The Trucker Quality Assurance (TQA) program has issued more than 9,000 certificates of course completion in its two-and-a-half-year existence.
The TQA program is showing no signs of slowing down in its drive to certify hog transporters, says Erik Risa, manager of Certification Programs for the National Pork Board.
Enrollment in TQA continues to climb as more and more members of the pork industry become involved, he says. When it was launched in February 2002, the program was aimed solely at providing an educational outlet for truckers who haul hogs.
More recently, and in the future, interest in training is expected to come from producer haulers and their employees, says Risa.
Part of that interest has been fueled by packer concerns that pork producers deliver a quality product that has been handled with care. Packers have asked haulers to become certified. Packers are becoming certified educators themselves, and often host TQA training sessions, he points out. There are now about 338 certified TQA educators throughout the U.S.
Risa says another reason for increased producer interest in TQA is a keener awareness in the value of the program, and for good reason. Survey data that the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) collects from U.S. packers indicates that the number of “deads” — hogs that die while in transit to slaughter — has been on a steady decline since the start of TQA. From 1998 through 2001, the number of deads recorded by FSIS from pork packing plants reached a plateau at about 0.30%. By the end of 2003, that figure had dropped to about 0.23%.
“While the percentages don't sound very big, there certainly is a big difference in the number of live hogs that producers are getting paid for,” emphasizes Risa. At 100 million hogs marketed/year, that difference comes to 70,000 more hogs that arrive live at the plant (100 million × 0.70% fewer deads = 70,000).
Better genetics and nutritional programs play parts in that improvement, too, but Risa believes TQA has been pivotal in reducing the number of deads on arrival at pork plants.
So producers who are beginning to haul their own hogs more are starting to value TQA more, suggests Risa. They are becoming TQA-certified and are having employees complete the training because of the role the program plays in production areas affecting their bottom line.
TQA covers three basic areas: proper pre-loading procedures, transporting and unloading at the plant. “The program teaches about biosecurity, animal handling and welfare implications, all factors which have an ultimate influence on pork quality,” notes Risa.
TQA's third anniversary is February 2005. The first certified members of the program will need to become recertified at that time (every three years). The Pork Board also plans to launch a revision of the program then.
Primary changes envisioned include a number of educational enhancements. More attention will be placed on hog handling — the importance of moving hogs patiently and in small groups using the appropriate handling devices, and paying close attention to protecting pigs when hauled in extreme weather conditions.
For instance, in hot weather, trucks need to keep moving to take advantage of pigs' natural ability for evaporative cooling, says Risa. Increasingly, trucks are being installed or retrofitted with water misters and cooling systems for long-distance hauls or to haul hogs across the desert. In winter, bedding and closing truck air vents becomes important to avoid bitter windchills.
Another revision to TQA will be an improved take-home manual with more detailed information on the program. A new worksheet will cover key telephone numbers for truckers. Haulers are also advised to develop an emergency response plan.
Risa summarizes: “This TQA course really enhances the skills and knowledge of participants. I think those outside our industry really should take note of our commitment and proactive steps that are being taken on the part of the pork industry.”
To learn more about TQA, call the National Pork Board's Service Center at (800) 456-7675 or log onto www.porkboard.org to find a certified educator in your area. Your state pork producer association also can help locate TQA educators.