Improving standard in the abattoirs

01 September 2011, at 12:00am

REMOTE monitoring over the internet of the activities in an abattoir can help ensure that livestock are humanely treated before slaughter, welfare scientists were told at a meeting in Portsmouth in June. The renowned US animal behaviourist, Temple Grandin, told a meeting of the Humane Slaughter Association of the key role of auditing methods in maintaining high welfare standards in abattoirs and that webcam links were an important new tool in this process. Professor Grandin, from Colorado State University, has achieved fame through her efforts to persuade the US meat industry to adopt more welfare-friendly systems for the raising and slaughtering of livestock. She credits her severe autism as the reason for her ability to understand animal behaviour and to see the world through their eyes. Her life story was the subject of an Emmy award-winning television film starring the actress Claire Danes. In addition to her academic work, Prof. Grandin works as a consultant on the design of rearing and slaughter units for major meat producers and processors, including the burger restaurant chains MacDonald’s and Wendy’s. “But it is not just about the equipment that is important for the welfare of animals – you have to make sure that it is run properly all the time. You can fix lots of problems by changing the equipment but the way that the unit is managed is so important,” she said. In the 1990s she devised a system of auditing the welfare standards in abattoirs, involving five parameters: the percentage of animals stunned effectively with a single application of the stunner; the percentage of animals  that fall during handling; the percentage of animals that vocalise in or on entering the stun box; the percentage of animals moved with an electric goad; and the percentage of animals rendered insensible before hoisting. 

Targets set

All abattoirs covered by the scheme are required to reach targets for each of these measures, ranging from 100% insensibility before hoisting and sticking to 95% for the use of a single stunning procedure. The system encourages slaughtermen to use the captive bolt or electrical stunner twice rather than risk starting to process a conscious animal. “So that is why it is
95%; we don’t ask for perfection because that isn’t possible in the real world.” Pressure to conform to these auditing standards has improved the performance of the participating abattoirs. In 1996 when collecting baseline data for the US Department of Agriculture, only 30% of slaughter facilities achieved the 95% single stun target, but a survey last year showed that every abattoir was able to achieve that standard. When the two burger
chains removed certain plants from their list of suppliers, the
performance of the other plants improved very quickly, she noted. The ability of these abattoirs to achieve the desired first-time stunning rates is closely correlated with the standards of maintenance of the equipment. But other key parameters are more influenced by the skills and attitude of the abattoir staff. So the presence of inspectors for a welfare audit appears to have no effect on the efficiency of stunning but the use of electric goads does become more common when staff believe that they
are not being watched, she said. Using the webcam technology
helps to discourage any drop in standards. These are now used in 23 different plants across the US and Canada with auditors in another state able to view what is happening on the slaughter line at various random points during the day. Prof. Grandin said the main advantage of the system used is that it provides a simple, objective measurement of welfare standards. “Was an electric goad used? The answer has to be yes or no.” The audit process also includes a list of unacceptable practices such as physically abusing an animal which would result in an automatic failure. 

Understanding needed

She explained how understanding the behaviour of the animal will help to prevent the logjams in the system which cause abattoir staff to become frustrated and try to force the livestock to move on against their will. One of the most common problems that will stop an animal entering a race or a stunning pen was air blowing into their face. Cattle find this particularly aversive and it is the first thing that she checks when abattoir staff report problems in getting animals to move. Seeing humans in front of them or a darkened/excessively bright entrance will also deter movement and the problem can usually be solved with a partition or through adjustments to the lighting. If managers and abattoir staff have a good understanding of animal behaviour they are much less likely to inadvertently cause stress to their animals and, as a result, they will improve the efficiency of the plant. Cows will give clues whenever they are scared – they will fix their eyes and ears on any object that causes them concern such a piece of tape flapping in the breeze. She also advised those handling livestock to get into the race or pens to view exactly what the animal is seeing, even getting down on the floor to look at the world through porcine eyes. The question she is asked most frequently by members of the public is, “Do the animals know that they are going to be slaughtered?” Professor Grandin said: “I find that they act in exactly the same way whether they are in a race at the slaughterhouse or in a veterinary chute.”