Last summer, McDonald’s shook the poultry industry when it ordered its egg suppliers to comply with strict guidelines for humane treatment of hens or be dropped as a supplier.

Animal welfare and food safety standards aren’t a new phenomenon, however. In England, several large supermarkets have adopted welfare and food safety standards for farms. Wendy’s, the U.S.-based hamburger chain, audits the packing plants that supply its raw products, and its competitors are planning similar programs.

But, just how much difference can these programs make? Or, are they more window dressing than drivers of behavior? Let’s look at the McDonald’s experience.

McDonald’s purchases beef – both fed and non-fed beef – from virtually all large and medium-sized plants in the U.S. The audits conducted by McDonald’s food safety auditors have greatly improved handling and stunning practices in the nation’s beef packing plants.

I’ve worked in the beef industry for more than 25 years on cattle handling and facility design. In 1999 when McDonald’s started their audit program of stunning and handling, I witnessed more improvements than I have seen in my entire career. Table 1 shows the improvements in stunning after the McDonald’s audits began.

In 1996, I conducted a USDA survey of stunning and handling practices in 10 randomly chosen beef plants. At each plant, a sample of animals were scored on a yes/no basis in six categories:

  • Percentage of cattle stunned correctly with one shot from a captive bolt stunner.
  • Percentage of cattle that remained insensible on the bleed rail.
  • Percentage of cattle that vocalized (moo or bellow) during handling and stunning. Vocalizations in the yards were not counted.
  • Percentage of cattle prodded with an electric prod.
  • Percentage of animals falling during handling and stunning.

Only three plants were able to stun 95% or more of the cattle correctly with one shot from a captive bolt stunner. Four plants failed due to poor gun maintenance. Two p1ants had very abusive cattle handling.

Because the plant visits were announced, I was amazed at the extent of bad practices. Bad had become normal because people had become desensitized.

In 1999, McDonald’s hired me to train its food safety team to conduct the animal welfare audits. I traveled to 27 plants across the U.S. At the end of 1999, 90% of the plants passed the stunning audit and stunned 95% of the cattle correctly with one shot. This was a huge improvement.

As a result of the audits, one large fed-beef plant was removed from the approved supplier list, and they are still off. The industry realized that the audits had to be taken seriously.

This was a win-win situation. More than half the problems seen in my 1996 USDA survey were due to lack of management attention and poor maintenance. Plants are now required to do self-audits that help maintain good management of the stunning area.

In most plants, simple improvements of less than $1,000 in equipment fixed problems such as cattle backing up and balking or slipping and falling. The improved handling produced fewer dark cutters and less bruising. The simple changes reduced the need for electric prods and reduced the percentage of cattle vocalizing during handling.

In 1996, only three plants (30%) had an acceptable score of 3% or less of the cattle vocalizing. After the 1999 McDonald’s audits, 71% of the plants passed the vocalization test. In 2000, the percentage went to 85%.

Here To Stay
In England, several large supermarkets have adopted welfare and food safety standards for farms. More restaurants and supermarkets will be implementing environmental standards and guidelines for food safety, welfare and meat quality. Such programs might present problems for the poultry and pork industries, but the beef industry is in relatively good shape.

Cattle on ranches are already free ranged. Feedlots are outdoors, and the animals have lots of room. Cattle simply don’t have the close confinement issues that egg layers and sows have.

Most welfare problems in the beef industry are caused by poor management, not housing systems. The beef industry is most vulnerable when individuals transport a half-dead cow to an auction, or there are reports of abusive handling at some livestock auctions. The beef industry must develop sensible animal welfare standards that are practical. These standards could be added to existing beef quality assurance programs.

Most restaurants and supermarkets that have standards for welfare do it as part of their quality assurance program. Let’s face it, welfare has become part of quality.

Temple Grandin is an assistant professor of livestock handling and behavior at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Visit her Web site at www.grandin.com.

Talking To Customers About Confinement<<p> On a trip to Boston this fall, I talked to 24 people I encountered in airplanes, taxis or at dinner. All were strangers; none were members of the livestock or poultry industries.

After introducing myself and talking about my job, I brought up the subject of how pigs are housed. Showing them pictures of different types of hog housing, I asked their opinion on the different housing systems.

I showed them pictures including sow gestation stalls that left sows unable to turn around and others of pigs walking around on a slatted floor. I asked for their reactions, being careful not to bias their responses.

Table 2 summarizes their responses on sow gestation stalls. Roughly one-third had no opinion, one-third were mildly opposed to sow stalls, and one-third were totally against sow stalls.

People were disturbed by the fact that the sow could not turn around, women being more disturbed than men. With the exception of one woman, all thought that pigs housed on a concrete, slatted floor where they could walk around was acceptable.

The bottom line is that making a sow live in a box where she is not able to turn around is not going to be acceptable to the public.

McDonald’s Sets New Guidelines For Laying Hens
I also had the opportunity to visit several of the large farms that supply McDonald’s with eggs. Modern white egg layers are bred for the most efficient feed conversion. This results in a flighty, nervous bird that rubs off about half her feathers when she becomes a spent hen.

As a beef person, I was horrified. No one in the cattle industry would approve of cattle with half of their hair rubbed off. The more I learned of the egg industry the more disgusted I got. The egg supplier was shocked at my negative reaction.

Reactions from fellow airline passengers when shown pictures of old spent laying hens were also very negative. One lawyer was not disturbed by the sow stalls, but was very disturbed when I told him of the treatment of spent hens. He even came up to me in the terminal and urged me to do something about the hens.

Recently, McDonald’s announced its guidelines for the housing and management of egg laying hens. Many egg producers over-crowd hens and provide them with a space equal in size to half a sheet of 8½- by 11-inch paper. The birds are unable to all roost in a comfortable position.

The McDonald’s guidelines require that each bird have a space equal to three-fourths of a sheet of 8½- by 11-inch paper. This provides each bird enough space to rest without being on top of another bird.

– By Temple Grandin