“It's like pressure building behind a dam. We as an industry can either direct that pressure into something constructive, or just let the pressure build until the dam breaks and have a complete mess,” says Temple Grandin, associate professor of Animal Science, Colorado State University. “We in the beef industry can develop our own guidelines or have someone else do it for us. One way or the other, the industry will have handling guidelines.”

Europe, she adds, serves as a good example of the havoc well-intentioned outsiders with little or no practical experience within an industry can create.

“In Europe, they've developed some very unrealistic animal handling guidelines. For instance, they require so many rest stops for cattle in transport that the practice may actually stress the cattle more than rest them,” she says.

While beef safety audits have been a staple of the giant fast-food chains for more than a decade, the move to animal handling and welfare audits is relatively new. It began four years ago when McDonald's and Wendy's began conducting their own animal welfare audits of suppliers. They were joined a couple of years later by Burger King. Recently, however, the restaurant chains began shifting that responsibility to commercial auditing companies, with the restaurants continuing to cover the costs.

Lately, she's seen a surge in commercial firms providing such auditing services. She says she's recently worked with representatives of five different commercial auditing companies, teaching them how to perform the American Meat Institute's (AMI) Objective Slaughter Scoring System (OSSS), a system she designed. Currently being used by about 90% of U.S. slaughter plants, the OSSS allows scorers to attach a numeric value to the quality of animal handling rather than just making general subjective observations.

The system involves scoring employees of a plant in their handling of 100 head of livestock. Scores are determined according to the percentage of those 100 cattle that:

  • Are correctly stunned on the first shot.

  • Remain insensible after being stunned.

  • Vocalize during the handling and stunning process.

  • Fall down during handling.

  • Are electrically prodded by their handlers.

“In four years, I've seen tremendous improvement in the handling of animals by the major packers,” Grandin says. “And the gratifying thing is that the improvement has been made without spending a lot of money or doing capital improvement to facilities. It's been a matter of management, training employees and maintaining facilities.”

In fact, she says that of 54 AMI plants audited for animal welfare and handling in 2002, 35% scored excellent with 98 or more of 100 head of cattle being stunned on the first shot. Another 59% were acceptable, meaning 95-98% of the 100 head were stunned correctly. Three plants failed but Grandin says these were smaller plants undergoing their first audit.

“These plants basically didn't know what to expect and this was a learning audit for them. They will do better next year,” she says.

On cattle insensibility at shackling, Grandin says the Big Three packers — Tyson, Excel and Swift — rated perfect scores.

“A lot of activists like to attack the Big Three on animal handling but that isn't where the problem is,” she says.

On vocalization, 92% of the 54 plants rated excellent or acceptable, which means less than three out of 100 head vocalized during the handling process.

“Four years ago, if I'd told people that this type of result in animal vocalization was possible, they would have told me I was crazy,” Grandin says.

In electric prod use, 82% of the plants were either excellent (five or less cattle needing prodding) or acceptable (no more than 25 head needing prodding).

Grandin says the U.S. beef industry should take notice of what the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) — the trade association for U.S. grocery retailers — is considering: moving auditing from the packer further down towards the farm.

She points out that McDonald's, Wendy's and Burger King are already auditing producers of broilers and eggs.

“And they're getting started on pigs,” she says. “There have already been a few feedlots audited by slaughter plants to make sure there's no ruminant protein being fed to cattle, and they've also done animal welfare audits.”

Feedlots will be the first to experience auditing, Grandin says. She says she recently conducted a handling and welfare audit for one feedlot company. The form she uses is available on her Web site www.grandin.com under “animal welfare guidelines.”

“In my audit, I watched several hundred cattle going through the squeeze chute. I rated prodding, any cattle falling, and the speed with which they came out of the squeeze chute. I don't want more than 25% speeders out of the chute — running and jumping. They should come out in a walk or a trot.

“Those are my big three categories but I'll also look at head extender use — cases where the extender catches the animal's mouth. I also score the animals' vocalization in getting into the chute and being caught, but not their vocalization while they're in the squeeze chute. Any animal will moo when their ears are touched while caught in the squeeze,” she says.

Grandin says it's unlikely all U.S ranches will be subject to animal handling audits due to their sheer number. Ranch audits will likely be on a random basis — larger ranches being the most likely targets — with specific guidelines being a condition of doing business with segments further up the production chain.

Beef industry segmentation and the isolation of some operations is one factor holding back the beef industry's move to the development of animal handling guidelines, she says.

“What seems to be happening is that the progressive people are in favor of such guidelines. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, for instance, has put together an excellent committee of very knowledgeable people that has studied this issue and drawn up some excellent guidelines.

“But there are some groups within the organization totally against any guidelines whatsoever. And that's just not realistic in today's world. It is our customers that are driving this, and we will have guidelines one way or the other,” she says. “Getting these programs in place now will save a lot of pain later.”