Photo of Humane Handling Institute Program Manager Ashlynn Kirk listening to Brandon Clare, owner of JM Watkins meat processing plant in Plum City, as they discuss details of ensuring compliance with federal regulations. Kirk helped Clare individualize a humane handling plan for his plant. UWRF photo.

Humane Handling Institute Program Manager Ashlynn Kirk listens to Brandon Clare, owner of JM Watkins meat processing plant in Plum City, discuss details of ensuring compliance with federal regulations. Kirk helped Clare individualize a humane handling plan for his plant. UWRF photo.

Students working in the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Meat Processing Plant had done everything they were supposed to do, had taken every step needed to ensure that animals awaiting processing were as calm as possible. Then the unexpected happened during the processing of beef cattle in the spring.

A steer escaped its holding area after dislodging a gate and suddenly appeared in the processing area.

“It was a surprise for sure. That’s the last thing you want to see in that situation,” said Kurt Vogel, animal science associate professor who heads the UWRF Animal Welfare Lab and developed its Humane Handling Institute (HHI) program that was announced last year.

But rather than cause an uproar, the steer remained relatively calm, Vogel recounted. He credited students’ similarly relaxed demeanors in the face of that challenge for the steer’s peaceful state.

The students working at the plant that morning were the same team that had helped design the humane handling plan used there. That same plan is a model for HHI training programs. A week earlier, with the guidance of HHI Program Manager Ashlynn Kirk, they put together a standard operating procedure that included just this sort of incident.

“At the time, they didn’t necessarily see such an event as reasonably likely to occur, but they were ready when it happened because they wrote the procedure,” Vogel said.

Dealing with such unexpected situations is sometimes part of the meat processing industry. To address such scenarios, Vogel and other UWRF team members have developed a first-of-its-kind training program that teaches meat processors how to handle the animals they butcher more humanely while also ensuring that operators are complying with regulations.

The program is aimed at providing high-level training to small meat processors who make up many of Wisconsin’s meat processors despite the fact that more than 80% of meat processing nationally is done by four large processing companies. Small processors often lack the staff to specialize in humane slaughter and regulations compliance, and the HHI training is designed to provide them with that knowledge.

“Our plan is to help every small and very small slaughter establishment in Wisconsin to build and install a humane handling program that specifically fits their operation first,” Vogel said, noting that many larger processors already have humane handling plans in place. “As we get further along with Wisconsin establishments, we plan to open our workshop offerings to out-of-state establishments promptly.”

The HHI training was first rolled out in April, when a team of meat processors from Viroqua-based Nordik Meats became the initial group to undergo the two-day training session. Four meat processors from small processing plants in west-central Wisconsin attended another session May 17-18.

The training sessions are meant to not only inform participants about how they can handle animals more humanely as part of processing them, but as a test run of sorts for the training curriculum, Vogel said.

“We want this to be a meaningful training, the kind where people come and feel like they’ve really learned something important,” Vogel said during a break from helping meat processors devise plans individualized to their processing sites. “What we’ve tried to do is turn this into something that is interactive. And we’ve created an atmosphere where we discuss real-life situations that these processors face and help them come up with solutions.”

Focus on humane animal treatment

HHI was formed in October 2022, in conjunction with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s (DATCP) Meat Talent Development Program. HHI offers training in humane livestock handling, stunning of animals and proper equipment maintenance.

Participants who complete the HHI training receive certification. The aim of the training, Vogel said, is to offer meat industry employees knowledge and skills that will address key regulatory issues and strengthen consumer trust in meat processing facilities.

Those were among the topics Vogel and Kirk discussed with meat processors taking part in the May training session. They spoke about the need for humane handling training to meet compliance with processing standards as well as growing demand by the public that increasingly is interested in where its food comes from.

“The public is driving big business to head in this direction, to treat animals more humanely,” said Brandon Clare, who owns and operates the JM Watkins meat processing plant in Plum City. “It’s certainly the right thing to do. And it’s something that people care about a lot these days.”

Vance Lautsbaugh, production manager at Crescent Meats in Cadott, a business his father Wayne owns, said the humane treatment of animals that will be butchered is an important topic with many people.

“Our customers ask us how do we prove that we treat our animals well, that we abide by all of the regulations,” Lautsbaugh said. “It’s the way it is now, and it’s a good thing. It’s bettering us as a company and as a society.”

Public pressure to treat animals being slaughtered more humanely is certainly a force behind the formation of HHI, Vogel said. Ensuring that animals are treated as humanely as possible during meat processing “is an issue that a lot more people seem to care about,” he said.

HHI training also informs meat processors about the rules and regulations they must comply with to operate their facilities and avoid regulatory fines. Keeping current on numerous rules can seem overwhelming at times, Clare and other meat processors participating in the training said.

At various points during the training session, Vogel discussed specific regulations that processors are responsible for. For instance, he described how animals that will be slaughtered must be fed if they’re in pens at a processing site for more than 24 hours. They must have water available all the time, however, or processors face being issued a violation or suspension by regulators.

“This is one of those that gets you in trouble, and it doesn’t have to,” Vogel told the group. “You’ve got to make sure the animals have water available, and that it’s in a container that they’re not going to demolish.”

Training fills a big need

Meat processors attending the session praised the information that Vogel and Kirk provided. Such knowledge is especially important, they said, as DATCP is providing funding to expand the number of meat processors across Wisconsin. Such expansion is needed to reduce waiting times to butcher animals that sometimes exceed one year.

“Without something like this, a lot of us smaller processors are really scratching in the dark as to how to implement these HHI practices in their workplaces,” said Michael Rossi, who works at Crescent Meats. “The bottom line is the safety and humane treatment of animals, regardless of the size of your plant.”

The course taught by Vogel and Kirk also outlines a detailed, professional process, Rossi and his meat processor colleagues said. Processing plants may have been abiding by regulations and treating animals humanely previously, but through HHI certification, they now have a way to document that.

“This gives us a way to say that we are a humane, ethical place of integrity,” Rossi said.

Another benefit of the HHI training, meat processors said, is the ability to customize meat processing practices and regulations to their individual processing sites. They spent part of the training working with Vogel and Kirk to do that work.

“No two establishments are the same, and we want to make a robust humane handling plan both attainable and sustainable over time,” Kirk said.

Clare worked with Kirk, asking her how to best address issues given the layout of his small processing plant.

“Having this be a customizable plan is a big deal. This is tailored toward small plants like us,” Clare said, “and that is really helpful.”

Throughout the training, Vogel and Kirk engaged in conversation with Rossi, Lautsbaugh, Clare and Clare’s son Jordan. They addressed numerous situations that can arise during meat processing and discussed what is required in specific instances to abide by regulations safely and legally.

“There is a lot of ambiguity out there about what the government anticipates from us, and having training like this where we can ask how certain situations are going to play out and what we have to do, it’s really helpful,” Rossi said. “Hopefully as many meat processors take this training as possible, so we can make sure the industry is as safe and humane as it can be across the board.”

Written by UW-River Falls University Communications and Marketing

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