A lot has been made of the "pork chain". But a chain is only as strong as it's weakest link and some areas of the pork chain, such as transportation, have received less emphasis than production or processing. But all the links must fit together to provide a safe, quality product to consumers.
That's why the National Pork Board is implementing a new program with emphasis on training livestock transporters on the proper handling and delivery of hogs. The Trucker Quality Assurance program is scheduled to kick-off in December, and will teach packers, producers, genetics companies and other entities how to conduct an educational seminar for their transportation personnel, covering the basics of proper animal handling, welfare and biosecurity. The company or producer could then replicate the seminar to pass the information on to truckers delivering hogs.
"There's been a lot of work done on the production side and the packing side, but everyone has kind of ignored the middle step," says David Meisinger, NPB's assistant vice president of pork quality. "Transportation is a critical step, so we decided to try to help educate those involved in transporting hogs." This training session is expected to last about 7 hours and include workshops, background discussion, training, teaching and an exam that everyone must pass. The TQA workshops that packers put on for truckers are intended to be no more than two hours long, according to Meisinger. Pork quality and biosecurity priorities have increased the importance of transportation and handling in producers' and packers' eyes as well.
"Biosecurity is very important, now," says Ray Wagner, transportation supervisor for Heartland Pork, located in Bloomfield, Iowa. He notes that Heartland's trucks cover a large area, which makes biosecurity measures extra crucial.
The TQA program's other emphasis point involves animal handling techniques to promote pork quality and animal welfare.
Meisinger says the instructional program includes things like videos that compare moving groups of six or more hogs to moving groups of four hogs or less. Then there is a live demonstration showing that moving groups of four hogs or less can move faster, with much less commotion than moving larger groups.
"Being a little patient when unloading hogs can make a big difference in pork quality," says Wagner. "A lot of people want to hurry and unload a truck in 10 minutes using a hotshot. They would be better off if they took a little time, avoid the hotshot and unload the truck in 15 minutes or 20 minutes." Damaged pork carcasses are a big problem in the industry, with 47 million carcasses showing damage last year, says Wagner. That's just less than half of the hogs slaughtered in the United States in 2000. Eliminating bumps and bruises suffered while unloading hogs could significantly reduce the number of damaged carcasses, adding more value to the pork chain.
"If the driver does a good job, the producer can get more value for his pork," says Wagner. "Over time that will work its way down the line and reflect on that driver's wages." An emphasis on animal handling when loading and unloading market hogs at the packing plant is an issue that won't go away. In fact it almost surely will intensify. Wagner sees a time when hotshot use will be banned, and points to customers like McDonald's who are already establishing animal handling standards – including no hotshots. When customers with the volume of McDonald's talk, you can rest assured packers will be listening and tripping over themselves to serve that customer.
Another trend that is popular with the foodservice and retail sectors is verification and certification programs that provide better traceability from the farm to the plate. The TQA program could help independent producers or producer groups fill an important gap in developing such a program.
"The TQA program could be used as part of a verification program," says Meisinger. "That wasn't really our intent, but with the Pork Quality Assurance program, the TQA program and other animal-care guidelines there are a lot of things coming together now." For example, if you are currently certified as PQA Level III, you have the production leg of a verification program in place. Your packer has animal-handling guidelines of some kind in place, so the slaughter and processing legs of a verification program are covered. Now the TQA program would provide a way to document animal handling and biosecurity guidelines during transport. Being able to document guidelines is the key to verification and certification programs.
Even if you have no need or desire to participate in a verification program, a refresher course on animal handling could only be beneficial for whoever hauls your hogs.
"This program is a good idea for all producers, whether they haul hogs in a semi, a goose-neck trailer or a school bus," says Meisinger. "I can't imagine a producer who could not benefit from this program."
The Truckers Quality Assurance program mission statement is: "To educate truckers on the importance of proper handling, loading and transporting of pigs, with attention to biosecurity and animal welfare, to optimize quality pork products for consumers." For more information e-mail David.Meisinger@porkboard.org or visit the National Pork Board Web site at www.porkboard.org.