Animal Welfare in the Meat Industry

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Animal Welfare in the Meat Industry

Humane treatment of livestock is good for animals—and good for business. Not only is optimal animal care and handling ethically correct, such handling also results in higher quality meat.

The U.S. meat industry has been a leader in the field of humane livestock treatment. The continuous presence of federal USDA inspectors in meat packing plants further ensures that livestock are treated humanely. Here is our animal welfare story.

Voluntary Guidelines

In the early 1990s, the meat industry recognized the benefits of a proactive approach to animal handling. Leading animal welfare experts like Temple Grandin, Ph.D., associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University, released research showing that animal welfare could be improved in the plant setting by trying to work with an animal’s natural instincts—not against them.

Dr. Grandin noted that animals are naturally curious. When pens are designed so they are circular, livestock will move forward to see what is ahead. When animals move naturally based upon their own instinct, this virtually
eliminates the need to drive livestock.

Dr. Grandin made other important observations, like the fact that livestock like to move from dark to light areas, that they can be frightened by things as minor as a hose in a walkway or a piece of cloth on a rail and that strange sounds or air blowing in the wrong direction can cause livestock to freeze in their tracks. She took these factors—and many others—into consideration when in 1991 she authored AMI’s Recommended Animal Handling Guidelines for Meat Packers, an illustrated guide for meat companies to use in enhancing animal care and handling.

During the next decade, meat companies modified their plants giving careful consideration to livestock instinct behavior. This ushered in a new era in animal care and handling in the industry and livestock welfare was literally transformed.

You Manage What You Measure

In 1996, Dr. Grandin argued that “you manage what you measure.” She suggested that plants could evaluate animal welfare objectively using criteria like how often livestock “vocalize,” how often they slip and fall and how often plants must prod livestock to make them move forward. By striving to meet certain numerical targets and by tracking plants’ progress over time, Dr. Grandin said that plants could continually improve—and they have.

A year later, she designed an entirely new audit program for the industry that was widely implemented. Now, more than 95 percent of the industry routinely conducts self audits, typically on a weekly basis. In 2005, the American Meat Institute Board of Directors determined that annual audits by outside “third party auditors” should be an industry best practice.

Federal Inspectors: A Careful Eye

While the industry has been proactive in its efforts to enhance welfare, federal oversight acts as a safety net to ensure that best practices— and federal rules—are being followed.

In 1978, Congress enacted a law that requires federal USDA inspectors, who are in meat plants during every minute of operation, to monitor livestock treatment.

These inspectors check to ensure that plants comply with key federal requirements, like providing livestock access to water at all times and providing food if livestock stay at a plant more than 24 hours. The laws also say that livestock may not be handled in a way that would cause them pain, like hitting, for example, and that they must be made insensible to pain before they are processed. If plants violate rules, inspectors can cite them and forbid them from operating until the problem is corrected. If the problem continues, federal inspectors may be withdrawn from the plant, which forces the plant to close. Careful oversight and strong penalties for violations help ensure that livestock are treated humanely.

Meat Quality Benefits

Dozens of studies show that animals that are calm and unstressed when they are processed produce better meat products. For example, if an animal becomes agitated in a plant, stress hormones like adrenalin are released. If an animal is processed in this high stress state, meat will show quality defects that need to be trimmed—an economic loss.

As a result, meat plants recognize that humane handling is not only ethically appropriate, it also has economic benefits in the form of higher quality meat products. And the bottom line is that the employees who work in companies where animal welfare is a core value typically have more positive attitudes toward their jobs as well.

Humane handling benefits livestock, plant employees—and consumers.