Using video footage in plants for good, instead of evil, is nothing new to the meat and poultry processing industry. The most recent example of this came late last month when Cargill officials announced the company had begun using thirdparty, remotevideo auditing to enhance the animal-welfare practices in its eight U.S.-based and two Canadian cattle-slaughtering facilities. Deciding to test the system, developed and maintained by Arrowsight Inc., was the first of many steps toward taking the company’s animal-handling performance to the next level. Cargill’s Dr. Mike Siemens says a test was the first order of business.
"We decided to take a step and do a pilot project out of Fresno," says Siemens, director of animal welfare and husbandry. The company agreed to test-drive the technology for 90 days at the California-based plant. "We really liked what we saw. We saw it as a way to enhance an already-robust animalwelfare program," Siemens says.
The first installations are scheduled for the company’s regional beef plants in Fresno, Calif., Milwaukee and Wyalusing, Pa. Next on the list are the company’s fed-beef operations. Half of the Cargill beef plants are scheduled to have cameras installed and systems running by the end of June and the remaining five by the end of the 2009 calendar year. "By New Year’s Eve, we hope to have all 10 plants done," says Siemens
After the beef plants, the focus will shift to Cargill’s pork-slaughtering operations. "The intent is to roll it across all the commodity species," Siemens says. Meanwhile, the firm’s pork division has and will continue using an internal monitoring system of cameras to evaluate and audit animal-welfare practices
During the test, Cargill officials quickly saw value in the feedback the technology provided, including trending data to inform plant operators about animal-handling performance by date, shifts or other criteria. Using the American Meat Institute’s animal welfare guidelines, Arrowsight auditors in Huntsville, Ala. score Cargill’s handling practices using in-plant video footage and a Web-based software program created by Arrowsight.
"The data feedback that we get back in our plants really helps us have some uniformity between plants," Siemens says of the analyzed information provided by Arrowsight. "The data feedback we get back from them we think will be very meaningful in terms of helping us improve what we are currently doing. Arrowsight met our expectations and they were successful in delivering what they said they could," Siemens says. "Continued improvement is the name of the game."
Prior to Cargill’s announcement, five plants were using Internet-based video auditing systems. Three of the facilities publicize their programs, including Delimax Veal, FPL Foods and American Beef Packers (the new owner of the Hallmark/ Westland beef plant in Chino, Calif.).
Not camera shy
While undercover video footage of animal abuse has exposed what are decidedly isolated incidences of bad behavior over the years, processors have made the use of cameras to improve operations and efficiencies anything but a secret for just as long. "If you talk to most of the companies in the meat industry right now, most of them have cameras in place already for different functions and activities," says Siemens. "This is not a new concept." Cargill is one of many firms that have used video cameras as a process-management tool to manage trim lines and food-safety practices in its plants and activity in the yards behind the plants.
However, the concept of using video footage to strengthen animal-welfare programs was a new idea Siemens and others had heard about at the American
Meat Institute’s annual Animal Care & Handling Conference, during presentations by Arrowsight’s CEO, Adam Aronson. One of those presentations was in 2008, just after undercover footage of animal abuse at the Hallmark/Westland beef plant was made public.
The Hallmark debacle, which led to the biggest beef recall in history and ultimately caused the company to cease operations, triggered a flurry of phone calls to Arrowsight’s Aronson from processors inquiring about RVA and how it could be used in their plants. Cargill’s interest was piqued prior to the recall or the closure, Siemens says. And while Hallmark’s demise didn’t necessarily fast-track the already-considered initiative, Siemens admits "I don’t think it slowed it down."
"We had been evaluating it [RVA] for a couple of years and we talked a lot about it and how it might fit," he says.
"We’ve always looked to enhance what we consider to be robust animal welfare programs," he says, including training programs and ongoing consultations with animal-welfare expert, Dr. Temple Grandin. But there is always room for improvement, Siemens says. "When you try to do things internally and once you get beyond training and auditing, the next evolutionary step was to go down the path that we did," he says.
As part of Cargill’s buy-in, the company solicited the opinion of Grandin to take a closer look at the technology. Grandin has, for years, supported the theory of video cameras in slaughter facilities in the name of transparency. In her "From the Corral" column published in the February 2009 issue of MEAT&POULTRY, Grandin wrote: "Arrowsight’s program is the most comprehensive because people actually do the AMI animal-welfare audit, compile the data and send it to the plants." As part of her research, Grandin traveled to Arrowsight’s auditing headquarters in Huntsville, Ala. During the visit, Grandin watched as auditors scored five different plants. "I watched all five of the plants for about 20 minutes each, and everything was working perfectly," she wrote.
Cargill officials were pleased to hear Grandin’s report. "She came back with very positive statements about how they conducted themselves, how they perform the audits and was confident that they could do what we expected them to do," says Siemens.
Once the decision was made to implement the system, the next steps involved some technology-based concerns. "There was a fair amount of anxiety in terms of allowing us to go out to a third-party auditor so we had to go through a lot of I.T. and information- protection issues within Cargill," Siemens says, which meant plenty of hurdles and hoops being negotiated. "Anything that goes outside of the Cargill Intranet becomes very contentious and has to be evaluated very carefully. That required a fair amount of time itself," he adds, as threats from hackers and protecting the company’s proprietary information was addressed.
The company’s plans for implementing RVA were not among the industry’s best-kept secrets and a growing number of people were aware of Cargill’s interest in the technology and that it was testing the water. "As the rumor mills get started," says Siemens, "we thought it was probably time to make the announcement as we were getting ready to roll it out to the plants."
Backlash not expected
The company doesn’t expect any significant backlash from plant workers, as many have been conditioned to work in Cargill facilities where operations are vigorously video monitored for efficiency. "Our pork division has had them in place, our cattle division has had them in place and some plants have had more extensive ones then others," says Siemens. "This just gives us some uniformity to what we already do, so it’s not going to come as a big shock to any of our employees."
Arrowsight’s Aronson says Cargill’s embracing RVA technology is an obvious positive step for the company but also a high mark for the industry. Aronson, who was called upon to testify about the viability of placing cameras in plants during the Congressional investigation of the Hallmark/Westland recall, was hopeful that an industry leader would voluntarily step up to the plate. "I sincerely believed that it would be much more powerful to have an industry-led initiative to address this issue rather than a regulatory mandate. This is a testimony to the power of the industry leading vs. the government leading," says Aronson.