Animal welfare experts like Temple Grandin shared information and insight at the 2020 Animal Care & Handling Conference, held virtually last month.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had a profound impact on almost every segment of the meat and poultry industry and, more generally, the US food supply chain. The fallout from COVID-19 has also had animal welfare implications that were part of the domino effect.
For consumers, the most obvious evidence during the initial weeks of the global crisis was at grocery stores, where shortages of food extended to meat departments across the United States, and household goods like cleaning supplies and toilet paper were part of the panicked shopping that saw many consumers hoarding food and non-food goods.
While outbreaks of COVID-19 swept through the country, the spread of the virus didn’t spare meat and poultry processing plants, where large-scale operations’ line workers were susceptible to exposure due to the proximity of workers who traditionally had worked shoulder to shoulder with their fellow front liners. Outbreaks at plants led to many temporary closures and drastic cutbacks in volume as companies scrambled to secure personal protection equipment and retrofit plants with workstation dividers to facilitate social distancing to minimize exposure and the potential for spreading the virus.
While plant operators and line workers coped with newly implemented protocols, educating workers, COVID-19 testing, illnesses and even deaths related to the virus, a logjam of livestock quickly developed, especially in the pork supply chain. What ensued was mass depopulation of healthy hogs as the oversupply peaked in late April.
Bigger lessons learned
Among the lessons learned from the negative experience include addressing the fragility of the supply chain according to one of the world’s foremost animal welfare experts.
“We’ve got to do things to make the supply chain more flexible both on the live end, and there is now a lot of interest in building some smaller packing plants,” said Temple Grandin, PhD, professor of animal science at Colorado State University.
She suggested that plants deal with a surplus of hogs resulting from labor shortages by processing hogs into larger cuts, like hams, loins and shoulders and ship them from plants to facilities where they could then be cut up.
“The amount of wasted pigs; thousands of pigs had to be killed and thrown away, and some of them were killed in ways that were bad; pigs had it absolutely the worst. Beef, they just put them on hay, that wasn’t anywhere near as bad and chickens have a shorter life cycle. The amount of pigs in the Midwest that were just destroyed; it was an animal welfare issue, and it was also a horrendous, awful food waste issue.”
Grandin said COVID-19-related challenges have, at the very least, slowed any further development in animal welfare while bringing to light some new opportunities.
“I think some things have been kind of paused,” she said of animal welfare progress advances in the past eight months. “I’m not going to say that things have slid back to the ‘bad ol’ days,’ that’s definitely not true, but it hasn’t helped matters.”
In-person animal welfare audits that are part of many meat supplier agreements with customers, for example, have been made almost impossible as most plants have banned visits to their facilities from outsiders as a biosecurity intervention to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus in plants. One option being explored is using video technology to perform audits.
“Some of them can be replaced with strapping a video camera onto a person and the auditor makes them walk around the plant.”
She added that a remotely located auditor directing someone around a plant using body cameras or even an iPhone would only be recommended at facilities well known to the auditor.
“I would do some of that in a plant I knew very well,” Grandin said. “I wouldn’t do it with a new plant. There is still a need to do some live audits, but I think this could cut down on it.”
To ensure animal handling education continues during the pandemic, some training has shifted to virtual formats, including training from the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO). Organizers of the North American Meat Institute’s 2020 Animal Care & Handling Conference, held annually in October, also successfully shifted to an online event this past month.
Maintaining training is a priority, with or without COVID-19, Grandin said.
She reiterated: “Why is auditing so important? It’s important because it’s just like monitoring traffic. If the speed limit wasn’t monitored by the police, imagine what the traffic would be like on a freeway. It takes constant monitoring. I can remember before we had the audits – ‘the bad ol’ days’ – and they were bad.”
With plants unable to maintain normal production volumes due to COVID-19-related disruptions, producers were faced with an overflowing supply of hogs and millions of perfectly healthy hogs had to be euthanized. For Jason McAlister, director of animal welfare at Kansas City, Mo.-based Triumph Foods, April 29, 2020, sticks out in his mind as a negative reminder of COVID-19. It was then that daily hog slaughter number compared to the same day the previous year lagged by more than 203,000 pigs, he told attendees at NAMI’s virtual Animal Care & Handling Conference.
He recalled thinking, “Worker shortages are continuing, the animal supply chain is backing up and we have to start on some mass depopulation events.
“It was the worst possible outcome for any of us that love animals. We harvest animals for a reason. We do it for food and when we have to do it for something that’s not food, it is really heartbreaking to us.”
Sara Crawford, PhD, assistant vice president of sustainability with the National Pork Board (NPB) echoed how the situation was unavoidable because the bottleneck was at the processing plant level across the country.
“It did not affect our live hog availability,” she said, during another presentation at the conference. “We had the same amount of hogs,” however, demand at foodservice diminished and retail demand took over in response to widespread restaurant closures. “So, we have to do something with these hogs.”
The NPB quickly developed a coordinated response to the COVID-19 crisis, which was similar to how it would provide guidance and assistance to producers during an animal health outbreak, like African swine fever (ASF).
Representing more than 60,000 hog producers, NPB recognized how, even in a non-animal health-related crisis, a disruption in one part of the food supply chain had negative impacts for the entire system. Working with the National Pork Producers Council, NAMI, state pork and veterinarian associations, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other federal agencies, the NPB worked to be an information outlet for consumers as well as a source of providing solutions for producers dealing with the surplus of hogs that quickly overwhelmed the system.
One of the strategies NPB utilized was to provide producers with feeding strategies to reduce pig growth to minimize the impact of livestock surplus.
“We knew that we needed to help reduce pig growth, which is obviously the opposite of what we normally are doing,” Crawford said.
The association also published guidance for how producers should prepare and respond to a positive COVID-19 case on their farm and hosted weekly webinars and distributed weekly e-newsletters to provide producers with information from animal health experts, financial consultants, and environmentalists.
When it came to the grim task of depopulating hog herds, the NPB funded field trials to ensure findings could be applied to future animal health disease scenarios as well as reallocating funds to assist producers at the local level during the current crisis.
In hindsight, Crawford said it is now apparent that while the industry had prepared for a certain level of culling animals in response to an animal disease outbreak, the industry was not prepared for a non-animal health emergency that would require depopulation and disposal of healthy hogs on the scale that was seen in 2020.
She added that it became apparent that the National Veterinary Stockpile (NVS) needs more resources to effectively respond to depopulation needs should an animal disease like ASF reach the United States. Looking back, Crawford said it was the veterinarians at the state level that successfully led the efforts in the unchartered area of dealing with a non-animal health emergency, due in large part to collaboration with the USDA, and that farmer-led solutions were the most effective during the crisis thanks to collaboration with local veterinarians and in partnership with many experts in the rendering industry.
In the end, it was determined that more research is needed to explore viable methods of depopulation and disposal, which the NPB has identified as a priority for future research.
“COVID-19 has given us the opportunity to look across the industry and understand where we really shined at this point and where we can have room for improvement,” Crawford said.
In Iowa, the source of about one-third of the country’s pork production, and across the industry, the response to the pandemic highlighted the strengths and exposed some weaknesses in the pork supply chain. Many of the highlights were discovered as part of the depopulation and disposal field trials conducted in the state. During last month’s conference, Jamee Eggers, producer education director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, outlined the response during the worst of the oversupply crisis, roughly from late-March to mid-June. The state’s response centered on the development of the Resource Coordination Center (RCC); field trials focused on depopulation and disposal; and the Iowa Disposal Assistance Program. Eggers pointed out that the accomplishments and takeaways from the crisis boiled down to successful public-private partnerships among the stakeholders across local, state and federal lines and including the state’s pork producers.
To facilitate depopulation, the state of Iowa received hand-held captive bolt stunners and portable panels from the NVS, which were available to producers. Depopulation trials, funded by about $260,000 in USDA grants to Iowa’s department of agriculture, facilitated multiple pilot projects. Those depopulation projects included using CO2 in temporary corrals in both indoor and enclosed outdoor settings. Another project involved utilizing a portable V-restrainer used in combination with a pneumatic captive bolt stunner or an electrical stunner as part of a mobile system that can accommodate pigs being loaded from the ground or a loading dock. Both projects were tested on a small sample size of animals and equipment modifications are being made to improve them for the next iteration. Findings from these projects will be published and utilized as part of a toolkit available for producers in the event of future outbreaks of foreign animal diseases.
While not part of the USDA funding, other carcass disposal methods used during the crisis as part of the state’s field trials included composting whole carcasses in feedlot manure as one option and the other utilized an air-curtain incinerator. In-barn decomposition using supplemental heat was an additional trial that was made with one Iowa-based producer. Findings and data from these trials will also be used in future responses.
“I will tell you that all three of the trials have implications for use during a foreign animal disease outbreak specific to virus degradation and on-farm disposal,” Eggers said.
The process of executing on what was a planned response to ASF that was made in September of 2019 was a learning experience for all, Eggers said.
To apply the plan to depopulating and disposal in late March in response to the pandemic-related issues, “It was a lot tougher than we thought. We have certainly done a large amount of learning by doing and these field trials have put us in a much better place right now than we were in March, but we still have a considerable amount of work to do.”
While the entire world pivoted in response to the pandemic, so too did the pork industry in Iowa and elsewhere. Eggers said Iowa pork producers sold pigs into markets they had never considered before, including sale barns, direct to the community sales through locker plants and out-of-state processors. Producers also learned new strategies for feeding to slow down hog growth, a 180-degree mindset shift to traditional pork production.
“All of these things built a little resiliency into our program,” she said.
The unforeseen consequences of the 2020 pandemic, while traumatic and challenging, forced the world to learn resiliency and adaptation. There is reason for hope, Eggers said. “Supply chain disruption like this isn’t novel anymore; it isn’t unprecedented to our industry any longer. We have some tools and we’ve demonstrated agility and resilience during adversity.”
Through those challenging months of market disruptions, other considerations surfaced that were inevitable given the need for large scale euthanasia of healthy animals. Not surprisingly, mental health complications and issues among producers became common as did attention from animal activists. To address some of these challenges, officials from the Iowa Pork Producers Council took a proactive approach. Specifically, producers from the state made hundreds of media appearances to address concerns from the public and tackled the misinformation being spread by animal activists.
Response from activists was not unexpected because large numbers of animals were being culled despite efforts up and down the food chain to minimize the supply disruption. Besides providing resources to producers to ensure farm security, the council ensured strict enforcement of trespassing laws were being upheld and maintained communication with local and federal law enforcement officials.
Minnesota State Veterinarian Beth Thompson, DVM, shared with the conference’s virtual attendees her role in the crisis response.
“The back-up of hogs happened quickly,” she said, and many calls were made to her office as producers were requesting assistance with depopulation issues. Because state veterinarian officials are only allowed to assist with euthanasia related to animal disease cases, there was no legal way for them to become involved in depopulation. The state could, however, assist with carcass disposal via incineration, burial, or ideally by utilizing rendering or composting.
So, response involved producer actions, including site depopulation, some disposal and coordination of trucking of some carcasses to disposal sites. Depopulation methods for hogs used in Minnesota included: gunshot, sodium nitrite, ventilation shutdown plus heat and humidity, utilizing slaughter plants for euthanizing, captive bolt stunning and CO2 stunning in an enclosed tractor trailer.
Meanwhile, state-regulated response in Minnesota included setting up two grinding and composting sites; providing a list of carbon sources; and tracking rendering availability and options for producers.