Wrangling regulations

by Joel Crews
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Temple Grandin continues to advocate for improved animal welfare standards.
Dr. Temple Grandin continues to advocate for improved animal welfare standards based on a real-world approach. (Photo: Rosalie Winard)

It’s a typical day for Temple Grandin. On this mid-October morning, she is in another hotel in another city preparing to give another series of presentations on a topic that is her life’s work. Hundreds of miles from her home base in Fort Collins, Colo., Grandin – a professor of livestock behavior and welfare at Colorado State Univ. – is in Kansas City, Mo., for the annual Animal Care & Handling Conference, an annual event that began in 1999 and has become a must-attend for anyone working in the meat-processing industry supply chain, and especially for those responsible for working with livestock on a daily basis. At the conclusion of the conference, which Grandin has never missed, her schedule always dictates that she head directly to an annual autism conference also held in Kansas City, where she is the keynote speaker.

The following week, Grandin, whose consulting company Grandin Livestock Handling Systems Inc. takes her to slaughtering facilities all over the world to advise operators and train animal welfare auditors, will head south and shift back into animal-welfare mode as she makes a presentation to meat science students at Texas A&M Univ.; another airport, another hotel, another podium where she will address another packed room full of captivated attendees. In between presentations, the energy-rich 68-year-old mingles with and poses for dozens of photographs with attendees. She autographs books, which are merchandised for sale at a table in the reception area. She is accustomed to greeting random, star-struck passers-by who often just want to meet her and perhaps shake her hand.

Evolving issues

During the animal care conference each year, the North American Meat Institute’s (NAMI) Animal Welfare Advisory Committee meets over dinner and discusses some of the current challenges and opportunities facing the industry. The topics of the committee’s attention depend on the issues most important to the meat and poultry industry in any given year. Likewise, the presentations at the conference reflect the issues of most concern to the industry and its stakeholders. This year, some of the hot-button issues include consumer perceptions and misperceptions; the potential impact of petitions filed with the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) by animal rights extremists; and the growing emphasis on accountability and proper care of animals during transport.

One of those polarizing issues involves the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service being petitioned this past September by animal rights groups to strictly enforce a requirement in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA) regarding stunning with the penalty for noncompliance being suspension of inspection. Citing the HMSA requirement that “all animals must be rendered insensible on the first blow,” the coalition of animal rights groups says there is no place for discretion among inspectors who witness a missed stun and that it should result in the plant’s inspection being suspended with no warning or opportunities to improve.

Currently, the NAMI’s auditing guidelines require a minimum of 95 percent of animals be rendered insensible on the first stun. 

Temple Grandin makes time to exchange ideas and information.
Grandin visits with conference attendees.

“Trying to make stunning perfect is stupid,” Grandin says, which isn’t to say that first-shot stunning rates shouldn’t be as high as possible. Grandin suggests moving toward raising the current standard as high as 98 percent as opposed to requiring 100 percent. She says a more reasonable response to a missed stun is to issue the plant a noncompliance record (NR) and let that serve as a warning. She adds that an approach similar to how police issue traffic citations should be adopted.

“Let’s use traffic as our model. You can have three speeding tickets before you get in trouble,” Grandin suggests as a more realistic option. “You can’t change what is in the Humane Slaughter Act. That was written in 1958 and it’s cast in stone,” but interpreting enforcement needs to remain flexible due to the dynamics of working with live animals.

Compliance and enforcement of the statute are separate issues and few would argue the coalition of animal rights group’s petition of making violations to the stunning policy a one-and-done proposition is not feasible in real-world situations. Grandin thinks compromise is the only option. “Do you take somebody’s license away for one speeding ticket?” she says. “No. Let’s use traffic as a model,” she repeats.

“That’s the problem now. With too many issues there are no compromises. It doesn’t matter what the issue is,” and that applies in and outside of the agriculture industry, she says. “It’s like regulations have gone nuts. The Humane Slaughter Act has been on the books since 1958, but it’s never been enforced like this.”

Extreme approaches like this make corporate executives nervous and with good reason, Grandin suggests. More than ever before the leaders of companies are being legally pursued, and some are being sentenced to jail for allowing what is deemed to be corner-cutting or negligence. It’s a dangerous precedent that Grandin thinks is detrimental.

“If you get too strict on that kind of stuff, no one is going to want to run a business in this country,” she adds.

To shut a plant down based on one “double knock” is crazy, according to Grandin, but that thinking is supported and promoted by people who don’t have any practical experience to back up the policies they push.

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