The famous slogan says “Quality is job one.” For the regulatory arm of Alberta’s agriculture department, a version of this is now having a major impact on the province’s slaughter plants, says Dr. John Church, Livestock Welfare Specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
“I’d argue animal welfare is now job one for our regulatory services branch,” says Church, who delivered a presentation on progress with welfare audits for provincial red meat slaughter plants, to Alberta’s Livestock Care Conference. The conference was hosted by Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC), a partnership of Alberta’s major livestock groups, with a mandate to promote responsible, humane animal care within the livestock industry.
Since joining the department’s Regulatory Services Division one year ago, Church has served as the lead auditor in a major initiative to provide livestock care assurance at meat plants in the province. Alberta has 50 licensed red meat plants, all of which have now been audited for livestock handling and stunning practices.
“This is a big step,” says Church. “We’re now working at training branch auditors to continue this program, to keep things moving in the right direction. It’s an example that welfare is a top priority and an area where we want to continually promote good practices.”
Targeting Critical Control Points
The program used to perform the Alberta audits was based on a widely-recognized leading system developed by Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University. The system, developed for the American Meat Institute, is designed to assess Critical Control Points (CCPs) that are major indicators of the quality of animal welfare practices. Core criteria measured in the system include:
1. Percentage of animals stunned correctly on the first attempt
2. Percentage of animals rendered insensible
3. Percentage of animals prodded with an electric prod
4. Percentage of animals that vocalize
5. Percentage of animals that slip or fall
“These are the five key Critical Control Points that we have been aiming to measure and to audit, while also looking at additional factors such as the percentage of downers, the availability of clean drinking water and those sorts of things,” says Church.
The CPP approach has been adopted for use in programs endorsed by leading food retailers and is designed to be both simple and practical in addition to being very effective, notes Church.
Improving gentle handling
One of the first issues Church encountered during the provincial audits was incidences of over-use of the electric prod.
“For a lot of plants, this was the only handling tool they had. And we’ve noticed that when people get tired at the end of a long day, they tend to use the prod more. It’s something that sneaks up on a person — it’s insidious. So one of the first things we determined was we need to provide the handlers with a different tool, so that the prod is not the primary tool.”
Church and colleagues provided plants with non-electric prods that are similar in shape to a lacrosse stick, with a flat-paddle end that when twirled makes a shaking sound similar to pebbles in a jar. “This tool gets the attention of the animal and moves it along without agitation,” says Church. “The general reaction we got from the workers was ‘this is fantastic — just what we needed.’ It was very gratifying to see that if you give people an alternative to the prod, they will us it.”
The vast majority of plants audited are now using this type of gentle handling tool and electric prod use has dropped to a minimal level, says Church. “We’ve now also given presentations on this to every inspector in our division and they are making sure this practice continues.”
Ensuring effective stunning
Another key issue identified was stunning, says Church. The audits revealed some incidences where animal were not stunned effectively, due mainly to inaccurate placement or aiming of stunning tools.
To remedy this, Church and colleagues have worked to pinpoint problems and educate plant workers to improve their techniques. Working with Dr. Temple Grandin, they are also evaluating new stunning tools and encouraging the adoption of those that are easiest and most effective to use. “In most cases this was just an awareness issue. We were very happy with the response of the plants in these incidences to fix any problems, which typically were handled within days or as quickly as possible.”
In some cases, stunning tools or the process of stunning itself may not be the core problem, but is simply the key indicator captured by the CPP auditing approach, notes Church. “If you note an instance of unacceptable stunning, the core problem could be a whole host of factors, from lack of employee training to poor stun box design or over-agitated animals. In all cases, the first priority of our department is to identify the problem, then work with the plants to get to the bottom of the issue and fix it.”
Facility design can also be a key factor in animal welfare and this was top-of-mind during the auditing process, says Church. The vast majority of Alberta’s slaughter plants were originally designed as red meat plants but many have been adapted to also handle hogs. However, the audits revealed that by and large, facilities were well equipped for humane handling.
The issue of downer animals was also not a significant problem, he says. “Throughout this process, I have yet to see any downer animals.”
Industry driving progress
Church attributes this to two factors. First, industry awareness efforts, such as those driven through AFAC, which among many examples include manuals on Humane Handling Guidelines. Second, the “4D” program implemented post-BSE.
“With the tremendous job industry has done through AFAC, I think people responsible for animals in this industry realize that we simply can’t transport downer animals and we have to deal with them humanely at the on-farm level,” says Church. “The 4D program for BSE has also reinforced that.”
“Alberta is becoming recognized as a farm animal welfare leader not just in Canada but beyond,” says Church. “You talk to welfare leaders from Australia to Europe and increasingly they know what’s going on in Alberta. This is a reputation we can build on.”
Article courtesy of Meristem Land and Science, Calgary, AB, Phone 403-543-7423 or visit their website at: www.meristem.com