How to Work with Large Meat Buyers to Improve Animal Welfare

By Temple Grandin
Dept. of Animal Science
Colorado Sate University


Large meat buyers need simple easy-to-use audit tools. Assessments suitable for commercial use often have to be simpler than data collection methods used in research. The use of animal based outcome standards is recommended over input standards. The most effective audit tools emphasize directly observable things instead of a reliance on paperwork. To prevent serious welfare issues, there are certain critical noncompliances which should result in failure. There is a tendency to have audit forms with too many items and items of minor importance are mixed in with the most important items. There are three parts to a robust auditing program: internal audits, third party audits, and audits done by the corporate buyers. When one of these parts is missing a failure to maintain standards is more likely to occur. Keywords: audits, welfare assessment, supply chain, critical noncompliance

1. Introduction

Large buyers need simple audit tools that they can easily implement. Successful commercial audit tools will have to be simpler than assessments used in research. This chapter will be based on the author's extensive experience implementing successful programs for large restaurant companies such as McDonald’s Corporation and Wendy’s International.

Large buyers started becoming fully aware of the animal welfare issue in the mid-1990’s. The author actively participated in observing both the food industry and the restaurant companies when they started to recognize the importance of this issue. Prior to this time, animal welfare was not really on the corporate radar until a major lawsuit called “McLibel” forced the McDonald's Corporation to examine the issue. I was hired to take executives from McDonald’s Corporation and other restaurant companies on their first trips to farms and slaughter plants. The reactions of their vice president level executives was similar to a U.S. television show called “Undercover Boss.” In this show, the CEO goes undercover as a regular employee in many different types of corporations. When he saw something bad, he got really shocked and made changes. I witnessed these same types of reactions when high level executives saw some really bad treatment of animals on their first trips to farms and slaughter plants. The most striking incident was when a high level McDonald’s executive saw a half dead emaciated dairy cow go into their hamburger. At this moment, animal welfare changed from an abstract nuisance that was delegated to the public relations or legal department to something real. Another executive from another company became upset when he saw a boar held in a gestation stall that was too small. It squashed the boar’s testicles. On another trip to watch chickens being handled, one executive said, “This looks like the Humane Society Undercover Video.”

Today in 2015, conditions have improved 100%. The bad old days were really terrible. Audits by restaurants and food companies have had a huge impact which improved handling and stunning at slaughter plants. A major factor in making the audits successful was the use of a simple audit tool that restaurant auditors could easily learn to use. The author developed an audit tool that used objective numerical scoring. Objectivity helped prevent arguments with plant managers over the results. It was easy to understand and similar to traffic rules for driving.

When an audit tool is being designed, decisions have to be made on specific critical noncompliances, which should result in an automatic failure of an audit. The audit is failed regardless of scores on other items. Some possible examples of critical noncompliances would be animals lying in filth, many animals with sores and lesions, signs of starvation or abusive handling. The critical noncompliances should be listed at the beginning of an audit form and clearly stated. The rest of this chapter will describe how to develop practical welfare assessment tools. It will also show data on major improvements in U.S. slaughter plants that were motivated by audits from large buyers.

2. Development of Welfare Assessment Tools for Slaughter Plants

Assessment tools for commercial use have to be much simpler than measurements used for research studies. ln a single day, an auditor who is performing an audit for a commercial company has to get the welfare audit completed. During a two-day plant visit, the auditor will also do additional audits for food safety, environmental compliance, and other issues. Restaurants and other meat buyers need a simple robust assessment tool that will reliably locate operations with serious problems. Commercial time constraints also require that training an auditor to conduct pork and beef slaughter audits should be possible within a one and a half day workshop. The class includes both plant visits and lectures in the classroom. To become fully certified, the trainee has to “shadow” with an experienced auditor for three additional plant visits. Training for poultry would be an additional day and a half workshop With three shadow audits. In the U.S. auditor training is conducted by PAACO (Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization). Finding good auditors who are willing to live on the road traveling is often difficult. The best auditors who are willing to travel are often older experienced people who no longer have young children. Another advantage of an older auditor is that he/she has wider experiences with different plant or farm situations. The experienced person is also more “street wise” and less likely to be fooled by an unscrupulous supplier.

2.1 Types of Standards and Avoid Excessive Paperwork

A common mistake when audits are being designed is to concentrate on paperwork and record keeping and forget about the importance of direct observation. During a 40-year career, I have seen every method there is for creating fake paperwork. Direct observation should come first and paperwork second. Some examples of conditions that can be directly observed are: the best dairies have 5% lame dairy cows and most beef plants can maintain a 97% to 98% first shot efficiency stunning score with captive bolt (Grandin, 2005). The average percentage of lame dairy cows is 5% on the best farms and over 27% on the worst farms (Espejo et al., 2006; Von Keyserlingk et al., 2012). There are three different types of measures for assessing animal welfare and they are listed below.
2.1.1 Animal based outcome measures
Also called performance standards. Most auditing programs have moved to outcome based standards (Grandin, 1998; Velarde and Dalmau, 2012; Webster 2005; Welfare Quality, 2009). Some examples are: percentage of animals falling down during handling, body condition scores (skinny animals), and lameness (difficulty walking). They are continuous variables and having perfect scores is impossible. There will always be a few lame animals or animals that fall during handling. Critical limits have to be determined that will specify the acceptable level of problems. When a program is first being initiated baseline data is collected. Initially, the critical limit for an acceptable score is the score of the top 255 of producers. Poor producers are given an opportunity to improve. As conditions improve the critical limits may be made more strict.
2.1.2 Practices that are not permitted
Some examples would be beating animals, dragging non—ambulatory animals or certain types of housing. On a welfare audit, acts of abuse are an automatic audit failure regardless of scores on other variables. if a type of housing that is not permitted is being used it would be a failed audit.
2.1.3 Input Standards or Engineering Standards
The modern trend is to move away from these, but there are still a few input standards that are required. Input standards specify how facilities are built or they are environmental parameters. Some examples of areas where a few input standards are required are: allowable ammonia levels in indoor animal buildings or feed and water space. Input standards that specify exact design of housing or equipment are being used less and less because outcome measures such as lameness or dirty animals will identify problems with housing.

2.2 The Advantage of Objective Numerical Measurement

Numerical scoring of the prevalence of different problems is used in my welfare assessment programs (Grandin, 2010,1998; Edge and Barnett, 2009; Welfare Quality, 2009; Maria et al., 2004; Nicholson et al., 2013).

In 1996, I was hired by the United States Department of Agriculture to develop a practical simple audit tool for slaughter plants (Grandin, 1997, 1998a). The first step was to collect baseline data to determine where the problems were. I modeled the system from HACCP Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points. It is impossible to measure everything so you have to determine which variables are the most important things to measure. A good critical control point (CCP) measures the outcomes of multiple problems. This is a concept that some animal welfare researchers have a hard time grasping. In the hectic fast paced commercial world audit tools need to be simple. For the USDA project, the author visited 22 beef, pork, veal, and sheep slaughter plants all over the U.S. The sample was representative of large and medium sized plants. The variables that were measured in each plant were:

2.2.1 Numerical Scoring System for Slaughter Plants
A numerical scoring system was developed to assess critical control points that were important for welfare (Grandin, 1998a). The advantage of numerical scoring is that it is easy to determine whether procedures are getting worse or becoming better. The following critical control points were numerically scored (Grandin,1997, 1998a).

2.3 Outcome Measures Measure Multiple Problems

All of the above measures are outcome measures. instead of instructing a slaughter plant on how to build its facilities, the five measures assess the outcome of problems. For example, failed captive bolt stuns could be due to either poor stunner maintenance or the animal was jumping around. Poor maintenance was a major cause of poor captive bolt stunning (Grandin, 1998a). Vocalization during handling can be associated with electric goads, pigs jamming in the race, or excessive pressure from a restraint device (Bourquet et al., 2011; Grandin, 2001; Edwards et al., 2010). A good critical control point measures the outcome of more than one problem. For example, captive bolt stuns that fail on the first attempt may be due to more than one issue. Some of the causes of poor stunning are: poor equipment maintenance, excessive electric goad use that makes cattle agitated or a slippery floor in the stunbox where slipping causes cattle to constantly move.

3. Economic buying Power Coupled with Numerical Scoring Brought About Great Improvements

Between the year of 1999 when the restraint audits first started and 2003, there were huge improvements in handling and stunning (Grandin, 1998a; 2000, 2005, 2006). Most slaughter plants were able to improve their performance by making simple equipment changes. Some of the changes were improving captive bolt maintenance, installation of non-slip flooring in high traffic areas and changes in lighting.

Installation of a light on a dark race entrance will facilitate animal entry and reduce stopping and balking. Animals tend to move from a darker place to a more brightly illuminated place (Grandin, 1982; Van Pulton and Elshof, 1978; Tanida et al., 1996). Moving a ceiling lamp to make reflections disappear also helped reduce electric goad use because animals balked less and moved forward more easily. After the initial McDonald’s welfare audits in 1999-2000, only three plants out of 75 pork and beef slaughter plants had to install expensive equipment in order to pass an audit. Employee re-training was essential. Two strict rules had to be implemented: 1) Determining the correct number for each small group of animals brought up to the handling facility. The correct number of animals will need to be determined for each plant. When that number is determined, it needs to be enforced, 2) Stop people from constantly carrying electric goads. It should never be a person’s primary driving tool. If a flag, plastic paddle or other tool fails to move the animal, then the electric prod can be picked up and used. After the stubborn animal is used, it should be put away.

3.1 Summary of Improvements and Benchmarking

Tables 1 and 2 show the baseline data and then the improvements that occurred after the audits started. The initial data serves as a benchmark which can be used to determine if practices are improving or becoming worse. There is a tendency to set critical limits too low. To pass a McDonald’s audit, the scores had to be in the top 25% of the scores in the initial data.

Table 1: Comparison of cattle stunning performance before and after restaurant welfare audits
1996 USDA survey baseline before welfare audits started (%)a 1999 Start of restaurant welfare audits (%) 2003 Fifth year of restaurant audits (%)
Average percentage of cattle rendered insensible with a single shot. Cattle that were missed were immediately restunned. 89.5 96.2 98.6
Best plant 95 100a 100a
Worst plant 80 84 92
Percentage of plants that passed stunning audit 30 90 98
1996 - N = 10 plants; 1999 - N = 41 plants; 2003 — N = 50 plants
a This score is based upon a 100 cattle audit. When internal plant data is collected, the very best plant was able to maintain an average stunning score of over 99.5%. Absolute perfect is impossible (Grandin, 2006).

Table 2: Comparison of cattle vocalization scores before and after restaurant audits.
1996 USDA survey baseline before welfare audits started (%)a 1999 Start of restaurant welfare audits (%) 2003 Fifth year of restaurant audits (%)
Average percentage of cattle that vocalized during handling and stunning 9 2.4 2.0
Best plant 1 0 0
Worst plant 32 17 6
Percentage of plants that passed the vocalization audit with a score of 3% or less of the cattle vocalizing 33 71 86
1996 — N = 6 plants; 1999 ~ N = 41 plants; 2003 — N : 50 plants (Grandin, 2006)
a This score is based upon a 100 cattle audit. When internal plant data is collected, the very best plant was able to maintain an average stunning score of over 99.5%. Absolute perfect is impossible (Grandin, 2006).

4. Keep Audit Programs and Guidelines Simple and Clear

To be effective, an audit program has to be simple and guidelines must be clear. A lack of clarity can cause legal problems when a supplier is removed from the approved supplier list. There have been lawsuits from suppliers and fights over the interpretation of unclear guidelines. Numerical scoring is clear. A plant has to have a passing score on all five numerically scored items plus no acts of abuse. The minimum passing scores are clearly stated in the guidelines that are given to producers and plant managers. Vague terms such as proper handling or sufficient space should not be used. One person's interpretation of what is sufficient space will be different from another persons. A good clear guideline should state that all the animals must have sufficient room so they can all lie down at the same time without being on top of each other.

4.1 Interobserver Reliability and the Most Important Critical Control Points

Guidelines that are clearly worded are more likely to have high interobserver reliability. This means that two different auditors will have very similar scores. High interobserver reliability can be attained for body condition and lameness scoring (Thomsen et al., 2008; D’Eath, 2012, and Vasseur et al., 2013). Captive stunning scoring also had good interobserver reliability (Grandin, 2010). It is a simple yes/no scoring. Each animal is either effectively stunned with a single shot or the single shot failed. Variables such as lameness and body conditioning are scored in several categories. interobserver reliability gets poorer if there are too many categories. The best systems have between three to five categories (Grandin, 2015). Examples of lameness categories are:

  1. Normal
  2. Mildly lame, but keeps up with other animals when the herd is walking.
  3. Severe lameness, still fully mobile but cannot keep up when the herd is walking.
  4. Barely can walk.

When audits are conducted on farms where conditions are even more variable, clear guidelines are essential. The first step is to use numerical measurements to keep obvious problems that severely compromise animal welfare at a very low level. The most important critical non-compliance (critical control points) for on-farm welfare audits are: Body Condition Score, lameness, condition of coat on livestock and feathers on birds, sores and injuries and handling scoring. On the farm, handling scoring would include slips and falls, electric prod use, and vocalization scoring for cattle and pigs. On sheep farms, do not use vocalization scoring for sheep. Shearing of sheep should be scored for cuts and injuries.

4.2 The importance of Oversight Over the Auditing Process

A restaurant or food company needs to have a robust auditing program so when they make claims in their advertising, they will be able to be sure that they are actually doing it. For a food executive to be confident that an audit program is enforcing the standards, these are the requirements:
4.2.1 Three legs on the tripod
A tripod is a good visual model for an effective auditing program that can effectively monitor the supply chain. A tripod will fall over if it is missing a leg. The three essential parts of an effective auditing program are: 1) third party independent audits by an auditing company, 2) Internal audits at the farm or plant. When the third party auditor visits the internal audits are examined, 3) Check audits by high level corporate quality assurance managers from the company buying the products. Check audits of a percentage of the suppliers will help insure that the third party auditors are doing their jobs. This same principle also applies to food safety audits. When there have been major supply chain failures a common cause was a lack of check audits from the corporate office of the purchasing company.

5. Standards Should be Strict but Sensible

When I wrote the animal welfare scoring system for the American Meat Institute in 1997, numerical standards were a new novel idea. This allowed me to set the limits on the critical control points sufficiently high so that the audit had some teeth and force poor slaughter plants to improve (Grandin, 1997). The industry accepted the strict standards because at the time because they did not realize that major buyers would adopt it.

5.1 The Worst Producers got on Committees to Weaken Standards

As activist pressure and the frequency of undercover videos of animal abuse increased, more and more food and restaurant companies started doing animal welfare audits. Many producer groups developed animal welfare and animal care guidelines, but many of these standards were too lax. The producer groups set the standards really low to enable poor producers to pass. The author has sat on many committees for several different species. At one pork producer committee meeting I argued with one producer that allowing a farm to pass a welfare audit if they had 10% body score 1 emaciated skinny sows was nonsense. I told him this was a joke, not an audit. A pig farmer would not stay in business if his farm was this bad. There was also a daily audit where high percentages of lame dairy cows was acceptable. Space for animals on trucks is another place where I have fought with producers. In 2014, one producer told me on a conference call that if he puts more pigs on the truck and a few more die, he still saves on freight costs because he will need one less vehicle. Producers need to look at everything they do and ask themselves. If ten shoppers from the grocery store visited my farm could I defend my practices? A well-run slaughter plant will pass this test. I have taken many visitors on tours and they are often surprised at how well the slaughter plant works.

6. Transparency Needed in Animal Industry

When I implemented the animal welfare audits in 1999, I had the economic purchasing power of McDonald's and Wendy’s behind me. Today there are two additional factors which will force producers to become more transparent. They are the mobile telephone video camera and the growing millennial generation. Millenials are very concerned about how their food is produced. Every producer and slaughter plant manager needs to accept the fact that anything they do wrong could show up on the Internet. A video showing bad practices can instantly go viral and be seen by millions of people. When activist groups made videos on farms of animal abuse, they tell everybody the name of the food company who buys from the farm.


Meat buyers and companies that purchase animal products such as wool, need a robust auditing process. A viral video camera of either animal welfare problems or dirty conditions can hurt sales. Both food and animal product companies must get high level executives out in the field to see actual conditions. Producer groups should not be allowed to weaken standards, but standards must also be sensible to enable producers to stay in business. Guidelines must be written clearly and important critical non-compliances should never be buried in with a long list of minor items. A robust supply chain audit system has three components: 1) internal audits, 2) third party independent audits, and 3) check audits by high level executives.


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