Erika Voogd is a well-known consultant to the meat industry. For the past 14 years Ms. Voogd has worked with Dr. Temple Grandin and McDonald's during the implementation of the very tough McDonald's System Animal Welfare standards in Asia, Australia, Latin America and North America. She helped Dr. Grandin train auditors in Asia, Australia and North America and has taught McDonald's System auditors around the world.

Jolley: 5 Minutes with Erika Voogd, safe food & caring for cattleVoogd has trained personnel on behalf of the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service to prepare meat plants for export to the United States. She has been an active member of the American Meat Institute Inspection and Animal Welfare Committees. She has presented at AMI Symposiums and Workshops related to HACCP, Food Safety and Animal Handling and similar events around the world.

In short, she knows her business.  Few are as well-versed in animal welfare and its direct connection to food safety.  So let’s talk about animal rights, animal welfare, food safety and your dinner tonight.

Q. There seems to be a set schedule among animal rights groups – an undercover video depicting horrible animal abuse must be released at least once a month.   Those videos create a lot of noise, but does the public get a fair view of the state of animal care?

A. The discouraging news is that these undercover videos can be created.  The good news is that the content of some of these videos may be much less “horrible” than the narration or interpretation states.  For example:  Despite the commentary by Compassion Over Killing, the 2012 Central Valley undercover video showed correct procedures for stunning and re-stunning of cattle.  The cattle claimed as “kicking and struggling” after stunning and hanging all appear to be unconscious animals that had been properly stunned to prevent them from feeling pain or fear.

The 2007/2008 Westland/Hallmark undercover video was a wake-up call for the entire industry.  Dairy farms, transporters and ultimately the meat plants all received more oversight after this incident.  The meat plants that had already embraced humane handling with a “systematic approach” were comfortable with increased government oversight.  The plants that may not have been focusing on humane handling received more attention from FSIS and customers.  As a result, the industry improved from farm to table.  Many plants installed video monitoring after this incident and saw clearly where more training or design changes could benefit their processes and bottom line.

The livestock, transport and dairy industries responded to the Westland/Hallmark incident by communicating the importance of recognizing the animal condition prior to transport and assuring that the animals loaded were strong enough to make the trip.

Industry organizations such as American Association of Bovine Practitioners included more presentations pertaining to animal handling, wellness and welfare.  The exposure from this undercover experience moved the livestock industry forward, as producers, transporters and processors all recognized the economic effect of “bad press”.  

Four years later, the positive outcome is that is has become more challenging for the animal advocates to identify and film “egregious” humane handling violations on farms or at the meat plant; however, unfortunately, there are still a few “bad” players who may still provide an opportunity. 

The industry is starting to recognize the benefit of opening the doors and showing how things can be done right.  Cargill’s appearance on the Oprah show and AMI’s Temple Grandin video of a typical meat plant are both examples of where explaining the process can dispel the mystery and answer consumer questions.   The Super Bowl advertisement narrated by Paul Harvey showed realistic images and a heart-warming depiction of the North American Farmer.  This narrative can make us all proud to be part of Agriculture.

Q. One of the loudest arguments put forth by these groups is that pigs and chickens must be allowed to roam, feel the sun on their backs and go through the ‘natural’ actions common to their species.  Is there substance to that claim and are there advantages to allowing those animals to ‘free range?’

A. When we observe a milk-related commercial on television, we are not shown a dairy cow in a free stall or dirt lot, we instead see a “happy” dairy cow in a green pasture.  We, as an industry, communicate an expectation with this picture.  It can be disturbing to observe an emaciated, severely lame dairy cow exiting a gooseneck truck and stumbling off the unload ramp.  As well, chickens undergoing heart failure during catching (flip over disease) and pigs suffering a heart attack during movement at the meat plant are also disheartening images. 

Why is it that some operations have little or no incidence of these conditions and other operations have over 0.5% mortality during that last day?  Economically, it makes sense to manage timely culling of animals, along with animal breeding, growth and nutrition, all directly related to welfare, to minimize the mortality associated with such stresses.  What is the point of raising an animal that will be condemned or die before completing the journey?

There are plenty of well managed commercial operations.  But, unfortunately there are a few operations that need to provide more attention to the animal condition, including breeding, housing, ventilation and feed, to minimize animal lameness, injuries, illnesses, respiratory concerns and stress.

The concept of free range is problematic to quantify, as no clear definition exists. Many consumers and welfare experts believe that an animal will be more comfortable if it is allowed to exhibit normal behaviors such as grazing, rooting or dust bathing.  The commercially bred cattle, pigs and chickens of today are not necessarily bred for a “free range” life.  It is possible; however, to provide shelter and space for larger numbers of animals, allowing natural behaviors, without having to “free” every animal.  That is why programs such as GAP and Certified Humane Raised and Handled exist.

Q. I’ve seen shots of cattle in feed lots gathering at feeding troughs.  Captions suggesting the horrors of industrial farming, a befouled environment and poisoned meat often accompany those photos.  How would you caption those same photographs?

A. I don’t know that I can give you one caption! There are many feedlots that provide space, shade, clean feed and a comfortable environment for the animals.  Personally, I visited a large feedlot in Mexico and the animal appeared very calm and relaxed with shade, pen drainage and lots of space. 

Conversely, I passed one US dairy last November and the smell was so bad it prompted me to exit the highway to investigate.  The cattle had very little space, muddy pens with poor drainage and it was difficult for me to breathe while still in my car.  Who can imagine living in the manure and mud? What does the media or consumers think when they can observe such an operation from the highway?  As well, can we expect the animals in the aforementioned situation to be as healthy and comfortable as livestock in a better managed system?

Management is the key to healthy animals in a well-run operation. Questioning practices, continuing improvement and attunement to consumer sentiment are all part of a robust and increasingly profitable management program.  Employing knowledgeable people who respect and like to be with animals is very important and certainly helps the bottom line.

Q. One of the most important services your business offers is auditing animal handling programs.  Looking back to when you first started the service, how have animal handling practices changed and how are good practices viewed by people throughout the food chain?

A. The following data is a good summary of my personal experiences’.  Dr. Temple Grandin speaks of how “you manage what you measure.”  In the early days (1999 – 2003) it was typical to see plants where animals were slipping, balking at the stun box entrance and second stun shots were necessary.  Grandin’s 1999 data for beef plants showed that 29% of 42 beef plants did not pass the 3% score for vocalization and 24% of those plants failed the electric prod score as the prod was used on more than 25% of cattle.  In 2011, Dr. Grandin noted that of 34 US and Canadian beef plants reviewed; 100% had cattle vocalization scores of 3% or less and 100% of the plants reviewed met the AMI guideline of electrically prodding and actual prod use was 12% or less with 35% of the plants using the prod less than 5% of the time.  Two plants I recently visited process over 350 cattle per hour and rarely use the electric prod at all (0/100 animals) thanks to excellent design and calm handling.

In 2000, Grandin reported that 94% (63/68) of beef and pork plants passed the score for insensibility, meaning that the animals were stunned correctly and remained insensible and 5 plants had challenges with “return to sensibility.”  In 2010, 100% of 32 beef and 22 pork plants passed for insensibility, with all animals insensible, meeting customer, AMI and FSIS expectation.  Today, most plants monitor their humane handling on a daily or weekly basis to measure their process control.  Clearly the industry competence has advanced dramatically during the past 10 years!

It is a pleasure to observe how interested companies are in improving their procedures!  Humane handling was a learning process in the beginning, for the meat plants and auditors.  As we developed a library of resources and understanding, we shared best practices and communicated methods to improve.  The companies have recognized the financial benefits of having a facility designed with the animal in mind, affecting both meat quality and employee satisfaction. 

Humane handling and good animal welfare practices are considered a social responsibility and “the right thing to do.”  It is rewarding to have a skill set and resources that can help meat plants to train employees, design equipment and more effectively and efficiently handle the animals. The caveat is seeing measurably higher quality meat products, with less bruising, PSE (Pale, soft, exudative) or drip loss! Convincing the employees that their job is easier when handling calm animals  and knowing the animal’ s life ended peacefully, makes it all worthwhile.

Q.  Let’s talk about food safety.  One of the major talking points at the recent MEATXPO’13 was the Food Safety Modernization Act and the effect it will have on the industry when it’s finally implemented.  What are the short- and long-term benefits and liabilities of FSMA?

A. USDA/FSIS have set long term goals for pathogen reduction and have shown that evaluating the plants based on risk assessment and performance standards has been an effective method to reduce foodborne illnesses in many meat categories.  Utilizing these same principles for FDA products to evaluate foods and animal feeds for pathogens and chemical contaminants makes sense.

Obviously there is a cost associated with implementation of the FSMA and a learning curve as the food producers and regulators learn to comply with expectations, but the long term benefit should show a better understanding of food safety, as well as a reduction in foodborne illnesses and costly product recalls.

Q. A few years ago you wrote an article asking if improved animal welfare could lead to improvements in food safety.  Would you talk about the link between the two issues and put some hard numbers to the expected improvements?

A. One example immediately comes to mind. While carrying out a consulting review at a chicken processing plant, we observed bruising andtearing of the muscles of the thighs in 10% of the birds processed.  These bruised thighs were downgraded and could not be sold to the consumer as whole meat cuts.  Muscle bruising can reduce shelf life and can lead to introduction or growth of pathogens into the product. Upon further investigation, the reason that this was occurring was that the birds had been bred so heavy that the muscles could not support the weight of the bird during 90 seconds of hanging, prior to stunning.  The extreme weight of these birds also has great implications on their welfare on the farm and during their final moments of life.  In this situation, the genetics and growth cycle affects plant economics, food safety, meat quality and the welfare of the birds. 

In another poultry plant, we determined that again, approximately 9-10% of the legs were being bruised during the hanging process; however in this instance, it was the employee’s rough handling that was causing the bruising.  An additional hanging employee was added to the line and the employees were retrained to understand how to gently hang the birds without injury.  The next day, bruised thighs were almost negligible (less than 1%).  This is a huge savings for a plant that was processing 55 birds per minute (17,500 per shift)!

I recently visited a pork slaughter plant that processed approximately 300 pigs per hour in a V style restrainer that was built in the 1970’s when pigs weighed 180 to 200 pounds.  This plant was able to run at optimal speed when processing 200 pound pigs, but the company goal was to grow a 265 pound pig.  When the larger pigs came up the chute, they balked at the restrainer entrance, because they knew they would not fit.  Over 65% required electric prodding which caused a lot of last minute stress for the animal.  The end result was PSE and two toned meat, which could not be sold to high end consumer markets such as Japan.  Clearly the plant equipment engineers had not kept current with the company goal of larger, heavier pigs.  This is a common challenge for today’s meat plants, especially mid-sized processors that may not have the insight, resources and deep pockets of larger corporations!

Looking once more at my experience with the cattle living in manure and mud.  As previously noted, we have an increasing number of costly interventions at the plant level for controlling pathogens caused by carcass surfacecontamination.  Dirty cattle and those with high stress and pathogen shedding are much more likely to transfer contamination to the meat.  Helena Bottemiller, in her 10/5/2009 Food Safety News articlequotes USDA scientist M. Rostagno, “animal stress increases the probability of food borne pathogens, increases susceptibility to new infections, and  a substantial number of stressed animals are carrying food bornepathogens into our plants”.  If cows living in low welfare conditions enter the slaughter plant, is there really any doubt that maintaining sanitary dressing procedures will be more challenging and can lead to the need for more and costly interventions?

Further examples of good welfare and food safety with quantifiable measures can be found in my article in the Feb/Mar 2009 edition of FoodSafety Magazine. 

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.