Animal-abuse charges targeting meat and poultry companies used to be sporadic and the media chaos following these episodes usually faded away within weeks. But those days are gone. Industry will remain a frequent target of animal rights activists via undercover videos, and the fallout from such (true or false) charges can languish on for months.

Most recently, the consequences of animal-abuse charges have been damaged reputations, lost customers and sometimes lost businesses. Meat and poultry companies are hearing more consumer and customer concerns questioning animal-handling practices.

“Based on recent research, more than half of consumers have some level of concern about the treatment of animals raised for food,” says Worth Sparkman, Tyson Foods public relations manager.

Customers are asking about animal-welfare practices employed at Cargill Inc.’s slaughter facilities with increasing frequency, adds Dr. Mike Siemens, Cargill’s head of animal welfare and husbandry, Wichita, Kan. “The focus intensified in 2008 with the Hallmark-Westland incident,” he adds.

Ensuring humane animal handling is no easy task due, in part, to the sheer volume of animals constantly moving to slaughter plants.

Supervision required

Supervising employees is the biggest challenge in handling live cattle and pigs at slaughter plants, says animal-handling expert Dr. Temple Grandin, who operates Grandin Livestock Systems Inc., Fort Collins, Colo., is a faculty member in the animal science department at Colorado State Univ. and 32-year Meat&Poultry columnist. “Contact supervision is required,” she adds. “I advocate third-party video auditing monitored by auditors outside the plant over the Internet.”

According to Grandin, non-slip flooring must be maintained; distractions causing animal balking must be removed – lighting changes often improve animal movement; move small groups of cattle and pigs and fill the crowd pen that leads to the chutes to the half-full mark; and stunner maintenance is critical.

About 20 percent of those who work with live animals at plants are what Grandin calls “natural good stockpersons”; 70 percent can be trained, but will need constant supervision; but 10 percent should not handle livestock. “When no one is watching, the bad 10 percent behave badly,” she says.

If an employee is caught abusing animals, should he or she be reeducated or terminated and prosecuted? “It depends on what they did,” Grandin replies. “You don’t terminate someone for a little excessive electric prod use.”

Reassign such workers to an area where they won’t handle live animals, she suggests. “But some people won’t put the prod away; I would just fire them,” she adds.

Custom strategies

Cargill slaughters more than 8 million head of cattle, 10 million market hogs and about 50 million turkeys in the US per year. Handling each species requires specific programs. Cargill’s beef business uses the Certified Animal Handler Program created by Cargill and endorsed by Grandin when training employees who handle live animals.

Its turkey business uses a certification program created by Cargill and Penn State Univ.’s professor Dr. Mike Hulet. Its pork business employs a Cargill-created certification program.

“There are various elements, such as a requisite DVD video, in-class training and mentoring with experienced handlers in the yards before anyone handling animals is allowed to solo at the plants,” Siemens says. “We also have Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization Inc.-certified employees at Cargill’s beef and pork plants. Employees handling animals in any of our businesses undergo extensive annual training.”

Post-hiring, people handling animals for Cargill are evaluated on their animal husbandry aptitudes and skills.

Areas with the most active animal-handling activity, such as the unloading process and movement from the pens to harvest floor, are most challenging.

Cargill’s newest animal-handling tool is third-party, remote-video auditing. “Video auditing allows us to promote and reward good behavior, have a uniform view across our plants, promotes consistency plus generates real-time feedback, which better assures accountability to our customers, consumers and our company,” Siemens says.

One person oversees animal handling at each Cargill pork and beef harvesting plant, while veterinarians have geographic responsibilities for its turkey business. Controlled-atmosphere stunning is used in its pork business and in a portion of its turkey business.

A work in progress

Tyson Foods’ average weekly production numbers in FY 2011 were 42.3 million chickens, 141,750 cattle and 398,720 pigs. The importance of proper animal handling at the company is evident in its Oct. 12 announcement about its FarmCheck audit program, which helps ensure humane on-farm treatment of animals. (See: Tyson launches animal welfare audit program)

Educating Tyson employees on proper animal handling is critical. Training for live poultry covers proper bird handling during transport, maintaining adequate ventilation and temperatures, effective stunning and avoiding injuries and more. Employees must pass a written test and sign an agreement to comply with the company’s bird well-being requirements to demonstrate understanding.

“In our beef and pork division, team members, managers and supervisors who work with live animals must be Tyson Foods certified Trained Animal Handlers,” Sparkman says.

Certification requires successfully completing a class in animal handling and stunning practices, a written test to demonstrate mastery of the class material and signing an agreement to comply with the company’s animal wellbeing requirements. Handlers must be recertified every 12 months.

Tyson Foods has used video monitoring in live-animal areas for a long time, which adds an additional layer of accountability, Sparkman says. And Tyson was the first US poultry company to establish an Office of Animal Well-Being in 2001, directed by Dr. Kellye Pfalzgraf. A veterinarian, he has more than 30 years of livestock-industry experience and has received training from various animal-welfare specialists, including Temple Grandin.

“Pfalzgraf will work with Dr. Dean Danilson, formerly vice president of food safety and quality control for Tyson Foods, who was recently named vice president of Animal Well-Being Programs,” he adds. “Danilson will manage the audits, research and external advisory committee activities for hogs, cattle and chickens.”

Many Tyson customers have voiced concern about animal welfare for years, he continues. Tyson works with some customers to conduct independent, third-party audits so they know the processor’s practices are in line with its policies.

Tyson Foods also conducted research into controlled-atmosphere stunning (CAS) for its poultry operations. While it may be an acceptable alternative, Tyson did not find it to be more humane than conventional electrical stunning, Sparkman says.

“We currently plan to continue to use electrical stunning in our poultry plants because we believe it’s humane and effective,” he adds. “However, we also believe there’s merit in the continued study of CAS. We’ve also studied the use of CAS for hogs, but found it to be no more humane than conventional methods.”

Talking turkey

Dakota Provisions, Huron, S.D., slaughters approximately 19,500 turkeys per day. “Trying to keep the birds cool in the summer and warm in the winter is probably our biggest challenge,” says Chet Coolbaugh, director of operations. “We have designees in each stage of the catching-hauling-slaughter process who are trained on how to make the birds as comfortable as possible during the hottest and coldest times of the year.”

Background checks are done on employees hired to handle live animals and they are given animal-welfare training during orientation. The company’s raw quality assurance supervisor and HACCP coordinator set up annual humane handling training and maintain training documents. Such employees are also trained annually by a certified Cook and Thurber auditor plus audited at the plant full-time via the video audit system in the plant. Video auditing cameras are used to oversee live-animal handling up through slaughter.

“We use controlled-atmosphere stunning to ensure our turkeys are humanely stunned,” Coolbaugh says. “DP uses its stunning/handling process as a major selling point to current and potential customers.”

The biggest misperception among consumers about the treatment of livestock raised for food is “activities depicted in undercover videos done by animal-activist groups are representative of the entire industry, when they actually create an inaccurate perception in the court of public opinion,” Siemens says.

“Consumers see or hear reports of gross mishandling and they tend to let the actions of a few cloud the reputation of the rest of the industry,” Coolbaugh adds.

Setting it straight

In February, The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) announced it had established an Animal Care Review Panel to review and assess footage depicted in the increasing number of undercover video investigations at livestock farms. Including animal-welfare experts, the panel examines video footage and communicates their findings to the public. Although this process was initially established for the pork industry, CFI is prepared to work with other animal-protein segments.

In addressing a release of video footage earlier this year from an Iowa hog operation by Compassion Over Killing, a panel consisting of Grandin; Dr. Candace Croney, Purdue Univ.; and Dr. Tom Burkgren, American Association of Swine Veterinarians, reviewed the video. They concluded most of what was depicted was not considered abusive but part of normally accepted production practices.

Then on Aug. 24, the American Meat Institute released a video called the Glass Walls Project showing cattle handling and processing at a beef plant, including stunning. It was created to educate the public on what occurs inside a beef plant, including the stunning process.

Grandin is featured in this film. She describes each process and covers many aspects of handling and slaughter. For example, after cattle are stunned, she explains it is normal to see some uncoordinated leg movement. This does not mean an animal is conscious.

Humane animal handling results in better-quality products. More importantly, it is the right thing to do.

“It is expected by our customers, employees, management and society/consumers,” Siemens says. “Keeping animals calm and comfortable, while respecting their dignity in life, is important because we are harvesting them for food.”