With news of the Westland/Hallmark recall still fresh in the minds of both consumers and processors, many people may be wondering: How do you prepare for an animal welfare audit?

Dr. Temple Grandin, associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., says that if a company is doing what it’s supposed to, then there is no reason to prepare.

“Make sure the plant is doing what it should be doing every day,” she says. “You shouldn’t just be doing it for an audit.”

Grandin goes on to say that problems like the abuse videotaped at the Westland/Hallmark plant does not happen at facilities that receive regular audits from customers, such as national restaurant or retail chains. She believes that current U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines don’t go into enough detail or provide enough guidance for inspectors, and the agency needs to train its inspectors better in knowing what is involved in animal handling.

“I think that we need to be using a numerical scoring system,” Grandin says. “For example, when does a tap on the nose become beating a pig up.”

Grandin says that the current reaction to the Westland/Hallmark controversy has been an overreaction by the USDA. The agency has excellent staff, she says, but they have gotten frustrated by the bureaucracy.

“You’ve got to have some guidance,” she says. It’s veterinarians who serve as inspectors. According to Grandin, they’re sent without detailed training specific to animal handling and the meat industry.

The American Meat Institute (AMI), working with Grandin, has developed a numerical system, available at animalhandling.org. The guidelines have details both on handling animals from raising to stunning and on how to audit a facility. There are also audit forms and a troubleshooting guide.

To do an audit

The system recommended by the AMI and Grandin uses a numerical scoring system. The numbers are based on percentages. Each stage in the process has an established percentage of how much force should be used, the condition of the livestock, how much noise they make during the process, how often a stunner is used and how many fall down and how the downer livestock is handled.

According to the guidelines, poor performance in any of these areas can result in reduced animal welfare.

“These guidelines also contain criteria and recommendations for stunning equipment, which will enable a plant to maintain acceptable welfare scores,” the guidelines say. “Other areas of animal welfare concern that will be covered are ritual slaughter and the handling of non-ambulatory animals.”

Grandin says such systems are used by all the large processors and smaller companies with vigilant customers.

Cleaning house

Hallmark was not in a strong customer audit system, says Grandin. “Other plants use a lot of third-party audits plus customer audit system,” she says. “And the best plants are the ones where the customer keeps watching over them.” Grandin cites plants that supply Whole Foods as an example. The organic and natural-food retail segments keeps a sharp eye on the smaller plants it uses.

However, other small plants that aim for the low end establishments, what Grandin calls the “Joe’s Hash Shack” level of the industry, don’t get the same attention and scrutiny as the big companies. It is the plants not in any audit system at all that tend to have the worst abuses and give the rest of the industry a black eye.

“This is one of the big problems,” Grandin says. “Things are very uneven. You have one so strict it’s crazy, then another too lax.” The industry is currently in a crackdown mode because of the events in California, says Grandin. “In the next few months the controversy will die down and a possibility of abuse may arise,” she says.

The USDA does have some enforcement powers and the AMI does have actions against plants where abuse happens. But Grandin believes that more must be done.

“I think as an industry, we need to be showing a lot more of what we’re doing,” she says. “I typed slaughter into YouTube and got horrible videos from South America. The industry better get its house clean or they’ll be showing it.”

Doing the right thing

Plants need to implement guidelines such as those offered by AMI and maintain them.

The guidelines were developed by Grandin for the AMI with a USDA grant in 1996 with the most recent update of them in 1997. Grandin says that a CD was made on how to use the system with the USDA but had never been distributed, something she calls ironic in light of recent events. “The AMI Guidelines work well, in the same way speed limits works well,” she says. “You’ve got a measurement, numbers. Good plants do those audits every day wither they’re there or not.”

Grandin also offers these guidelines and other basic info including videos in both English and Spanish on her own website,www.templegrandin.com..

The AMI guidelines focus on these areas for animal welfare in a plant:
• Effective stunning
• Hot wanding (with pigs only)
• Bleed rail Insensibility
• Slips and falls
• Electric prod use
• Willful acts of abuse

The guidelines and Grandin both stress that audits are basically snapshots of a plant’s operation. Changes in operation such as a modification in the employees working in that area, the breed and age of the livestock, weather, presence of an auditor and even how the animals were treated at the farm can have an effect on an audit score. The guidelines say that animals that are accustomed to the presence of people tend to be less skittish at the plant.

For these reasons, according to the guidelines, historical performance should also be taken into account during an audit. What a company has proposed as corrective and preventative should also be considered.

Grandin suggests that video auditing can be implemented. She’d actually talked to the owner of Westland/Hallmark, Steve Mendell, before the video alleging abuse came to light. The video will monitor the regular operations of the plant and can be audited by a third party. Some companies can even monitor the video feed over the Internet.

Even monitoring within the facility can make a difference. Mendell had been unaware of any abuse at the plant before the video came to light.

No matter what steps are taken, it does take the efforts of management to prevent abuses from happening. Grandin says that some of the larger processors have video monitored at the office so that management can watch what is happening. “Management is the key,” she says.

Slaughter plants can be run humane and clean. Grandin cites a recent plant visit she made with a reported for a California television station. He told her afterwards that the experience was much different than what he’d been expecting.

But again, it’s having guidelines that help a company measure how it’s doing in animal welfare. And it’s a company’s responsibility to ensure that the guidelines are followed.

“You need to make doing the right thing what you do every day,” Grandin says. “Have QA people doing the AMI system doing audits once a week.”