I just received a press release from my friends at the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) regarding the 20th anniversary edition of the "Animal Handling Guidelines," and I'm of two minds.
For one, it represents two decades of remarkable advances in improving the welfare of livestock. I was there when edition No. 1 first hit the streets and remember the controversy it created. Fortunately, most people who originally viewed it with alarm have now accepted it as the right thing to do.
On the other hand, I have to ask, “What took so long?”
It's a petty complaint, I guess. Driven in part by the Animal Handling Conference -- an annual event in Kansas City, Mo., that has been a tremendous influence in both spreading the "gospel" as well as advancing the cause -- the industry has moved light years ahead in its practices since the late 1990s.
The original guidelines were written by Colorado State University professor of animal behavior Dr. Temple Grandin, working with NAMI's Animal Welfare Committee. She developed the industry's audit system, too, in 1997.
According to the NAMI press release, “Dr. Grandin said, 'You manage what you measure.' By measuring objective criteria like animal vocalizations, falls, the use of prods to move animals, effective stunning and other objective criteria, she argued that (meat) plants could evaluate their animal handling practices, identify problems and drive continuous improvement. The institute agreed with her view and invited her to write it.”
“It's been wonderful to watch meat plants embrace the audit throughout the last two decades and to see the measurable improvements that have occurred in animal care and handling,” Grandin said. “Together with our annual Animal Handling Conference, the audit has helped elevate the importance of good animal handling and professionalized the role of those who handle livestock during transport and at the plants.”
Adele Douglass, executive director of Human Farm Animal Care, a leading animal welfare nonprofit that counts Grandin as a board member, acknowledged Grandin's role in improving the care and handling of livestock. She noted that “Grandin's knowledge and influence have been significant factors in the progress we've made over the past 20 years."
Important changes in the 2017 edition of the guidelines include a small boost in the efficiency of captive bolt stunners: The acceptable stunning accuracy score has been increased from 95% to 96%.
Plants that use carbon dioxide stunning or head-only reversible electric stunning should consider auditing insensibility both prior to bleed and on the rail.
Perhaps feeling the pressure to highlight the rules for handling non-ambulatory livestock -- there have been several widely reported scandals in the past few years -- the guidelines placed more emphasis on insisting that ambulatory livestock should never be moved over non-ambulatory livestock.
Reacting to another problem that has proven newsworthy recently, the transportation audit will now ask whether the plant had documented training for its employees on properly receiving animals. Training must also lead to a significantly reduced acceptable level of prodding at unloading -- from 25% or less to 10% or less.
The bottom line: The public is becoming more aware of how food reaches the table. Any form of animal abuse, real or imagined, will not be tolerated.
NAMI's more aggressive approach to the problem, as shown in the 20th edition of its handling guidelines, is a perfect rallying point for a concerned industry.
*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.