The Long Haul
By Tom Wray, associate editor
Distribution practices have improved at the top, but the industry must crack down on low-end processors.
Having the best possible livestock or resources to bring into the plant doesn’t help if you don’t have a way get them there. That’s where having effective distribution comes in.
Distribution is much more thansimply getting the livestock from point A to point B. Dr. Temple Grandin, associate professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., says the biggest problems distribution has in this country are animal identification and traceability. Compared to other nations, particularly the European Union, the United States is years behind. Grandin points to countries such as Denmark and New Zealand as examples of strong systems, both of which have had traceability programs for more than 20 years. She says the biggest reason for that is the U.S. meat industry is not as proportionally orientated toward exports as other countries. The United States may export a lot of meat, but as a part of the overall industry, it’s not as large a percentage as in other, smaller nations especially in terms of the size of the domestic market for meat products.
There are other issues to monitor with distribution, which is mostly by truck in the United States. “Fatigue is a major problem,” says Grandin. The current American habit of “just-in-time” deliveries and a shortage of long-haul truck drivers have placed a lot of pressure on trucking in general.
Grandin cites a study done by Canadian livestock handling expert Jennifer Woods, who googled reports of trucking accidents.
“With the study, the large majority of truck accidents were off the right side of the road and single-vehicle, which are signs of fatigue as cause,” Grandin says.
The loading and unloading of trucks are other aspects of distribution that require attention. Overcrowding of animals, how the trucks are driven, and treatment of the animals throughout the process, all factor in.
Grandin recounted a visit to a feed yard this summer, where she was very disappointed to see five truck drivers with the name of a major packer on the trucks, abusing the animals with electric cattle prods as they were loaded.
“Five trucks were on the side of the ramp, and five drivers were zapping the cattle as they were loaded,” she says. “At length this problem is worse with independent drivers, especially ones who serve processors at the low end of the market.”
In 35 years in the meat industry, Grandin says she has seen a great deal of improvement in animal welfare treatment and handling by the major processing companies. It’s the low-end of the spectrum, with companies she describes as the “Joe’s Hash House” segment, where facilities are poorly run using low-quality livestock. This is where the biggest problems in equipment and handling occur.
The equipment used in distribution, at least those owned and operated by the major companies, has greatly improved. These days, broken-down or excessively dirty trailers are a rarity on American highways.
“Again, it’s the low end of the market,” Grandin says. “That’s where you’ll see a decrepit trailer. As a part of the meat industry, we really need to start policing the low end of the industry.”
Grandin says establishing audit systems would help increase the overall condition of distribution and plants. The major companies and smaller ones that are audited by their customers do have good practices that are clean and treat animals well, both as they are offloaded from trucks and in processing. But those are ones where there is an effort to police practices by outside bodies.
“The worst places, no national customer would be caught dead using them,” Grandin continues. “They’ve never been audited by a customer. If you look at total percentage of meat, these plants that are bad are a very small percentage of the tonnage, but it’s a 2 or 3 percent that can give whole the industry a black eye.”
Attention from trade associations such as the American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, state beef and pork associations and other organizations can be a part of the solution, Grandin explains. These industry groups can go to low-end processors that might slip under the radar and push them to improve practices.
“Most of this stuff is not expensive to fix,” Grandin says. “If it’s filthy, clean it up.”
The result if industry does not help push the low-end processors and transporters can be bad publicity brought on by activist groups.
“When something bad happens, the industry needs to rise up and just condemn it,” Grandin says. “I’ve worked 35 years improving conditions. Most do a really decent job. It’s mainly niche operators in the beef and pork sectors messing it up for the rest.”
It may take the customers of those plants to improve the system. Grandin says there have been instances where local cattle groups have taken over their local plant to ensure it was operated well.
“They said it was a big hassle running a plant, but they had to do it,” she says. “And small plants can be done really well without spending a lot of money on them.”