Brian Daly interviews animal welfare researcher, consultant, and slaughter specialist Dr Leisha Hewitt.
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Opening quote: No matter how well designed our systems are, if we haven't got a good stock person, then we can't ensure good animal welfare.
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Brian: Hello and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast. My name is Brian Daly and today we're discussing the importance of good practices in the handling of animals prior to slaughter. And joining me for this topic, I'm very pleased to introduce a specialist in this area, who has worked on reviewing and benchmarking international standards in livestock handling. Animal Welfare researcher, Dr. Leisha Hewitt. Welcome to the podcast. Leisha.
Leisha: Thank you, Brian. Good morning.
Brian: Now you're an animal welfare specialist with a key focus on improving animal welfare at slaughter. How did you get into this space?
Leisha: Um, well, I think it was my mum really, that got me interested in welfare as a topic. Because she was always very transparent about where our food came from. And she always made it very clear that meat came from animals and that an animal has to die in order to put meat on our plates. And I think that's what sort of sparked the interest and instead of always buying meat from a supermarket, she would be the sort of person that would go out and get a chicken or get a game bird and bring it home and cook it and prepare it at home and she involved us in that process, so it wasn't just a packet of meat for us, we always knew that an animal have died. And, and I really even as a child, I think I wanted to know that those animals that had not only just a good life, but a humane death as well. So, I was really interested in welfare from being quite young, as far as my career. I think that began about 30 years ago. And unfortunately, when I was looking for a career pathway in welfare, because it was so long ago, there wasn't the same sort of interest in welfare as there is nowadays. So, a lot of the universities didn't actually offer courses in animal welfare or ones that had a focus on the welfare of animals during production through to slaughter. So, I ended up actually going to the vet school at Bristol and I did a master's in meat science, and most of that course was actually focused on meat. And how to produce good quality meat and how to refrigerate it and look after it from a food safety perspective. But there was one small part of it that actually looked at welfare. So, I picked this two year course, just to do a couple of weeks on welfare. And I felt as though as far as slaughter was concerned, it was really quite hidden away. And it wasn't really talked about and it wasn't part of the course. And I just felt as I wanted to know more, and it just got me really interested in that final stage of an animal's life.
Brian: And, getting back to your upbringing. It's very different to a lot of Australian who grew up in the city and they have no real involvement or understanding of all the steps involved in getting their food from paddock to plate.
Leisha: That's right. Yeah, I think I was really lucky in having that sort of insight into things and I think it's something that's really lacking for a lot of children nowadays. And even for my son, I really want to make it clear to him even from an early age that, you know, this is where your food come from, we've got this responsibility to make sure that if we eat meat, we don't waste it. And we have to have a bit of an insight into where those animals have come from and how they've been reared and how they've been killed.
Brian: Yes, and speaking of that insight, we've talked in series one about how animals are actually slaughtered and the stunning process and that side of things, and in this series, where we have been talking about the transportation of animals, but the care during the time between arriving at an abattoir and when an animal is slaughtered is also very crucial to ensuring this process is done humanely. Could you give us an overview of that section of the process?
Leisha: What you said is absolutely right, in what we do with animals in between them leaving the transport vehicles and being killed can have a huge influence not only on the welfare outcome, but also on the meat quality and the quality of the product that we get at the end. So, it's really important from an industry perspective as well that they get that part, right. When we talk about pre slaughter, what we're really talking about is not just handling, but how we manage those animals. How they're managed from the moment that they arrive at the abattoir through to the point that they're stunned and slaughtered. And that's really going to vary for different species. So, the steps are pretty similar. But the actual processes involved will vary in terms of automation and will also vary between abattoirs depending on the size of the abattoir and the number of animals that they're processing. And so, to give you an example, if we think about what we call red meat, animals or our pigs and our cattle, and our sheep. Once they arrive at the abattoir that they're arriving at on a truck, and they are going to be unloaded. And the key welfare part of that process is that we unload them, and as soon as they arrive at the abattoirs, so there shouldn't really be any delays to that process. We don't want animals waiting on board, transport vehicles. And so, it should be a planned process where the animals arrive, we take them off the vehicle. So we have our Stockman or stock people working in in the, the arrival area, they take the animals off the vehicle, and we load them into a holding facility usually, so this holding facility is called a lairage. In Australia, we sometimes refer to it as yards and we put the animals in pens in that facility for a period of time before they are then moved through to the to the slaughter point. And the purpose of that a lot of people think that that lairage period gives the animals an opportunity to rest and recover from the transport process. But really, it's a bit more practical than that it's really just in place to make sure that the abattoir has a continuous supply of animals, but just making sure that they can keep the slaughter process flowing. And a lot of research looking at that lairage period actually shows that there's no real benefit in keeping animals for a long period in the lairage. It doesn't allow them to really rest and recover and can actually increase the amount of stress that they experience. So, from a welfare perspective, we trying to keep that lairage period quite short. So, we don't want any delays in the process. So, the whole focus really of pre slaughter handling is that smooth movement of animals through from arrival through to the to the slaughter process. With species like poultry, that the process is a lot more automated. So, we have our poultry species that arrive on trucks, but they're in modules or they're in crates. And those crates are actually taken off as a whole unit from the truck and placed into the lairage facility. So, they still have a period of lairage. And before they go through to the to the processing area, and once the animals have been lairaged, then it's time to then move them through to the area where they're going to be stunned and slaughtered. So, we're really relying then on stock people to take those animals through. And the success of that process of how easy it is to move our animals from the lairage to the stunning area is really going to be a combination of how good the environment is. So how well designed the facility is, but also the behaviour of the stock person as well. So, we're really the focus is on the people working in that area. They have a good understanding of animal behaviour. And they have the skills to be able to handle those animals well through to the, to the slaughter point.
Brian: And what are those skills they need?
Leisha: So, stock person ship or stockman ship is key to the whole process. And so no matter how well designed our systems are, if we haven't got a good stock person, then we can't ensure good animal welfare. So, there's really it's really made up of three things or I think seem to think it's made up of three things. You know, we talked about knowledge and skills. So, we're talking about competency. So, it's the skills that they possess, and the way that they handle an animal and the way that they can perform their tasks and their responsibilities and then the knowledge they have behind that. So, their knowledge of animal welfare, their knowledge of animal behaviour, and how they can use that to get a good one animal welfare outcome. But then we've also got the subject of attitude as well. And it's important that we have stock people with the right attitude. So, they demonstrate empathy towards the animals and compassion towards the animals. And we provide them with the right environment, that they can have the right attitude. So, we give them the right sort of working conditions. So, we're not putting them under a lot of pressure. We're not forcing them to move animals quickly. And you know, we're just creating a good working environment, those people. So you mentioned the skills that they have to have, and they obviously need the basic skills to do their job. So, they need to know what their job involves and what their responsibilities are. But they also need to have skills and knowledge in animal behaviour more generally. So, they need to know how animals perceive their environment, and how they move more effectively. So, whether they like to move as an individual or whether they like to move as a group, and they need to know a little bit about animal’s senses. So how, what is an animal's vision? Like? Do they see their world in the same way as we see it? Or do they see it in a different way? You know, do they see colour? Or do they rely on looking at contrast between different parts of the system? So, they need that underpinning knowledge to be able to do that. And they get that through certain different pathways. So, for example, there's going to be a lot of in-house training where you get stock people working with say, a mentor or a more experienced person who shows them how to do the job. And a lot of abattoirs will have their own in-house training program where when a new stock person starts, they have an introduction into animal welfare and they learn all of these basic skills. And there's a lot of national training as well within Australia, where we're looking at bringing in people that work in the area, working animal welfare, to really improve knowledge of things like animal welfare assessment. So, looking at animal indicators, how do we know if welfare is poor or welfare is good by actually looking at the animals themselves. So, there's a whole framework really that that builds on this, the skills and the knowledge that they require. And the last thing I'll probably say about training and stockman ship is that I like to think of the training as a stock people as like training athletes and in that you don't get a competent stock person, by them just sitting on one training course. And it's got to be training that's ongoing, they've got to be given the opportunity to practice, they've got to be given coaching. But it's only when we see that sort of long-term training approach that we actually see, stock people becoming more and more experienced, and we get better animal welfare outcomes at the end. And this is really evident when we're talking about stunning and when we're talking about the skills required to stun an animal effectively, it's important that they have that ongoing training program in place.
Brian: Also, community standards of animal welfare are progressing all the time as well. So, they need to stay at least up to date with that expectation.
Leisha: Yeah. If you look at, if you look at the standards are in place and when we talk about standards, we mean anything from regulatory or mandatory requirements all the way through to voluntary schemes like the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme. And when you look at those, they all focus on competency of the people. And as I mentioned, we can have the best systems in the world, we can have the newest equipment and the shiniest handling systems. But unless we've got those competent people who want to do the job, and have the right attitude, and have the right environment to do their job effectively, then we just can't guarantee animal welfare.
Brian: So, you mentioned good stockpersonship is key. But you also mentioned there’s increasing automation in the industry. How do those two aspects work together? How does taking stock people out of the equation, improve the animal welfare or reduce stress levels?
Leisha: I think the degree of automation that we see is going to be different depending on the species that we're dealing with. And, for example, in poultry we already see quite a high level of automation in that the birds arrive in their transport crates. And we have some systems where birds have to be removed from the crates and placed on a moving shackle line. So, they're actually taken from the crates by a stock person. They are inverted and they have their feet placed into a metal shackle. And then that metal shackle moves along and it actually conveys them from the shackling area through to the area where they're going to be stunned, which will be a water bath stunner. So, they receive an electrical stun and via water bath. So that's a fairly automated system, but it's still relying on the stock person to actually remove the birds from the crates and place them on the line. So, you've got an interaction between stock person and a higher level of automation. And with some poultry systems, some of the newer systems, it's even taken a further step in that we don't actually remove them from the transport crates at all. So, the actual crate itself is moved through the stunning system. So, the last time that those birds will be handled by a person is actually back out on the farm when they're being caught on the farm. And this has some significant benefits for animal welfare, in that we're not exposing them to yet another period of handling by a human which they find stressful just because we are almost like a natural predator to a chicken. And, by keeping them in the transport crates. It's actually improving welfare outcome and actually improves quality because we're not having to physically handle them and place them onto shackle line. And other examples of where automation is beneficial is you sometimes see in pig abattoirs, where instead of having a stock person moving the pigs through the lairage system, you've actually got a sequence of automated panels or moving gates that actually encourage pigs to stand and walk through the system. And this is good in that the pigs or a lot of a lot of livestock species in general, respond more positively to machinery than they do to a person, that said that what we do as a person as a handler, the reason animals move away from us as a stock person is that it's really an escape response. And we're just trying to control that escape response. That's what animal movement is about. And if we take the stock person out of the equation we can actually reduce some of that stress that we see. However, what I will say is on the flip side of that, we have to be a little bit careful when we look at completely automated systems in that we dissociate, people away from what we're actually doing. And sometimes I'll see systems where for example some of the poultry systems were completely reliant on a machine, were completely reliant on a machine to put the animal onto the system to move it through the stunning process. All the parameters for that studying process are automated and controlled centrally. And what that does is I think it sometimes reduces the knowledge of what we're actually trying to achieve in terms of studying that the stock people in that area become a little bit more reliant on the machine itself. And so sometimes that can have the effect that they don't always know how to respond when things go wrong. But I think the key message here is if we do increase the amount of automation, which does have a beneficial effect, I think it's still important that we have a good understanding of the system and how it works and what we should be seeing in the animals themselves and how we measure animal welfare in that systems.
Brian: That's really interesting, because going back to your childhood and your, your upbringing, and what you said before about the stock person, one of the key elements that they need is empathy and compassion for the animal and if it gets too far automated, then that actual distance from the animal would possibly reduce the amount of empathy with those individual beings.
Leisha: That's right if they become or they can become more of a of an object or a product rather than an animal. So I think it's important that we, we recognize that anybody working with animals, whether it be on a farm or in an abattoir, even if we're dealing with a situation where people have to kill an animal, they're still a stock person. And the person driving the forklift truck that unloads the chickens from the transport vehicle, they're still a stock person, you know that they still have a big influence on the well-being of that animal. And it's important that we don't just think of stock people as people that work on farms and produce animals and care for animals and manage animal health. People in the abattoirs have such a huge influence on the well-being and the welfare of those animals, that they are just as much of a stock person as the farmers out in the paddocks. So, it's really important that we recognize just what their contribution is. And value them, you know, they've got a really difficult job. They're working in really difficult circumstances in really difficult environments. They're working very pressurized environments where sometimes they work in long shifts, they're expected to deal with large numbers of animals. And if you look at some of the processing lines, for poultry, we're processing around more than 150 birds per minute. So, we're talking about very fast processes that puts a lot of pressure on people. So, I think we need to recognize just how good a job they are doing and give them the right sort of environment to work in.
Brian: So Leisha, you've developed and implemented and assessed protocols for a range of livestock species. What are some of the key things to get right for different animals and where can things go wrong?
Leisha: Okay, well, the things that can go wrong are really going to vary. Depending on what stage of the process we're looking at, through if we're just focusing on pre slaughter period, then the outcome that we really want to get from that is to keep the animals as calm and settled as possible. So, we're trying to provide them with an environment that is not going to expose them to anything that can cause them stress. So, we're trying to reduce the amount of stressors in their immediate environment. And if we think about what are the main sources of stress, the first thing that's going to cause them the most stress is the behaviour of people. So, we have to get that right. We have to make sure that the stock people are not only competent, but their behaviour towards the animals is not going to increase stress levels. So, things like calm handling, not necessarily using tools to handle the animals but using their position to move the animals and no loud noises and taking away things like, for example, the use of dogs. So historically, dogs were often used in abattoirs to move animals. Well, that's a major source of stress for animals. So, it's identifying those and taking them out of the picture. The second thing about controlling stress is really looking at the environment. So, making sure that we've got a handling system that encourages animals to move through it. So, we're trying to make it as bland as possible. We don't want lots of things that are going to cause distractions. So, we don't want things being left in the raceways, like hose pipes or people's jackets or things like that, that can actually distract the animals and cause them to stop in the race. As soon as an animal stops and the movement stops. Then you need that interaction between the stock person and the animal to push them forward. So, you basically want animals to be able to move through at their own pace. And really using their own natural inquisitiveness to actually make them want to move forward through the system. And so, we have to look at things like lighting, making sure that the lighting is very uniform and consistent through the system. So, we haven't got any shadows that cause animals to stop because they may perceive it as a barrier. And we need to make sure that the noise is controlled, and recognizing the fact that animals are going to hear different noises to the types of noises that we hear that their range of hearing is different to ours. So, there may be noises that cause them to stop in the race and then require that further interaction with the stop person. And when it does go wrong, what we ended up with is we end up with a situation where we've got animals that are becoming more stressed. So it's not only bad for them, it's not only bad for welfare, but it's going to encourage, or it's going to cause more frustration in the stock people themselves, it's making their job a lot harder, it makes animal handling a lot more difficult. And then it can actually have further implications for the actual quality of the product. So, a stressed animal cannot give us a good quality meat product. And, and there are lots of examples of that. So for example, if we see flapping in poultry, when we're handling chickens and turkeys, that can give us what we call a condition of red wingtips where they actually have haemorrhage in the hands of the tips of the wings. So obviously, consumers are going to discriminate against they don't want to buy a chicken that has got patches of bruising or haemorrhaging on it. And for animals such as pigs, we cause acute stress. So short term stress during that pre slaughter handling, we can change the whole texture and colour of the meat. So we can end up with a really pale meat product that once again, consumers discriminate against, they don't want to buy, it doesn't look nice in the packet, it loses a lot of water, and then when they cook it, it's actually very tough to eat. So, there's a real impact on quality as well as welfare. And I think it's really good that we've got that link because it encourages industry to do good welfare, not only just from an ethical perspective, but also because it's going to hit their purse, it's going to actually affect the amount of money that they can earn.
Brian: That's really interesting point is to see that the economics of it and the financial outcomes are actually driving better welfare.
Leisha: Yeah, that's right. And if we didn't have that link, it would be a lot more difficult to go out and teach welfare and try and get people to improve animal welfare. So, it's fortunate that we actually have that link between the two.
Brian: And of course, good handling good stock person ship is important for farm animal welfare at all stages of the lifecycle.
Leisha: Yeah, but we can't get away from the whole chain approach, we have to recognize that what we do at every stage can impact on subsequent stages down the line. And everybody has to have an understanding of their influence at every step, and really have an understanding of what the implications are, if they have poor practice. What implications does that have for the next stage of the process? And, for example, one thing that we tend to train people at the abattoirs is that they've got to have a good feel for the condition of the animals that they're actually getting into the abattoir. If we've got animals that are arriving in poor condition or stressed, or they've had a particularly bad journey on the transport vehicle, there's nothing you can do in the abattoir to put that right. You can't take something that is in a stressed condition and actually get it into a condition where you're going to end up with a good meat product that's at the end. So, the first message that we say to people is you've got to get something good coming in to get something good going out. And then conversely, we can mess everything up in the abattoir, so we can have an animal coming in that's had a great life, out on farm that is healthy and fit and in good body condition. And if we do things wrong in the abattoir, if we have poor practice in handling or we have ineffective stunning or ineffective slaughter, and we can mess everything up at that very last stage of the animal's life. So, we really have to be aware of that whole chain approach and getting to that last stage of life.
Brian: We use the term humane killing or humane slaughter a lot in in discussions like this. And to some listeners that that may sound like a bit of an oxymoron. But can you explain exactly what that term means and what humane slaughter entails?
Leisha: Yeah, you're right. For some people. If you're a person who is morally opposed to eating meat, or you don't agree with animals being killed for food, then if you look at the word humane and killing together, they don't appear to be two words that naturally fit together. And for those of us that do eat meat, and I think we would all agree that there's going to be right ways to kill an animal there's going to be wrong ways to kill an animal. And we can term that humane, if we like a humane way is the right way to kill an animal, and then our inhumane way. So, we're talking about humane something that's humane, we're really talking about something that we're avoiding pain and suffering to the animal. So, we need to select a method where we can guarantee that the application of that method is not going to cause the animal any pain. And the animal is going to be in a state of unconsciousness, where it's not going to feel any pain associated with any subsequent procedures. So, for example, if we then go on to slaughter that animal, it can't perceive any of those painful stimuli. So, we're advanced enough in animal welfare science now that we know that we can achieve that. So we've got a good knowledge of what methods would satisfy that criteria, and we know that there's a lot of methods out there that produce immediate consciousness as soon as they are applied to the animal. So, the animal has no perception of pain, and it has no awareness of the processes that are being carried out. And so, it's really about showing that sort of compassion all the way through to the end point of the animal's life. So as an industry well, what the industry needs to do is they need to recognize which ones of those methods meet those criteria and which don't, and they need to make sure that they are focusing on good methods of stunning and slaughter where we can guarantee a good animal welfare outcome.
Brian: Because, as you say, coming into that final process is a really important, is a really crucial time to ensure that the slaughter is humane.
Leisha: Yeah, you're absolutely right and what we've actually found is the way that we handle animals immediately prior to stunning and slaughter can actually have an influence on the effectiveness of the methods themselves. And there used to be sort of a, an old wives tale or an industry theory that if you have a stressed animal, you can't kill it properly. And it's but it's absolutely true. And, the reason for that is if we stress an animal, immediately prior to stunning it, we actually change the balance of chemicals in its brain to such an extent that if we then try and apply a certain stunning method, for example, electrical stunning, that changing chemical balance in the brain actually makes it ineffective or it actually makes the period of unconsciousness much shorter. So, it's so vitally important that the handling of an animal immediately prior to stunning but also the restraints of the animal, as in holding the animal for the stunning process carried out in the optimum way.
Brian: And as you say, everything leading up to arriving at the abattoir as well as is an important step in the process. Because if they if the animals arrive stressed, then there's a really difficult time for the stock person to turn that around.
Leisha: Yeah, animal transport is probably one of the biggest impacts on animal welfare. And so, it's all about minimizing the exposure to those sorts of events. So, reducing transport time, reducing handling time, and not by rushing the process, but just by slaughtering animals closer to where they're being produced. So, you're reducing overall transport times by planning for their arrival at the abattoirs so that when they're not waiting on vehicles, by planning the slaughter schedule, so you're not keeping them for long periods of time in the lairage. So, it's all about just good management and good planning. And then having contingencies in place for when things go wrong. Because with every with every industry, we're going to be faced with a situation where things can go wrong. And really the way to protect animal welfare in that sort of event is just to make sure that we have adequate contingencies in place, so people are aware of their responsibilities. They know what to do, they know who to communicate with, know how to adequately protect those animals when things don't go quite according to plan.
Brian: And I think these sorts of discussions are really important given that, you know, the majority of Australians do include meat in their diet, but so unaware of all these different steps in the process, that need to all work together in order to give them the product and the ensure the assurance that their product is being delivered humanely. And from that viewpoint. I mean, you've been assessing and monitoring and advising protocols for livestock for a couple of decades, right around the world, in a range of species. How does the standard of animal welfare in Australian abattoirs stack up? And do you see aspects that could be improved?
Leisha: If we, because our topic today is all about the pre slaughter period, if we talk about that part of the process and look at what's actually in place to protect animals during that particular stage. And I think starting at the very basics, if we're talking about Australian abattoirs, we obviously have a regulatory framework that talks about this particular period and what needs to be in place in terms of competent livestock handlers and the right sort of facilities that we're looking for. And, as you mentioned, Australia, we also have, and this goes for other countries around the world as well. It's not just Australia, but we have voluntary standards or industry standards. And this is really a set of requirements that the abattoir will fulfill, to try and provide consumers with assurance that certain standards are being met, that the animals are being treated in a certain way. And they're being managed in a certain way. And within Australia, so we've got a national animal welfare standard, an industry standard within Australia, and this covers all the aspects that we've spoken about today. So, it really follows animals from the transport process, through to arrival, it looks at handling in the lairage and through to the point of stunning, it looks at different restraint methods, in other words, how we hold the animals and control their movement prior to stunning, and it looks at the stunning and slaughter processes themselves. And although this is a voluntary standard, and it's actually aligned now with a certification scheme, and what I mean by that is that there's a scheme behind it now, which is a certification scheme, which means that it's independently audited, it's independently verified. So, it actually is a way that the abattoirs can demonstrate that they are implementing these standards, and they're also fulfilling these requirements as well. And it's this sort of independent oversight that gives consumers more confidence in the processes that are going on behind the abattoir doors. And I think one thing that the Australian industry are doing better as time goes on, and I think it's a pathway for the future, is actually to implement standards that focus on continuous improvement. So, what this means is we're recognizing that welfare is not something that can just stand still, it's not something that we can do today and do the same thing tomorrow. It's recognizing that welfare is a bit of a moving goalpost. So as we get more science as we get more understanding, and the abattoirs need to demonstrate that they're doing good welfare today, but they also need to be following a pathway to demonstrate that they're going to do even better welfare tomorrow. So that element of continuous improvement is really important. And I think it's vital that we keep following that sort of pathway and also that we keep working on identifying good indicators of animal welfare. And what we can actually look for in the animals themselves to demonstrate that we're getting a good welfare outcome. And this sort of information, it will give consumers a transparent insight into animal welfare in the abattoir, and it will also help the abattoirs benchmark performance against each other and, and share good practice between each of the facilities.
Brian: I couldn't agree more to value both the people that are working in this area and but also to make sure that we value the animals that we're raising for consumption in Australia, we kind of hope things are okay, but we don't necessarily want to know the detail. So it's great to know people like you and the RSPCA are out there looking at what's going on and working on ways to improve the welfare of farm animals from birth to death and everything in between. So, Leisha, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been really good talking to you and getting more information and your view on this subject matter.
Leisha: Thank you Brian, it’s been great.
Brian: We’ve been talking today with esteemed animal welfare researcher, academic, and consultant Dr Leisha Hewitt. And thank you for listening. If you would like any more information on farm animal welfare you can visit the farm animal section of the RSPCA Knowledgebase at kb.rspca.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the RSPCA Australia website rspca.org.au or all the usual podcast suspects, I’m Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on the RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.