I serve on several animal welfare committees for restaurant chains, the foodservice segment and animal welfare groups. Recently I received an email from a major buyer of meat who admitted to getting fed up with third-party audits of farms because they always passed and often shouldn’t. This is due to writing farm standards that are too weak. This problem is more likely to happen at the farm level than at the meat packer level. One reason for this is that the North American Meat Institute guidelines make it very clear what constitutes acceptable and not acceptable practices. The use of numerical scoring with definite numerical cutoff points helps maintain a baseline level of animal welfare. There are many plants that do a really good job. Compared to 20 years ago, the industry is excellent. However, there is still room for improvement. A recent audit of a large pork slaughter plant revealed that they were able to pass the numerical audit of 1 percent or less of the pigs falling, but there was still too much shouting and constant hitting of the fences with the plastic paddles. The behavior of the handlers was not animal abuse, but needed improvement.

On-farm focus

Recently, the most serious animal welfare problems I have observed at slaughter plants are problems originating on the farm. Some common examples are dairy cows in poor condition or a high percentage of either lame or non-ambulatory animals. These problems tend to originate from a segment of poor producers. One feedyard had liver abscesses so bad that they were kicked out of a plant due to adhesions. Severe liver abscesses will stick to the body wall and the middle section of the carcass has to be removed and designated for rendering. This year, one particular feedlot fixed their problems with new management, using less grain in the feed and including more roughages. Changing management practices was all that was needed.

Meanwhile, there are a few irresponsible nutritionists who are still burning cattle up with too much “hot” feed. Hot is industry slang for feeding too much grain and carbs. People who work in the yards at packing plants know which dairies bring in the cows that are in awful condition. They also know which feedlots have continuing problems with either lame cattle or liver abscesses. Over the years, the segment of producers who do a good job has greatly expanded. The percentage of producers who handle animals in a low stress manner has doubled or tripled. However, there is still a bottom 10 percent who do a lousy job.

There is increasing interest in assessing welfare issues that originate at the farm and at the slaughter plant. Below is a list of farm-related cattle and pig welfare issues that can be identified and can be evaluated at the meat plant.

  • Body condition of dairy cows
  • Lameness in cows, fed cattle, pigs and sheep
  • Dirty animals – cattle and sheep
  • Swollen knee joints – mostly fed cattle raised on concrete
  • Damage to knee joints
  • Liver abscesses – emphasis on the bad livers that adhere to the body wall or contaminate the carcass
  • Lung adhesions in pigs – emphasis on lungs that stick to the body wall
  • High percentages of downed, non-ambulatory cows, pigs and fed cattle
  • Injuries due to abusive handling such as broken tails.

All of the above problems can be greatly reduced or almost eliminated by improving management on the farm. In a previous column, I wrote about a progressive large pork plant that had almost eliminated downer, non-ambulatory market pigs. Many of these problems are caused by pushing the biology of the animal so hard that it starts to break down. It is a multifactorial problem which is caused by a combination of single-minded genetic selection for production traits, hot rations, or too many growth promoters.