Success, Challenges, and Continued Improvement: A Packer’s Perspective

October 6, 2015 02:04 PM
Success, Challenges, and Continued Improvement: A Packer’s Perspective

Lily Edwards-Callaway, head of animal welfare at JBS, discussed the successes, challenges, and areas for continued improvement of cattle handling throughout their meat processing plants.
By: Heidi Carroll, SDSU Extension Livestock Stewardship Associate


Audit standards for animal handling are in place at meat processing plants and most company programs are based off of the North American Meat Institute animal handling and auditing guidelines. There are several different parameters that are measured at a meat processing plant to ensure good animal handling such as, stunning efficiency, electric prod usage and vocalization to name a few. The acceptable limit for cattle stunning efficiency is 95%, although federal regulation requires all animals must be rendered unconscious on the first attempt. For electric prod usage, the prod should be used on fewer than 25% of all animals; and fewer than 3% of cattle should vocalize (moo) during handling. Temple Grandin has been analyzing animal handling third party audit results for several years. From her data, it can be seen that there have been vast improvement in the number of plants that pass third party audits over the years. For example, in 1996 approximately only 35% of the meat plants audited passed for stunning efficiency. In 2011, that percentage had increased to > 95% of the plants highlighting the attention, focus and effort put into improving humane handling.

Additional highlighted successes in auditing programs included:

  • Meat processors voluntarily adopt a robust systematic approach to humane handling (essentially a HACCP plan for animal handling).
  • Some meat processors utilize video cameras throughout the plant to continually monitor and audit animal handling in all areas (unloading, holding pens, crowd pends, at restrainer, etc.).
  • Video footage is used as a training, or re-training tool with employees.

The standard audit limitations are simply a baseline, but many plants surpass these expectations which is a testimony of how important careful handling of animals truly is, and how serious it is taken until the animal receives a humane death. Plants may set internal expectations for the measurements of cattle handling and provide incentives to employees when they successfully achieve them.


Lily Edwards-Callaway highlighted three important challenges.

  1. The condition of market cows – Cows with less fat and muscle cover can bruise more easily. In an internal plant study, the average trim loss from market cows was 7 pounds (range: 0-19lbs). If we simply use the average June 2015 Midwest region value of ground beef at $4.25 per pound (Bureau of Labor Statistics), this trim loss translates to $29-$42 of potential product lost. This would be even more if the trim loss is from higher valued cuts such as the loin. The plant also takes a hit on the additional time it takes for employees to trim these carcasses. An additional finding about bruising is that most of the bruising occurred between 10-24 hours before stunning based on a bruise age metric that was developed. A better understanding and more research of which specific events within this time frame are contributing to these bruises is needed.
  2. Transportation – The Master Cattle Transporter guide exists for livestock haulers, however there seems to be a need for updated information and resources. Packers want a certification program that is verifiable so transporters can be held responsible for the impact that they have on cattle well-being and carcass quality, similar to the Pork industry’s transportation certification program (TQA –Transport Quality Assurance). Back in May 2015, there was a Cattle Transportation Symposium which was a success and suggested to be regular event to improve cattle well-being throughout the entire life of the animal.
  3. Mobility scoring – Multiple scoring systems exist for scoring lameness, but a standardized score for mobility will soon be released at the North American Meat Institute Animal Handling Conference in October. Cattle mobility is important to packers not only from an animal well-being concern, but also from the perspective that slower or limping animals increase the time it takes to bring animals to the restrainer and could potentially pose an employee safety threat.

Continued Improvement

The discussion ended by sharing areas to address in the future. All cattle caretakers need to focus on the condition of animals before they end up at the packers. The meat industry has been very professional about addressing animal well-being and handling by implementing certified auditors (PAACO-Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization). Every area of the food chain needs to be both aware of how to properly use technology to improve meat production and quality and whether technologies promote animal well-being or pose consumer concerns. Lastly, customers desire a greater understanding of the entire supply chain’s impact on animal well-being and meat quality before the animal gets to the packer in order to continually provide confidence to their customers about the products they sell.

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