UWRF ‘Meats’ A Need By Training Processors

Pictured: HHI Program Manager Ashlynn Kirk listens to Brandon Clare, owner of JM Watkins meat processing plant. They discuss details of ensuring compliance with federal regulations. Kirk helped Clare individualize a humane handling plan for his plant. Photo by Julian Emerson/UWRF photo.

Students working in the UW-River Falls Meat Processing Plant did everything they were supposed to do. They took 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,” says Prof. Kurt Vogel. He leads the UWRF Animal Welfare Lab. He developed its Humane Handling Institute program 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 helped design the humane handling plan. 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 says.

Dealing with such unexpected situations is sometimes part of the meat processing industry. Vogel and other UWRF team members developed a first-of-its-kind training program that teaches meat processors to more humanely handle the animals. It also ensures operators are complying with regulations.

The program aims to provide high-level training to small meat processors who make up many of Wisconsin’s meat processors. This is despite the fact that four large processing companies do more than 80 percent of meat processing nationally. Small processors often lack the staff to specialize in humane slaughter and regulations compliance. The HHI training provides 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 says. He notes 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 aim to inform participants how they can handle animals more humanely as part of processing them. Vogel says it’s also a test run for the training curriculum.

“We want this to be a meaningful training, the kind where people come and feel like they’ve really learned something important,” Vogel says. “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.”

Humane Animal Treatment

HHI was formed in October 2022, in conjunction with DATCP’s 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 is to offer meat industry employees knowledge and skills that will address key regulatory issues and strengthen consumer trust in meat processing facilities.

“The public is driving big business to head in this direction, to treat animals more humanely,” says 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, says 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 says. “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 says. He notes ensuring animals are treated as humanely as possible during meat processing “is an issue that a lot more people seem to care about.”

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.

Training Fills Need

Meat processors attending the session praised the information that Vogel and Kirk provided. They said the knowledge is important as DATCP works 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,” says 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 HHI certification is a way to document that.

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 says.