000930 Meatpackers Improve Animal TreatmentSeptember 23, 2000
Milan, MO - It's an unnerving sound, the screeching from a truckload of hogs parked outside a slaughterhouse. A few hours later the pigs, hardly make a squeal as they're scurried off to be killed.
Under pressure from major customers - primarily the McDonald's Corp. - farms and packinghouses are acting to reduce the stress and suffering of the cattle, pigs and chickens they take to slaughter.
Meatpackers are retraining workers and installing new equipment. Egg farms that supply McDonald's are being forced to give laying hens more room and eschew a practice known as “forced molting,” withholding food and water from the birds so they will lay more eggs. And McDonald's is now looking at standards to alleviate confined conditions on hog farms.
This week, the government helped the American Humane Association launch a new program for certifying food as “Free Farmed,” awarded farms and processors that adhere to relatively strict animal-welfare standards.
Packinghouses began changing their practices in earnest in 1999 after McDonald's set animal-handling standards for its meat suppliers, helped develop industry training videos and started auditing the plants. The fast-food chain suspended purchases from two cattle-slaughtering plants that failed its inspections. The plants have not been identified.
“Plants started to realize this is part of doing business, like food safety is part of doing business,” said Temple Grandin of Colorado State University, the nation's leading authority on humane livestock handling. McDonald's audits “sent a big message out to the industry,” she said.
This month, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals suspended an 11- month protest campaign that included handing out boxes, labeled “Unhappy Meals,” that were illustrated with graphic pictures from slaughter plants.
In a letter to the company, PETA said the slaughterhouse audits and hen standards were “a fine step in the right direction” and urged additional moves, such as refusing to purchase pork from farms that confine sows to stalls.
“Our customers care about social issues. They expect a lot from companies like McDonald's,” said Bob Langert, the company's senior director of public and community affairs.
Audits assess whether the animals are frightened or upset during handling and whether they are properly stunned before being bled and skinned. A plant automatically flunks if auditors find an animal is bled while still conscious.
When properly handled, animals are calm and feel no pain when they die, Grandin said.
There's another a benefit for the companies, because stress can result in discolored meat.
Improvements in industry practices are evident at the Premium Standards Farm Inc. slaughterhouse in this northern Missouri town, which kills 7,000 hogs a day.
Conditions in the chutes and holding pens, including sprinklers that are activated on hot days, are designed to calm the hogs. The pens themselves resemble facilities where the animals are raised.
Last year the company became the first U.S. plant to install a new stunning system that uses carbon dioxide rather than a jolt of electricity to anesthetize pigs. Researchers say gassing is less stressful for the faster-growing but more excitable pigs now being bred.
The Milan plant already was among the more humane slaughterhouses in the country before McDonald's started its audits, Grandin said. But Colleen Schultz Kaster, Premium Standard's vice president of food safety and technical services, said the restaurant chain's monitoring has made her job easier in getting approval from company executives for further improvements in the plant, such as a planned expansion of hog-handling facilities.
“It's not just me asking for it. It's McDonald's asking for it, and your children's Happy Meals,” she said.
The plant also has started conducting internal animal-welfare audits based on the McDonald's reviews.
In 1996, just 30% of the cattle slaughtering plants that Grandin surveyed were stunning cattle properly. During the first half of 1999, that had risen to 74%. By the end of the year, 90% had acceptable scores, she reported.
Grandin also scored plants for the amount of mooing and squealing heard - such noise is a sign that the animals are under stress - and found that it has fallen, too. In 1996, the hog plants she surveyed were so noisy they couldn't be scored. In 1999, more than 70% had acceptable vocalization scores.
“It's been a real success story for the industry,” said Carrie Cooper, who writes about animal handling for the trade magazine Meat & Poultry. “It's a good example of the customers working with the plants. It's not an adversarial relationship. It's very cooperative.”
The Agriculture Department is considering setting animal-handling standards for slaughter plants and has stepped up training of its inspectors to detect proper and improper treatment of livestock.