Animal welfare is the topic of our first post of a short series focusing on the importance for public health of the work performed by meat inspectors and slaughterhouse workers.
Despite the obvious time constraints slaughterhouse staff are under (with a throughput in some poultry slaughterhouses of up to 9,000 animals per hour), tailor-made protocols, set by the World Organisation for Animal Health, do exist for the monitoring of animal welfare on the slaughtering premises. These include guidelines on welfare at slaughter that deal with standards of pre-slaughter lairage and handling, methods of restraint, stunning and slaughter.
Slaughterhouse staff are not only interested in recording any signs of the animal being stressed while being in their care, but are also looking for signs of the animal having been exposed to sub-optimal welfare conditions before their arrival.
The ante-mortem visual inspection mainly aims to detect signs (e.g. injuries) indicating that animal welfare has been compromised during handling and transport. The post-mortem visual inspection seeks to identify and remove from the food chain carcasses, or organs, that are judged to be unfit for human consumption. While special attention has been put on the detection of zoonotic diseases, more emphasis has been placed on the last 10 years on the monitoring of animal- based welfare indicators.
This shift can be partly explained by the increased global conscience of the importance of animal welfare by the general public and the food-producing industry, and partly by the realisation that some welfare indicators may be more easily monitored post-slaughter than on-farm. This may be the case in poultry for foot-pad dermatitis, hock burns and breast blisters which are more readily identifiable on plucked carcasses.
The detection of diseases or injuries during post-mortem meat inspection may be used to assess animal welfare at farm level. Some of these welfare indicators may be directly related to sub-optimal production systems and could be used to inform inform herd health programmes. For example, providing large feeding spaces may reduce the incidence of tail-biting in pigs while separating weaners from finishers could decrease the occurence of some pulmonary lesions.
The European Food Safety Authority does recognise that meat inspection data are currently under-utilised in the EU for both epidemiological and welfare surveillance purposes. The variability in detection sensitivity and specificity between slaughterhouses is one obvious limitation of such data. Still, at Epi-Connect, we strongly believe that meat inspectors and slaughterhouse workers have the potential to significantly contribute to the surveillance of animal welfare in Europe. While nobody is perfect, many of them do a very good job of protecting veterinary and human public health despite being severely constrained by throughput, line-speed, and the intensity of their working conditions.
Some recommended reading:
- Monitoring Animal Welfare at Slaughterhouses
- Recommendation of OIE Group on Humane Slaughter of Animals
- Contribution of Meat Inspection to the surveillance of poultry health and welfare in the European Union