Assessing the state of the cattle slaughter industry

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Temple Grandin, PhD, (right), of Fort Collins, Colo, spoke on the welfare of cattle during slaughter. Here she talks with vice chairman of the Animal Welfare Committee, Dr. Sally Walshaw, during a break between presentations.

Noted animal scientist and behaviorist Temple Grandin, PhD, said despite recent news reports, the nation's cattle slaughter industry has made substantial gains in reducing animal stress and suffering, thanks to economic pressures that have sparked industry-wide improvements in staff and equipment management.

Dr. Grandin credited the McDonald's Corporation and its relatively recent consideration of animal welfare issues as the source of change. Since 1999, the monolithic fast-food chain has placed greater emphasis on buying from only beef suppliers who comply with American Meat Institute guidelines for humane handling and stunning.

Suppliers who fail McDonald's audits can receive a 30- or 60-day suspension, or be permanently removed from the corporation's approved beef supplier list, resulting in a potential loss of millions of dollars a year for the larger suppliers.

"I can tell you, these audits have teeth," said Dr. Grandin, who has been McDonald's chief consultant on animal welfare issues since 1996.

The cattle slaughter industry has made considerable welfare gains since a 1996 survey of slaughterhouses Dr. Grandin conducted on behalf of the USDA found a majority were deficient in humane handling and stunning practices. She recounted how, of the 10 randomly selected plants, seven were unable to successfully stun the cattle on the first attempt, and only three plants were in compliance with AMI guidelines.

"That just stinks," she said, adding the inspections had even been announced.

One of the advantages of auditing slaughterhouses is that welfare violations are clear-cut. "I don't think we need research to show us that if we shoot the animal five times with a stun gun it's unacceptable," Dr. Grandin said.

Her analysis identified poor stun gun maintenance to be the number one problem. Furthermore, bad practices had become ingrained in a few desensitized plant staff. As isolated examples of the latter, Dr. Grandin referenced recent news reports of cows at certain West Coast plants being suspended live from the bleed rail.

During the first six months of 1999, audits of 19 meatpacking plants showed vast improvements. AMI compliance rose 74 percent, and at the end of that year, 90 percent of 40 meatpacking plants were in compliance. The goal should be stunning cattle on the first shot, but conceding perfection to be elusive, Dr. Grandin recommends taking a second shot when it's unclear an animal has been rendered insensible.

Maintaining high practice standards is an ongoing process, however. "You've got to have a continuous audit process, where you are continuously measuring handling ... you manage what you measure; it's that simple," Dr. Grandin said.

The good news is improvement costs are minimal, mostly a matter of keeping stun guns in working order and making such practical adjustments as installing no-slip flooring in the stunning boxes. Slips and falls are the primary problem Dr. Grandin has observed in the boxes.

One objective method Dr. Grandin has found useful in "determining the good places from the bad" is scoring cattle vocalization in the chute and stunning area. The amount of mooing and bellowing reflects stress level in the animals. Cows are visual animals and frighten easily; a dark chute or chain rattling overhead can cause them to balk, shutting down a plant for several minutes.

Dr. Grandin recounted several instances where she eliminated vocalization simply by lighting a dark chute or modifying a restraining device so it exerted less pressure on the animal's neck. An additional safeguard against backups is running smaller numbers of cows through the chute.

Attention to detail is an important ingredient for a smoothly running operation. "You've got to get down into the system and see what they're seeing," she said.

Long before cattle arrive at the plant, they should be exposed to people on foot; most are accustomed just to people on horseback. "You will see some very serious problems where cattle never saw a man on foot until they got to a packing plant. These are animals that panic when confronted with something new. They can become very dangerous to handle, and it's both a safety and welfare issue," she said.

Understanding cattle behavior and making the appropriate innovations will cut down on the need for cattle prods. Dr. Grandin believes electric prods should be used only when absolutely necessary; alternative drivers, such as a stick with a plastic bag tied to the end, work just as effectively but without inflicting pain, she said.

In feedlots, calm animals have been found to gain more weight and provide a higher quality of meat than those that are stressed. They are also less likely to defecate on themselves, which can become a food safety issue.

Dr. Grandin spoke briefly about the practice of kosher slaughter in the United States. Some plants are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act, which regulates all other slaughter operations. Kosher slaughter is done without stunning. Most kosher plants in the United States use a restraining device to hold the animals upright. When performed correctly, the welfare "is acceptable, but we're not going to put it up to the excellent level," she said.

Regarding downer cattle, Dr. Grandin believes they are usually in terrible condition before ever leaving the farm. There is speculation that much of the problem derives from poor breeding practices resulting in lameness. Whatever the reason, the downer cow should be euthanatized prior to transport, she said.

Some cattle become lame from injury during transport. To reduce incidents of injury, Dr. Grandin said truck drivers should be held accountable for some of the damage to the animals. They should not overload their trucks, and drive mindful of their cargo: no sudden stops or starts.

During the question-answer portion of the forum, Dr. Grandin said in her 25 years of working with slaughter operations, she has never witnessed more change in the industry than when the McDonald's Corporation began auditing its meat suppliers in 1999.

"It's the power of the purse, economic accountability," she said. "Then people started getting serious."