JBS joins Cargill with third-party video surveillance in packing plants

Dec 31, 2010

With packers facing ever-increasing scrutiny of animal handling practices and food safety, the Beef Division of JBS USA Holdings, Inc., a wholly-owned indirect subsidiary of JBS S.A., the world’s largest beef producer and exporter of processed beef, announced Dec. 2 that it will be implementing a remote video auditing (RVA) program at eight of its American facilities.

JBS worked with New York-based company, Arrowsight Inc., which developed the surveillance system, to fine-tune the RVA technology for JBS’ U.S. beef plants. The cameras will provide 24-hour worker monitoring, and allow for real-time feedback to employees who need further instruction. Auditors will be able to share surveillance video, and review “instant replays” of worker actions, to determine if the actions were appropriate or need changing.

Business Wire reported that JBS is optimistic that the RVA technology will enhance performance.

“Within weeks of installing the RVA system, we were able to improve the accuracy of our auditing,” Dr. John Ruby, head, Technical Services, JBS USA Beef Division, was reported as saying. “By measuring the performance of our workers and providing them with immediate feedback while they work, JBS will be able to continually measure and improve our food safety systems. We are excited to partner with Arrowsight to utilize the latest technology to enhance the safety and quality of our products.”

The company predicts that the RVS system will “enhance the company’s existing efforts in food safety, quality, and animal-handling activities carried out by employees.”

JBS’ move to third-party video monitoring follows in the steps of Cargill, who made the move to RVA technology earlier this year. Cargill currently monitors animal welfare standards with RVA in all 10 of its North American packing plants. In addition, it has launched RVA pilot projects in its Fresno and Milwaukee facilities to monitor food safety standards.

The RVS surveillance will augment the existing system of on-sight monitors and internal surveillance already in place.

According to Cargill’s website, “[t]he RVA food safety pilot is a natural extension of our RVA program that remotely audits animal welfare practices at ten North American beef plants.”

“The early results with our animal welfare program were positive and we have been able to enhance an already impressive operational performance,” says Dr. Mike Siemens, Cargill Animal Welfare and Husbandry leader.

The choice of both JBS and Cargill to track animal welfare and food safety with third-party video monitoring sends a strong message to the rest of the industry and to the public: That the packing industry takes food integrity seriously. With JBS and Cargill accounting for 40.5 percent of annual U.S. beef slaughter, the move sets a high standard other packers will undoubtedly feel pressure to meet. Given the damage to industry image created by widely-hyped Humane Society of the United States video clips documenting mishandling of animals at packing plants, implementing RVA technology could give the packing industry a chance to enhance its image and win public trust.

Indications are packers are already making huge strides in this direction. In an article that ran on the liberal web-based news site Huffington Post dated Dec. 10, Ellie Krieger reported being “in shock” by what she witnessed at a West Texas Cargill slaughter plant.

“But I am not shocked in the way you might expect based on the negative portrayals of the beef industry that seem so rampant in the media,” Kreiger continued. “Rather, I am stunned by how humanely the animals were treated and by the detailed attention given to food safety at every stage of the process.”

Kreiger reported spending more than six hours touring the Cargill plant, from butchering to kill floor. She described the meat-cutting area as “mesmerizing,” and noted that a tracking system can trace any piece of meat back to a specific animal.

But the real revelation was on the kill floor, where allegations of animal mistreatment have often dogged the packing industry. Kreiger’s experience was a wake-up call.

“The system Cargill uses was developed in part by Dr. Temple Grandin, the autistic animal scientist who, with her heightened sensitivity, was able to pinpoint specific ways to keep cows stress-free throughout the process,” explained Kreiger.

“The whole environment is kept purposefully calm, with no loud noises or bright lights. Before they realize what is going on, the cows are hit precisely on the head, given a concussion so they are rendered senseless, then their throats are cut and their blood is drained. The whole thing takes roughly a minute. I watched intently as the cows moved through and noticed no shred of panic or unease.”

The take-home lesson would seem to be that industry efforts to enhance animal welfare and food safety are getting noticed. With remote video auditing likely moving this positive trend even further forward, more packers will want to be among the ranks of processors who are pushing the envelope on animal welfare and food safety standards.

Says Kreiger, “I am sure not all beef processing plants are as exemplary as the one I saw, and I applaud those who expose unacceptable practices, but it is important (and I think quite a relief) to know that there is another side to the story.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent