Processing

Opinion: Organic does not equal ‘more humane’

Jon Condon, 14/07/2011

 

Judging by recent articles in the metropolitan media, it seems that some supporters of Certified Organic and similar programs may be attempting to take the moral high ground over the way food animals are slaughtered in Australia. 

The term, humane slaughter, has obviously been elevated in the general consciousness of the typical Australian consumer since the recent animal cruelty event involving Indonesian slaughterhouses.

According to MLA’s latest Feedback magazine, there were more than 10,000 media items generated over the live export crisis since it emerged a month ago.

Suddenly, words like ‘humane’ and ‘ethical’ have greater resonance with some animal protein consumers, it seems. Whenever shifts like that happen, it’s a fair bet that savvy marketers won’t be far behind looking for ways to leverage off such trends to their commercial advantage.

The broader beef industry should take exception to the hijacking of terms like ‘ethical’ to describe treatments applied under some Organic, biodynamic or similar programs. By default, users of such terms are suggesting that all other beef production in Australia is ‘unethical’.

The worst offender seen by Beef Central recently was an article appearing in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail lifestyle section and apparently syndicated in Murdoch Press dailies around the country.
Headlined, “The ethical meat uproar: how to enjoy beef and still sleep at night”, the article draws a fragile line between ‘knowing where an animal comes from’ and ‘ethical treatment.’  

In one breathless passage, it suggests that “sourcing ethical meat” for one Sydney butcher means nothing more than “buying from farms he knows and trusts.”

Another Sydney retailer is quoted as saying “knowing where meat comes from is important because you can rest assured the animal had a good life.”

Transport distance, feedlots, and “meat arriving in anonymous, pre-packed, plastic wrapped boxes (that) could have come from anywhere” all come under fire as ethical risks.

The article warns however, that consumers should be prepared to pay “twice as much” for ethical beef, “but you get what you pay for.” 

Like much in the Organic/ethical/biodynamic field, such terms are more about sentiment than substance. In one celebrated case in the UK, an Organics marketing company tried to gain certification for wild-caught ocean fish as being ‘Organic’. In order to qualify, its submission (ultimately unsuccessful) argued that eligible fish would have to be caught a certain distance outside designated shipping lanes.

Similarly, short of performing their own regular random audits on properties of livestock origin, it would appear physically impossible for a Sydney butcher to pass judgement on on-farm animal welfare practises, be they good or bad. But judging by the article’s comments it appears that “I spoke to the farmer,” is seen as an adequate substitute.

The article also supported a list of ‘ethical or organic butchers’ with no distinction made between the two, suggesting they are in some way interchangeable. 

One person who knows a little more than most about the regulatory side of ethical/humane slaughter in Australia is AUS-MEAT chief executive, Ian King. Just one of the many hats he wears is as acting chairman of the Organic Industry Standards and Certification Council.

The body was formed 12 months ago, working towards becoming the custodian of the National industry standards, which reside with AQIS. Currently there are seven separate Organic certifying bodies active in Australia, not all of which cover beef.

While Beef Central tried without success to find a consolidated source of information listing all meatworks in Australia carrying Organic certification/accreditation (JASANZ information proved worthless), the list is not likely to be all that long. The overwhelming majority of certified Organic beef produced in Queensland comes out of only a handful of plants. These include Australian Country Choice, Stanbroke Beef (Grantham), Biloela (just licensed) and Casino, not far over the NSW border.

Mr King confirmed that the kill procedure for Certified Organic beef in Australia was exactly the same as for conventional beef.

“The organic claim stems from the production or raising process as compared with conventional beef,” he said.

“While Organic standards around the world carry a reference to fail-safe stunning, that is absolutely no different to the Commonwealth of Australia standards for all cattle being processed. Essentially, the standard means rendering animals to be insensible before being bled,” Mr King said.

The exception is two Kocher plants in Victoria, which currently hold dispensation under their State PrimeDafe authority.

“But all cattle, irrespective of their production or raising background, are subject to the same animal welfare standards for humane slaughter,” Mr King said.

While there were some ‘very small’ numbers of cattle slaughtered under a program called Humane Choice, which carries some specific references to slaughter technique, this program uses the words ‘Temple Grandin slaughter standards’, which actually refer to the American AIM standards.

But fundamentally, these and other standards, including national guidelines set by the Australian Meat Industry Council, mirrored the international standard, Mr King said.

While there were several methods used to determine insensibility and effective stunning in cattle, they were common in their outcome.

Processing standards in fact started well before the knocking process, incorporating liairage, animal handling procedures, training of personnel in correct procedure and other aspects – none of which differed between Organic or conventional, and all of which were designed to deliver humane treatment.

First welfare audits in 2002 

AUS-MEAT started its first animal welfare audits of processing plants almost a decade ago, in 2002, Mr King said.

“The industry has always has recognised the importance of welfare of animals, but it wanted its actions to have some credibility, through third-party auditing,” he said.

Initially such programs were driven by the implementation by McDonalds of an animal welfare audit applied to global suppliers of raw material for its burger patties. The McDonalds program was designed and applied by famous animal behaviourist, Dr Temple Grandin. Other early programs to seek animal welfare credentials included Whole Foods and other importers of Australian beef.

In 2005, the Australian Meat Industry Council launched its National Animal Welfare Standards for processing. The standards, revised again in 2009, say the livestock processing industry’s mission is to “ensure that high standards of animal welfare are implemented, maintained and verified across the industry.”

Standard Six within the document relates specifically to humane slaughter procedures and lists required activity in detail under these seven key principles:

  • Livestock are effectively restrained with minimal stress and for minimal duration prior to stun.
  • Livestock are effectively stunned with appropriate equipment for the species and class of livestock.
  • Where reversible stunning is used, sticking is applied promptly and in a manner that ensures animals do not regain sensibility.
  • Animals must be effectively stunned before sticking commences.
  • Procedures are in place to confirm that the animal has been effectively stunned and signs of insensibility are monitored to the point of death; corrective action is immediately taken as required.
  • The operation of stunning and associated procedures are designed and conducted to ensure that livestock are insensible when hoisted and will not regain sensibility on the bleed rail.
  • Dressing, excluding bleed out procedures, must not commence until the animal is confirmed to be dead.

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