While animal welfare for meat and poultry processors is prominently focused on the point at which the animals arrive at slaughtering facilities, life-and-death decisions about the well-being of livestock in the food chain are made throughout the farm-to-fork journey. Because not every animal is healthy enough to survive that journey, starting on the farm and up until they reach the stunning area of a plant, livestock caregivers and animal handlers are expected to identify animals that are too weak, sick or injured to make it to stunning areas under their own power. Once that determination has been made, proper steps are required to isolate and euthanize the animal. Making the judgement decision to euthanize can be complicated by many factors, and stakeholders in the industry have realized this is an area of the supply chain that warrants attention.

“We’ve really tried to emphasize the importance of understanding when euthanasia needs to occur, identifying those animals, providing a timely treatment and then making the decision ultimately,” according to Monique Pairis-Garcia, DVM, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of animal science at North Carolina State Univ. Pairis-Garcia’s research emphasis has focused on pain management in livestock as well as developing educational material to ensure on-farm euthanasia is conducted humanely.

A recent project involved focus groups to help identify barriers to timely euthanasia in the hog production industry and the development of training material to address those obstacles. The topics of euthanasia and stunning have been deemed important enough to the industry that the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) hosted a workshop to address them. “Stunning, Sensibility and Euthanasia,” was a NAMI pre-conference held one day before the 2019 Animal Care & Handling Conference held in Kansas City, Missouri, in October. The day-long workshop drew about 100 attendees representing large and small processing companies, to make clearer the processes of determining insensibility, properly identifying and reacting to non-ambulatory animals and ensuring proper stunning practices are taught and followed. Pairis-Garcia’s presentation at the event included findings from her research involving barriers to timely euthanasia. Meanwhile, many other animal handling experts representing processing companies and academia covered many aspects of proper stunning and determining sensibility during the educational program.

Under the heading of training employees and management, officials from JBS and Hormel Foods Corp. discussed the importance of keeping animal handlers informed on stunning techniques and sensibility training. Because federal regulations require an animal be rendered insensible on the first stun, teaching the technique for effective stunning, identifying when euthanasia is warranted and training for determining insensibility is an industry priority.

According to Lyndsey Jones, manager of corporate swine welfare with JBS, sensibility exists on a scale and when euthanizing is the goal, the proper assessment needs to be made. “So, you have a fully insensible animal and a fully sensible animal and then there’s that phase in between,” she said, “so it’s not yes or no; black and white. Proper stunning and insensibility are crucial in order to humanely – and the key word is ‘humanely’ – euthanize an animal.”

Tim Toliver, corporate manager of animal welfare at Hormel, pointed out that while many plants in the hog industry have transitioned to carbon dioxide-based stunning technology, others are still using traditional tools of the trade, which magnifies the need for training animal handlers on stunning using some or all of those tools. “A lot of us are still using multiple different methods within the plant,” he said, in different areas of the facility. For example, where animals arrive at the plant in the receiving area, captive bolt stunners are used when needed. “This is one of the important areas we’re training people on,” Toliver said. “Positioning is very important with this piece of stunning; making sure that you’re hitting that target zone on the pig’s head.”

Timing matters

Pairis-Garcia pointed out that timely euthanasia is a high-priority issue, especially in hog-production operations, because if a third-party auditor identifies an animal that is sick or injured and isn’t going to recover it results in an automatic failure and requires reinspection. The goal of timely euthanasia is to use it as a tool to eliminate pain and suffering when recovery is prolonged or not likely, she pointed out. When considering euthanasia, however, the decision typically isn’t black and white. The decision is made more difficult because most diseases or illnesses in animals are on a continuum and determining the severity can be challenging. Referring to producers as “caretakers,” she said the goal is to make it easier for people in these roles to determine when an illness or disease has compromised an animal to the point that it isn’t likely they will heal or recover within 48 hours, and euthanasia is the only humane option. Putting the right people in these positions is critical as their role to ensure animals in their care stay alive is sometimes interrupted by the need to order or perform euthanasia.

“What we don’t want to do is to get individuals that are going to euthanize animals way too early and not give them that opportunity to get better,” she said. “But we also don’t want to have those animals that clearly are not going to recover, that are suffering (and) experiencing prolonged distress because we have an individual that doesn’t want to make that decision.”

The National Pork Board and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians have developed an on-farm audit for the pork industry that has evolved from generic guidelines to more specific red flags to signal the need for euthanasia. For example, euthanasia is automatic for: any non-ambulatory pig with the inability to recover; pigs with ulcerated or permeated hernias; those animals with a rectal prolapse that has become necrotic; those suffering from uterine prolapse. But certain situations are not as black and white and the decision to euthanize can be a challenging one, even for well-trained caregivers of livestock who are equipped with stunning tools that have been scientifically validated.

“So, you think if you gave the tool to the caretaker they’ll be able to make the right decision, right? They know you know that euthanasia equipment’s going to work; they’ve been trained on it,” Pairis-Garcia said. “We’ve done a really good job on that, but I go out on the farms and we see a lot of failures still. We still see a lot of issues with euthanasia in the decision making.”

She said that one of the biggest factors in that decision-making process is the psychological impact of making that life-or-death choice for another living animal, which can result in not euthanizing when it is warranted. The topic of making timely decisions was the focus of research led by Pairis-Garcia, specifically in the hog production segment of the industry, including interviewing those decision makers as part of focus groups to determine common barriers to making timely euthanasia decisions and developing training to address them. When it came to factors influencing timely euthanasia, barriers included logistical factors, to perception of ‘timely,’ to identifying compromised pigs and the respondent’s role as caretakers. Acknowledging this caring versus killing paradox is a vital part of ensuring humane care is given. “There is this emotional toll and there’s going to be individuals that are not going to be suited to make those decisions,” she said.

Regardless of species or the role of those responsible for handling livestock, Pairis-Garcia pointed out that a community-wide awareness of what warrants an animal being euthanized is important throughout the life of livestock, whether on the farm, during transport or at the processing plant.

To familiarize handlers of swine in a variety of roles within the different scenarios they might face and to help them make timely decisions about on-farm euthanasia, the National Pork Board (NPB) now offers a computer-based training tool to the industry. Users of the interactive program can navigate through a variety of case studies and are asked to answer questions about the need for euthanasia in various scenarios. After successfully answering questions in the training tracks, users can print a certificate to demonstrate their knowledge of properly identifying and assessing the need for euthanasia in a variety of situations and roles. The NPB’s Pork Checkoff-based training using the computer-based case studies is now available from the NPB on a thumb drive.

For a majority of animals that do make it to the stunning area, CO2 systems are becoming the norm at most large-scale plants, where the emphasis on training tends to be on proper maintenance of the systems. “It’s a very quiet process,” Toliver said of the systems, and overall CO2 is an effective technology. “We see very few animals that we have to worry about as long as the machinery is working right when they come out the other side.”

A few plants still use electrical stunning (to the head or to the heart) for hogs, Toliver said, which requires handlers to be aware of the timeframe from stunning to sticking to ensure the animal doesn’t return to sensibility. Another option, typically for very small operations, is using a gunshot to stun the animal. “Each one of these,” Toliver said of the various technologies, “have a different thing we have to keep track of or that we need to train on.”

Awareness training

Jones pointed out that with each stunning method there can be overlapping factors affecting stunning effectiveness. “To train how to do things correctly, we have to understand the things that can go wrong and make sure that we are training to prevent it,” she said. Some of the factors, some of which can apply to more than one technology, include: equipment failure, incorrect placement, improper or lack of restraint, poor contact, human error and animal unpredictability. While some of the factors are unknowns and harder to control, such as human error and animal behavior, Jones encourages staying on top of those aspects that can be controlled, such as equipment issues. When it comes to incorrect placement, handlers can be trained as to exactly where a wand or stunner is supposed to be applied, she said.

When looking at all the stunning methods available, CO2 is widely regarded as the most effective, but even it requires vigilant oversight and management to ensure the equipment is properly maintained and that chambers are not overloaded. And, while rare, handlers need to be trained to handle the rare situation when a pig comes out of the CO2 chamber and is still sensible.

“Thorough training,” Jones said, “helps eliminate or minimize the things that can go wrong.”