In recent years, animal welfare has become an increasingly important issue in the United States. Most of the publicity seems to go to the extremist group who might distort the issues. There are, however, real problems that do not get as much media coverage but which should be getting more attention. Some of our current farm practices may simply not be acceptable. Those of us involved in animal agriculture must take on much more responsibility for animal welfare.
Some excellent work is in progress. The animal production and processing industries have made significant gains in improving farm animal welfare. All of the major animal trade associations have animal welfare guidelines (American Meat Institute, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Board, Milk and Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Center and the National Milk Producers Federation, the National Chicken Council, the United Egg Producers, and the National Turkey Federation). These are currently voluntary efforts, but represent a strong commitment toward establishing scientifically appropriate minimal animal welfare guidelines for animal care and handling.
Additionally, the three big hamburger chains, McDonalds, Burger King, and Wendy’s, have each established a scientific committee that has written animal welfare based purchasing specifications. Many of these specifications are consistent with those developed by the trade associations. There are, however, slight variations among the three chains’ guidelines, so producers and processors are finding that they may need a visit from auditors representing each of these different companies.
All of these efforts represent great progress. A more rational approach would be to have one national specification and a single on-site audit that can be used by all buyers. The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and the National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR) have undertaken to develop just such a program. This process has been going on for the last few years, mostly out of the limelight. Most people are not aware of how much has already been done. FMI and NCCR have put together their own scientific committee, which is working with the trade associations to review their animal welfare guidelines and the scientific basis for those guidelines. This process is nearing completion. Although the FMI/NCCR committee has a few significant “exceptions” to the industry guidelines, the buyer and the seller organizations are in reasonable agreement.
As the auditing process will be the critical element in the future, it needs to be described in more detail. FMI/NCCR has arranged for an outside firm to create audit documents based on the industry guidelines. The audit will include a detailed evaluation of a facility and focus on quantifiable, observable, on-site measurements. The firm will train the auditors, who are required to have a scientifically relevant college degree. Certified auditors, who have passed a written test, will “bid” for the audit jobs. The auditors will be “audited” by this firm on a regular basis to assure compliance with the audit standards. (All visits will comply with the biosecurity plans of the facilities being visited.)
The audit results will be posted on a secure Web site. Access to the site is “owned” by the audited facility, regardless of who paid for the audit. The audit will report the results, with major and minor non-compliances indicated, but no score will be given and there will be no pass/fail standard established nationally. There will be a process for appealing the auditor’s evaluation of an audit point, and for rectifying both major and minor non-compliances. Audit results could then be sought by the buyer, who would receive an appropriate password from the seller to access the Web site. Each buyer would then establish his or her own animal welfare purchasing standards. For major production and processing facilities, audits would be required once a year. Other sites such as cow-calf operations, of which there are many small sites, will probably be done less often and more randomly.
A number of animal welfare issues will require further research for practical alternatives to be developed. The trade associations are working on these through their normal research programs, e.g., alternatives to molting poultry. In other cases, a quantitative standard may need to be developed, so data must first be collected to establish a standard. The FMI and NCCR are committed to keeping this committee going, both to serve as the nucleus for the appeals process and to continue to review and update the auditing standards. The committee will also tackle issues concerning some of the less common commercial species.
I believe that this process has the advantage of maintaining flexibility, putting the issue in the marketplace, and minimizing potential bureaucracy. All of animal agriculture will benefit by having a scientifically sound and defensible animal welfare standard. Together, we must ensure that the practice of increasing production at the expense of animal welfare becomes a thing of the past.
by Joe A. Regenstein, a Professional member of IFT, is Professor of Food Science and Head of Cornell Kosher Food Initiative, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853-7201. E-mail [email protected]