KANSAS CITY, MO. — The 2023 Animal Care & Handling Conference, hosted by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), attracted stakeholders from across the world to discuss the pressing issues facing meat and poultry processing companies. The annual event — which switched to a spring date for the first time this year — took place May 25-26 at the Marriott Downtown in Kansas City, Mo. The lively roundup of speakers delivered interactive presentations, packed with insight, metrics, videos and, oddly enough, bubbles. Sessions touched on everything from advances in stunning methods to concerns for animal transportation to regulatory updates.

Largely of interest at this year’s event were findings around emerging stunning methods. Dianna Bourassa, associate professor and extension specialist in the department of poultry science at Auburn University, delved into the recent research and implementation of controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS).

Bourassa estimated that in the United States 90% of slaughterhouses use electrical stunning, while 10% use gas. Currently, 229 broiler customers have committed to buying only gas-stunned poultry, which presents a problem to the industry, Bourassa pointed out.

“We do not have enough processing plants in the United States with gas stunning systems to produce enough chicken for all these companies,” she said. “So, something’s going to happen in the next couple years: There’s going to be a push away from this or a push toward this. Let’s see what happens.”

Jason McAlister, owner of CloverLeaf Animal Welfare Systems, followed up Bourassa’s talk with a further look into carbon dioxide stunning, offering practical solutions to avoid common pitfalls.

McAlister stressed that a 90% carbon dioxide concentration is essential when administering this method. Equally important is the prevention of added air movement. To support his point, McAlister brought in a bubble machine, demonstrating that, just as the bubbles blow across the room with added air, carbon dioxide travels all over with the air, eventually settling to a new spot on the ground.

“The thing of it is we want to keep the concentration levels exactly the same inside there,” McAlister said. “So, keep the doors shut. Keep the fans away from it … It seems like it’s not doing anything; it doesn’t look like it’s anything. But I guarantee you it is reducing that stack pressure at that first stop.”

NAMI noted that the industry in general is seeking more knowledge of trailer stocking densities. To lend insight into this area, Grace Moeller, graduate research assistant at Iowa State University, presented her findings of the importance of strategically distributed weight in trailers.

Both high stock and low stock densities can be detrimental to the animals on board. The key, Moeller said, is having enough animals to where they can support each other without falling from turbulence, while also leaving room to avoid bruising.

According to Moeller, high stocking densities are 68% more likely to lead to severe bruising in cattle, which is a lose-lose situation: The cattle experience pain from the bruising, and economic value is lost when trimming bruised beef.

Diving into the legal side of industry matters, Casey Gallimore, director of regulatory and scientific affairs at NAMI, provided a rundown of recent legislation impacting meat and poultry processors. Of high concern was California’s Proposition 12 as well as Massachusetts Question 3 (Q3).

In early May, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold Prop 12.

“To say it was a fractured decision is a little bit of an understatement,” Gallimore said, noting that the case could have gone a number of different ways.

With Prop 12 in effect, producers of veal calves will be required to house animals with at least 43 square feet of usable floor space per calf, and sow producers will need a minimum of 24 square feet of usable space per animal and laying hens are cage-free.

“That means that California will start enforcement — or can start enforcement — starting on July 1, 2023,” Gallimore said.

“If you have product in your freezer that is from animals that were born before Jan. 1, 2022, that product would be considered compliant,” she added. “But, other than that, any animals born after that date would need to have met the Prop 12 compliance.”

Gallimore noted that enforcement date for Q3 has not been determined yet.