Five beef and veal plants in North America are now being audited over the Internet by third-party auditors. These systems are much more effective than closed circuit TV cameras that plant managers often never have time to look at. Remote video auditing is being done by the Arrowsight Corporation in Huntsville, Ala., and the American Humane Association, Denver, Colo.

AHA certifies farms as American Humane Certified. Three companies that are willing to go public about their use of video auditing are Delimax Veal in Canada, American Beef Packers (formerly the Hallmark-Westland plant, now under new ownership), and FPL Foods in Georgia. There are many other companies that will be installing cameras in 2009.

Recently I had the opportunity to visit both Arrowsight and AHA to see how their auditors monitor the plants. Both systems have multiple cameras and the following parts of the plant can be viewed. They are truck unloading, crowd pen, single file chute, stun box, and bleed rail for scoring insensibility. In all five plants, I could watch stunning easily and doing the AMI stunning audit was easy.

The unloading ramp was also easy to view and slips and falls would have been easy to see. At one of the plants, the camera was set up perfectly and it was easy to do an electric prod score audit. In another plant, the camera needed to be moved. Some plants have the system set up for vocalization scoring while others do not.

Arrowsight provides the most intensive monitoring service. Several times a day, an auditor tunes in to each plant and scores about 20 animals. The times that the plants are watched are varied throughout the day. If the auditor sees something wrong, the plant manager receives an immediate e-mail. I watched all five of the plants for about 20 minutes each and everything was working perfectly.

Artificial intelligence

Arrowsight’s program is the most comprehensive because people actually do the AMI animal welfare audit, compile the data, and send it to the plants. The AHA system is simpler and is designed to be more affordable for smaller companies and farms. Their program is designed to catch welfare violations rather than doing continuous numerical scoring.

AHA has found that artificial intelligence software works well for detecting problems on chicken farms. Watching a chicken farm on video is really boring. Most of the day, nothing happens and then a person comes in to check the chickens.

The computer program can be trained to ignore this. This is the same kind of software that might be used to protect an oil well from intruders. The program can be trained to ignore the pump jack going up and down, but it will alert the operator when other types of movement are seen by the camera. A human being still has to determine if a person triggered the program or an animal walked up to the oil well.

It is easy to train these programs to detect repeated rapid movement. This is the type of movement that often occurs when people beat animals or shoot an animal repeatedly with a broken stunner. At one of the chicken farms, the program caught a teenage girl who was annoyed that she had to work on her parent’s farm on Sunday. She roughly shoved chickens away from her.

Artificial intelligence is not going to replace live auditors watching. A person still has to go back and view the footage to determine what triggered the program. It also requires a skilled computer specialist to train the program.

For video auditing of a complex operation such as a slaughter plant, the gold standard will be real people doing the actual AMI numerically scored audit over the internet. The artificial intelligence option is more appropriate for farms and the monthly fees are much lower.

Some people are worried that the secure Web site might be hacked. My response is, "so what?" Whoever hacked it will be treated to video footage of good plant operations.

Dr. Temple Grandin operates Grandin Livestock Systems Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., and is a faculty member in the animal science department at Colorado State Univ.