After attending a day-and-a-half of classroom and in-plant training focused on animal welfare this past month, it became clearly evident to me that humane livestock-handling programs are vital to the business strategy of all meat-and poultry-processing companies today.

This wasn’t always the case. Back when I attended my first A.M.I. Animal Care and Handling Conference in 2001, the mantra was companies should develop and maintain an animal-welfare program because it was "the right thing to do." Nowadays, adherence to a well-developed and detailed animal-welfare program is far more than "the right thing to do," rather it is an unrelenting expectation from customers and society alike. Processors’ customers and consumers have come to expect near perfection when it comes to livestock treatment and slipups can be devastating, as evidenced by the debacle at the former Hallmark-Westland plant in 2007.

Once a cause trumpeted largely by a small handful of industry experts, animal welfare practices have made tremendous strides in a relatively short amount of time, thanks to educational programs like the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization Inc.’s auditor-training course. Having just completed its ninth class, PAACO is one important way the industry is enlisting a growing number of disciples to ensure compliance with AMI Guidelines remains a top industry priority and the knowledge is passed on.

Worthwhile endeavor

After receiving an invitation from Mike Simpson, PAACO’s executive director, I jumped at the opportunity to sit in on the auditor-certification course held in Nebraska last month. Simpson assembled an A-list of experts to serve as instructors, including Dr. Kellye Pfalzgraf from Tyson Foods; Collette Kaster from Farmland; Dr. Mike Siemens with Cargill and of course, Dr. Temple Grandin.

Grandin, who has written bimonthly columns exclusively for MEAT&POULTRY for nearly 25 years, is credited with leading the development of the A.M.I.’s animal-handling guidelines and creating the auditing and scoring system that has evolved as the standard throughout the industry. Compliance with the guidelines and Grandin’s auditing system are now used to ensure compliance by processors supplying McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, as well as most major retail and foodservice companies.

As part of the training, attendees first hear lectures on the AMI Animal Handling Guidelines and how to conduct animal-welfare audits. But perhaps the most effective aspect of the PAACO training is the hands-on application of the auditing guidelines, which for our group was done by observing the operations of Hormel’s pork plant in Fremont, Neb., and then at Cargill’s beef-slaughtering facility in Schuyler, Neb. Proving that animal welfare truly is a non-competitive issue, management of both plants allowed attendees to spend several hours observing operations with instructors stationed at the receiving yards and stunning areas and then in the bleed-out area to learn how to assess the criteria used in the AMI audit.

Linking the classroom discussions to real-world applications is especially valuable in this part of the plant. I overheard one attendee sum it up perfectly, saying: "This has really connected a lot of the dots for us."

Programs like PAACO’s meat-plant course are pushing the bar higher and making uncompromising standards a vital part of everyone’s business strategy. Bravo!