KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For readers who are from families that have raised food animals generation after generation or who come from families who have handled live animals at feed yards or slaughter plants over the generations, you’ve always known that humane animal handling is a “must”. I truly believe (that at the very least) most US meat and poultry slaughterhouses are dedicated to treating their livestock humanely and not just because it is the right thing to do, but mistreating animals — on purpose or accidentally — also negatively impacts final product quality and this negatively impacts these companies’ bottom lines.

During the past decade, in particular, ensuring the humane treatment of food animals has become a white-hot talking point for US meat and poultry packers. Industry and individual company rhetoric on this topic — directed to customers and consumers— has definitely ratcheted up in intensity in recent years, particularly since a rash of undercover videos allegedly depicting various types of animal cruelty at feed yards and slaughter plants have been fed to the eagerly awaiting mainstream media.

Many meat and poultry companies “talk the talk” on this highly charged topic, but do they also “walk the walk?” It’s great that zero-tolerance policies regarding humane animal handling have been adopted and widely publicized by a growing number of companies, but for humane treatment of animals to be consistently accomplished it must be tightly managed on a 24/7 basis. Unless such policies are strictly overseen, the recognition of and adherence to such policies by all industry animal handlers will not be where it should be.

Consistent, humane treatment of animals requires a strong commitment — starting at the very top. This means the company CEO must have people reporting to him or her who oversee this job on a daily basis. The overseers, in turn, must also have staffers reporting to them who are directly responsible to make sure humane animal treatment is always top of mind, being accomplished daily and in a continuous improvement cycle.

Many people throughout industry are involved in live animal handling. Truck drivers transferring live animals to feed yards and slaughter plants must know how to safely and efficiently transport this precious cargo. Good drivers experienced in live animal handling are ideal for handling this position, but new hires with little or no animal handling or transporting experience must sometimes be hired to fill in the gaps — and they must be quickly and intensely trained, educated and monitored until they have mastered their job.

As for the many people managing holding pens and slaughter operations at slaughter plants, they must be empathetic of live animals and experienced in handling large numbers and types of animals, as well. It would behoove any slaughter plant to do a little extra digging for appropriate candidates when it comes to filling live animal handling positions. People with experience in live animal handling that have solid work histories and references are what’s needed.

Once the right people are in place and have been trained and educated on the tasks they must perform, the job doesn’t end there. They must be constantly monitored and supervised. For those holding pens and slaughter operations not using video monitoring, managers should look into the feasibility of adopting this technology. It can help managers to “right wrongs” in animal handling when spotted quickly plus root out, dismiss and possibly prosecute anyone who appears to be purposely mishandling animals, depending on the severity of their actions.

Top executives at meat and poultry companies must remain involved in humane animal treatment to ensure zero-tolerance policies are much more than simply a piece of paper. Such policies are roadmaps that must be followed from beginning to end….and everyone in the live animal handling chain must be committed to observing these policies to the best of their abilities.

There’s another important area that must be discussed regarding humane animal handling. In the US, the long-standing policy of “innocent until proven guilty” should be maintained, especially when it comes to future news or released undercover videos about alleged animal mistreatment at feed yards or packing plants. I hope customers of these businesses (supermarkets and restaurants) and consumers alike will weigh the facts before they jump on the media bandwagon and quickly end their dealings with meat or poultry companies accused of inhumane animal treatment. If the allegations prove to be true, those responsible must be held accountable and immediately replaced and the company further investigated. But if accusations prove not to be true, the accused packer should go after the accuser/s to the full extent of the law.

Thankfully, action has been taken to get to the truth of the matter regarding allegations of mistreating food animals. MEATPOULTRY.com previously reported that in February 2012, The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) announced it had established an Animal Care Review Panel to review and assess footage depicted in the increasing number of undercover video investigations at livestock farms. Including animal-welfare experts, the panel examines video footage and communicates their findings to the public. Although this process was initially established for the pork industry, CFI said it is prepared to work with other animal-protein segments
Some customers and consumers are simply unfamiliar with what constitutes humane animal handling and the facts about what takes place during the slaughter process. So, on Aug. 24, 2012, the American Meat Institute released its Glass Walls Project video, which shows cattle handling and processing at a beef plant, including stunning. This video was created to educate the public on what occurs inside a beef plant, including the stunning process.

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. and has been a Meat&Poultry magazine columnist for more than 30 years, is featured in this film. She describes each process and covers many aspects of handling and slaughter. For example, after cattle are stunned, she explains it is normal to see some uncoordinated leg movement. This does not mean an animal is conscious or being inhumanely treated.

Actions and tools such as these will go a long way in gaining and maintaining the public’s trust regarding industry’s humane handling of food animals. If your company is doing all of the right things in handling live animals 24/7, you have nothing to fear — and everything to be proud of.