Humane animal handling has always been a hot topic, particularly in recent years. Most of the focus in recent months has been on ending the use of gestation crates in the pork industry plus the alleged mistreatment of cattle at slaughter plants and hogs on producer farms caught on undercover videos.

Humane handling of live chickens is a big chore because based on the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service’s Slaughter by Species FY11 figures 77,958,405 heavy fowl; 67,825,751 light fowl; 1,185 other volume poultry; and 8,727,534,570 young chickens were slaughtered during that fiscal year.

Although chickens may not give the same cuddly impression to many consumers as do cattle and hogs (particularly calves and piglets), experts point out they are gregarious birds that live in flocks. Plus, they have a communal approach to the incubation of eggs and raising of young.

Regardless, all food animals deserve humane treatment. Ashley Peterson, Ph.D., vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council (NCC), recently told me the US chicken industry continues to make advancements in bird welfare — from the hatchery through the slaughter process.

“All slaughter plants implement animal-welfare programs that target reduction of stress, minimization of any injury to the bird and induce rapid insensibility to pain during slaughter,” she said. “Typically, animal-welfare programs not only focus on bird wellbeing, but also on those employees who are responsible for handling the birds through annual comprehensive training programs.”

Recent advancements have been made in increased automation of bird handling, which removes some human error from the equation, she added. And low-atmospheric pressure stunning (LAPS) systems can improve the welfare of chickens at slaughter by eliminating the stress associated with shackling a live bird.

Systems for pre-slaughter gas stunning and killing of broilers use process gases such as CO2, N2, Ar, or a mixture of these gases with air or O2, known as controlled-atmosphere stunning-killing systems, USDA explains. Such systems work by displacing O2, ultimately to induce hypoxia in the bird, leading to unconsciousness and death. Low-atmospheric pressure systems could offer advantages in worker safety and operational gas cost because they operate solely with atmospheric air, USDA relayed.

If implemented properly, both electrical stunning and gas stunning of chickens are effective and humane methods by which to render chickens insensible to pain prior to slaughter, Peterson said. “However, it is important to note that continuous human oversight is essential to make sure the entire system is working properly,” she added.

Remote monitoring is another technology by which the chicken industry can monitor its animal-welfare program on a real-time basis. “Through live video feed, plants can respond immediately to a deficiency and take corrective actions,” she said.

Auditing programs, both internal and external, ensure a company’s animal-welfare program is being implemented correctly, she continued.

The National Chicken Council is currently updating its broiler and broiler breeder welfare guidelines. A panel of academic experts focused in the area of chicken welfare is reviewing the guidelines to make sure they are comprehensive and include new scientifically-supported advancements. These updated guidelines are expected to be released in 2013.

Major challenges in handling live cattle and hogs include their size, which has the potential to seriously harm handlers at the plant. But what are the major challenges of handling chickens?

“There are always challenges when handling live animals of any species as animal behavior is often unpredictable,” Peterson cautioned. “Safe processes and equipment and working to eliminate human error are some of the ways slaughter facilities strive to improve bird welfare.”

Training and retraining of employees is critical to make sure birds are handled properly. Incentive programs, video monitoring and frequent internal auditing coupled with external (i.e., third-party) auditing are important procedures slaughter plants use to improve bird handling at a slaughter facility.

“The industry also promotes research to seek science-based advances in bird welfare,” she concluded.

Expect packers to get more involved in the drive to improve the humane handling of chickens and for industry to promote all advancements achieved in this area. It’s good business to stay ahead of consumer concern on humane animal handling — plus it’s the right thing to do.

(Read the cover story on this topic in the November issue of Meat&Poultry magazine.)