Livestock care and handling are no longer conversations limited to the audience of producers.
With undercover videos and campaigns that threaten animal agriculture making their way into the headlines of newspaper, television and social media, consumers are joining in the dialogue and pressuring for animal welfare checks and balances from the farm through the packing plant.
Leading meat and poultry producer Tyson Foods announced last week the FarmCheck Audit Program and other initiatives that will ensure proper animal treatment among the beef, hog and poultry farms that supply their company.
“Our company is made up of ethical, responsible and compassionate people, and we believe the family farmers who supply us share our values,” said Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods.
“We know more consumers want assurance their food is being produced responsibly, and we think two important ways to do that are by conducting on-farm audits while also continuing to research ways to improve how farm animals are raised.”
Earlier this year, Tyson began developing the FarmCheck program.
While initially audits were performed by Tyson personnel, future plans include involving independent, third-party auditors to assess farms based on standards set forth by experienced veterinarians and animal welfare experts.
These audits have been conducted on a trial basis on some of the hog farms.
A few key areas that were evaluated were access to food and water, human-animal interaction and worker training. By January 2014, the program is scheduled to expand to include chicken and cattle farms.
“These audits will give us a chance to correct any minor problems that are discovered and, if necessary, to stop doing business with any farms where animal treatment or conditions do not meet our standards,” Smith said.
For hog farmer Dennis Gratz of Farmington, Iowa, the animal welfare audits are a welcomed way of verifying the proper practices and protocols he employs for animals and workers on his operation.
“We’re working with these animals every day, so it’s to our benef it that we treat them properly and keep them as healthy as possible,” said Gratz.
“All of our employees have gone through animal handling training and we have posted instructions in our facilities reminding them of the proper way to treat hogs.
Tyson’s auditing program is worthwhile because everything we can do to document our actions and show we’re providing excellent animal care – especially as customers get further removed from the farm – is a good thing.”
Jim Pillen of Pillen Family Farms in Columbus, Neb., also agrees that an animal welfare audit program conducted by Tyson Foods will underscore their commitment to raising healthy livestock in a way that resonates with consumers.
“We’re 100 percent committed to taking great care of our livestock and believe the better we take care of our pigs the better they’ll take care of us,” said Pillen.
“We try hard to make sure everyone on our team understands our commitment and we work to incorporate it into our culture. We totally support an audit process because we believe it’s a privilege to raise livestock and we need to be transparent about how we operate.”
The animal welfare community has also responded positively to Tyson’s announcements.
“Tyson should be commended for taking the initiative to develop and implement an on-farm auditing program,” said Dr. Janeen Salak-Johnson, associate professor of Stress Physiology and Animal Well Being at University of Illinois. “It’s a step in the right direction and will help verify farmers are fulfilling their obligation to provide proper care for the animals they raise.”
Further, grocery retailers like Walmart are also showing their support for Tyson’s FarmCheck program.
“We applaud Tyson Foods for their strong commitment to improving the care for all animals in their supply chain.
Tyson’s FarmCheck program is aligned with Walmart’s commitment to ethical sourcing, and shows leadership and dedication to addressing an issue all food suppliers and grocers face,” said Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of Food for Walmart U.S.
“We believe Tyson’s plan is a good model, and we strongly encourage suppliers without such programs to look for ways they can improve the way food is produced.
To make a difference in the food supply chain, we must all work together. From the farm to the fork, we are committed to working with our suppliers, NGOs, government leaders and others to ensure the food supply system in place today is safe, sustainable and affordable.”
On the other side, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) says that audits are not enough and continue pushing companies like Tyson to impose plans to phase out gestation crates on their supplying hog farms.
“Audits are valuable if the inspector asks the right question,” HSUS president Wayne Pacelle told The Associated Press. “We’ve not suggested that Tyson contractors are denying food to animals, but that they are denying them enough space to even turn around.”
In addition to the audit program, Tyson is launching other efforts centered around animal welfare.
A new Farm Animal Well-Being Research Program will not only review existing related research, but it will also fund and promote additional research that promotes further improvements to animal care and handling.
This program, along with the audit program, will be overseen by the Animal Well-Being Advisory Committee, which is set to begin operating in March 2013.
In an effort to guide research and improvements, this committee will be a new, external group that includes experts on farm animal behavior, health, production and ethics.
Oversight will be a function of a special team of senior leaders from the company. As noted in a press release from Tyson Foods last week, Dr. Dean Danilson, who has been vice president of Food Safety & Quality Control for Tyson Foods, is now vice president of Animal Well-Being Programs.
He and his staff will manage the audits, research and external advisory committee activities for hogs, cattle and chickens.
No new face to the forefront of animal welfare, Tyson Foods has maintained an Office of Animal Welfare since 2000, employing more than a dozen veterinarians.
More than 12,000 independent livestock and poultry farms supply Tyson Foods, and according to Gary Mickelson, spokesperson for the company, Wisconsin is home to 165 cattle and hog farmers who sell livestock to Tyson.
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
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