New program supports meat processing industry

Michelle Stangler
The Humane Handling Institute (HHI), is one step closer to reality thanks to $5M in funding and collaboration between the University of River Falls and Wisconsin DATCP to provide one-of-a-kind training to the industry and lead the way for humane handling education across the state and nation.

A first of its kind program, the Humane Handling Institute (HHI), is one step closer to reality.

The project is being funded by the Meat Talent Development Program, a $5 million created by Gov. Tony Evers from state monies allocated from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), to strengthen the state's meat processing supply chain and workforce.

The formation of HHI is due to several collaborations undertaken by universities, including the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF) which partnered with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP). Secretary Randy Romanski joined UWRF administrators and faculty and meat industry officials on campus to make the announcement last week.

"Gov. Evers' strategic investments continue to create opportunities for growth and resulience in Wisconsin's meat and livestock industry," Romanski said. "The HHI will provide one-of-a-kind training to the industry and lead the way for humane handling education across the state and nation. This partnership will support workforce training, create product marketing opportunities, and provide education on regulatory issues for meat processing establishments.”

The Humane Handling Institute is an initiative that focuses on developing critical skills and knowledge for meat industry workers to work with live animals or maintain stunning equipment, said Kurt Vogel, UWRF associate professor of animal science and director of the new program.

UW-River Falls introduces new program to help improve the long-term viability of Wisconsin’s $34 billion livestock and meat industries in a joint news conference with DATCP. From left: UWRF Livestock Welfare and Behavior Associate Professor Kurt Vogel; President and COO of American Foods Group Steve Van Lannen; DATCP Secretary Randy Romanski; UW-River Falls Chancellor Maria Gallo; Chair of the UWRF Animal and Food Science Department Steve Kelm; Interim Dean of the UWRF College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences Dean Olson.

The program – which is expected to put Wisconsin and UWRF in the national spotlight launch – will roll out in the spring of 2024 and includes a series of 2.5-day-long workshops covering topics in humane pre-slaughter handling, transport, stunning and equipment maintenance. Interested participants can select the workshops that meet their needs or complete the entire series of workshops and an additional project for comprehensive certification. Trainees that complete the series and project will receive a certificate in humane handling and stunning and the limited rights to utilize the program logo in marketing and promotional materials.

“The objective of the HHI is to develop humane handlers, stunner operators, and maintenance personnel that have a deeper understanding of the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of humane handling, stunning, and slaughter,” said Vogel.

Since 2014, Vogel says the UW-River Falls Animal Welfare Lab has tracked humane handling enforcement actions by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and consistently identified pre-slaughter stunning as a critical area of need for additional training and development.

"Effective stunning is important for animal and worker welfare and there are additional downstream benefits to efficiency of production and meat product quality that add support to a well-justified cause,” Vogel said.

Romanski says the training in the program will cover many different areas and will serve to, “help strengthen consumer confidence in meat processing establishments.”

While there are over 500 meat processors in Wisconsin, many smaller processors are in need of training to further their workforce. Therefore, to meet the demand, 120 trainees from small slaughter establishments will be eligible for tuition reimbursement for the two workshops that address critical regulatory challenges for their respective plants.

When the COVID-19 pandemic showcased the need for funding to create a more resilient supply chain, many processors are facing the need to expand. Some processors say they are still seeing a 12-month waiting time until an animal from a producer can be slaughtered. Investing in infrastructure in this industry to provide funds for meat processors to innovate, modernize, and expand when needed and to increase education opportunities is critical, said Romanski.

“Business is built on strengths,” said Steve Kelm, UWRF professor and chair of the animal and food sciences department. "In order for need high quality faculty, you need excellent managers of facilities, and any students passionate about what they are doing and why they are doing it.”

The idea initially began through conversations between DATCP officials and Vogel. The result is that UWRF will help meat workers gain skills in handling livestock prior to slaughter.

“Over the course of the last 20 years, we have seen an increase focus on humane handling of livestock prior to slaughter and during the slaughter process in meat plants,” said Vogel. "It’s legally required, but we have minimal resources available in an industry when it comes to training.”

Additionally, support came from incoming chair of the North American Meat Institute and COO of American Foods Group Steve Van Lannen. He said it’s a unique program which will offer the industry to collaborate and incorporate hands on learning.

“As the science pushes us further, as our consumers push us further, there are needs to be addressed as an industry and we need help - just like the Humane Handling Institute is going to give us in continuing education,” said Lannen. “This program will be invaluable as we continue to operate in Wisconsin. As an industry and through our work with the Protein PACT, we understand that wholesome meat, poultry, and dairy start with providing the most humane care and raising healthy animals. The Humane Handling Institute will help support us in our initiatives.”

The success of collaboration between the university and DATCP is evident in the launch of new meat industry curriculum for Wisconsin agricultural education programs. The curriculum focuses on prepared content, hands-on laboratory activities and an opportunity for small-scale meat processing equipment funded by a grant.

Investments like this program are happening across the state from the meat talent development funds. UW-Madison offered HACCP training reimbursement and plans will continue to offer funds next year alongside curriculum being worked on UW-Platteville, said Romanski. Additionally, he said 9 technical colleges are either expanding or developing programs related to meat processing in the coming year.