ELBURN, Ill. – In past decades, charges against perceived or alleged animal abuses were sporadic and the chaos following such charges generally soon faded away. But those days are gone. The topic of humane animal handling, in general, will remain a constant, simmering, front-burner issue for the meat and poultry industry.

Although industry agrees ensuring humane animal handling in the US is an absolute necessity, it is no easy task to stay on top of due to the sheer volume of animals constantly moving through the food-chain pipeline. The total number of animals slaughtered for their meat each year is mind-boggling. The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service FY 2011 slaughter-by-species totals include market swine, 105,586,140; steer, 16,650,770; heifer, 9,950,938; beef cow, 3,750,534; dairy cow, 2,912,081; duck, 24,373,339; heavy fowl, 77,958,405; light fowl, 67,825,751; fryer/roaster turkey, 1,153,758; old breeder turkey, 1,469,408 and many more species. In total, 9,298,324,105 head of food animals were slaughtered in FY11.

Last week, I spent several minutes on the phone with animal-handling expert Dr. Temple Grandin, who operates Grandin Livestock Systems Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., is a faculty member in the animal science department at Colorado State Univ. plus a columnist for Meat&Poultry magazine, to get her input on handling live cattle and pigs at the slaughter plant, which is a potentially dangerous job.

The biggest challenge in handling live cattle and pigs at slaughter is supervision of employees, she said. “Contact supervision is required,” she added. “This is why I advocate third-party video auditing monitored by auditors who are outside the plant over the Internet.”

People working with live cattle and pigs must pay attention to the basics. Dr. Grandin relayed that non-slip flooring is essential and must be maintained; distractions that cause animal balking must be removed — lighting changes often improve animal movement; move small groups of cattle and pigs and fill the crowd pen that leads to the chutes to the half-full mark; and she was adamant that stunner maintenance is absolutely essential.

People working with live animals at a slaughter plant should like animals, she advised. About 20 percent of people who work with live animals are what Dr. Grandin calls “natural good stockpersons”, 70 percent can be trained, but they will need constant supervision, but 10 percent should not be handling livestock. “When no one is watching, the bad 10 percent behave badly,” she said.

Employees working with live cattle at a slaughter plant must always be on the outlook for unruly animals. This would include cattle that were never handled on foot, which are very dangerous to handle, or pigs that never left a pen or are too hyper.

Packers should go back to their suppliers on such issues, Dr. Grandin said. “Tell them, ‘You have to give me animals I can handle. Don’t give me an animal that is half-dead, zonked-out or goes crazy because he meets his first man on foot in a plant. They’re super-dangerous. There’s nothing worse for people who walk cattle into the chute. When you touch their back, both back feet can come up out of that chute. I was almost killed twice by that kind of animal.”

Workers should wait until space is available in the single-file chute before you fill the crowd pen, she added. This enables the cattle or pigs to pass through the crowd pen and fill the chute without stopping. “If you fill the crowd pen when the chute is full, the animals are more likely to turn around,” she said.

I asked Dr. Grandin if an employee is caught abusing a live animal at a packing plant, should he or she be re-educated or terminated and prosecuted? “It depends on what they did,” she said. “You don’t terminate someone for a little excessive electric prod use.” She suggested reassigning such folks to the cut room or another area where they won’t be handling live animals.

“But there are some people who won’t put the prod away. I would just fire them,” she added.

Those who supervise live-animal handling at a slaughter plant can’t just issue orders, dictate policies and walk away hoping for the best. As Dr. Grandin iterated several times during our conversation, the biggest challenge in live-animal handling is maintaining constant supervision. Not only is this the right thing to do, it will go a long way in helping to prevent your operation from being the subject of the next undercover video animal-abuse exposé.