disagree with this. I suggest that shooting cattle repeatedly with a poorly maintained and underpowered stunner would be egregious.

Good Reasons to not be perfect

When a plant attempts to always have 100 percent first shots, it may make welfare worse. When we originally developed the AMI guidelines, one of the reasons for allowing a 5 percent double stun was to prevent hoisting of an animal that returned to sensibility. I have been in plants where they tried to always attain a perfect 100 percent first shot score. Those plants had more problems with hanging live cattle on the rail than a plant that routinely has an effective first shot score of 98 percent.

Within the last year, I have been in three large plants where I kept score. The effective first shot scores were 99 percent, 100 percent and 99 percent. All animals hung on the rail were properly stunned and insensible. The three plants rendered 100 percent of the cattle insensible before they were hung on the rail. In the real world, these three beef plants are top performers. To give one of these plants a suspension for a second shot totally misrepresents its excellent performance.

A more reasonable place to have a zero-tolerance policy is hanging animals that show signs of return to sensibility on the bleed rail. The stunner operator needs to be sure they are insensible before hoisting. Another place where the word “all” should be used is on starting dressing procedures too soon. There must be a zero tolerance for starting procedures such as skinning or cutting off feet on an animal showing any signs of return to sensibility.

If I was writing a directive for USDA/FSIS inspectors, it would state that a plant has to be able to maintain a minimum effective first shot stunning score of 95 percent and have equipment readily available for immediate second shots. This is the guideline in the industry numerical scoring system.

Where I would use the word “all” is: “All” animals hung on the rail and before start of invasive dressing procedures must be insensible to pain. Some plants routinely shoot bulls with heavy skulls twice. This is a good practice that I endorse. The plant should be able to demonstrate that the first stun is effective 95 percent of the time. I like clear guidance, which is like traffic rules. In the real world, it is impossible to be perfect, but it is possible to operate at a high level of excellence.

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