The animal welfare and food safety audits that major fast-food chains require of their meat suppliers will eventually touch every production segment.
If America's packing plants want to do business with the three largest U.S. restaurant chains — McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's — they must pass the test — and keep on passing it. America's cattle feeders, and ultimately America's cow/calf producers, should take notice.
Whether the packing plants are making the grade in food safety and animal welfare is determined by periodic audits. The audits use an objective scoring system that grades each plant by the percentage of cattle handled correctly. Failure to comply means losing lucrative contracts to supply raw beef products to these major restaurant chains.
The Food Marketing Institute, the trade association for U.S. supermarket firms, is now in the process of formulating animal welfare guidelines. It's likely that they will follow the lead that has been set by the hamburger chains.
As the pressure builds on packers, that pressure will be passed further down the production chain, first to cattle feeders and then in some form to cow/calf producers.
Food Safety Is The Driver
Food safety is the engine that will drive auditors out of the packing plants and onto farms and feedlots. The restaurant companies are scared to death of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
Billions of dollars have been lost in Europe and Japan because of the disease. Just four cases of BSE in Japan ruined the U.S. beef export business this fall, and beef consumption in Japan has fallen by 50%.
McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's currently require every feedlot to sign affidavits that they have not fed ruminant protein to their animals. Plants are audited on their ability to produce an affidavit for the loads of beef they deliver to the hamburger grinders.
In the future, auditors may be visiting individual feedlots to check the mills for compliance. At the same time, animal welfare also can be audited.
It will be impossible to audit thousands of ranches and feed companies that supply feed supplements for cow/calf operations. My biggest fear is that BSE could get into the U.S. via ruminant protein that is mixed into protein supplements for mother cows.
Last year, I visited a trade show and was alarmed at what I saw. Protein blocks from two, small, obscure companies listed animal protein on their ingredient labels. The salesmen didn't know what the animal protein was.
I'm concerned that beef materials could get formulated into these blocks. Ranchers must insist that their suppliers document that the blocks are free of ruminant materials.
Auditing of both food safety and animal welfare by major beef industry customers is going to increase. The audits will increase because they work.
The periodic animal handling and welfare audits required by the major hamburger chains have brought huge improvements in the stunning and handling practices used at the packing plants. The restaurant chains also refuse to buy from any plant that actively seeks downer (non-ambulatory) cattle as part of their regular business.
I designed the scoring system used in the audits to be simple and very objective. In training the auditors, I learned that the auditing system had to be simple and specific. This enables the auditors to apply it in a fair and uniform manner.
Each animal is scored on a yes/no basis on the following variables:
- Percentage of cattle electric prodded,
- Percentage that fall down and
- Percentage that vocalize (moo or bellow).
Each plant also must have written policies on handling downers and on training. Some of the plants are excellent. I recently toured a large plant with Adele Douglass who runs the Free Farmed Program for the American Humane Association. She was amazed that the cattle were handled so calmly.
USDA has stepped up enforcement of the Humane Slaughter Act (HSA). These actions have already had an effect on how producers handle downers. A truck that is unloading at a packing plant becomes part of the official USDA establishment. The act forbids dragging downers off a truck or dragging them in the plant.
The fed beef sector is already being affected. Some plants now have the policy that any animal that is unable to walk onto a truck stays at the feedlot. The USDA has also hired many new inspectors to travel around the U.S. enforcing the HSA.
For copies of the audit procedures, visit www.grandin.com.
Temple Grandin, PhD, is a designer of livestock handling facilities and an assistant professor of animal science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. In addition to teaching, she consults with the livestock industry on facility design, livestock handling and animal welfare.