"This is the first time that the retail industry has clearly said the issue of farm-animal welfare is important to it, and that it wants to make sure these issues get serious attention," says Karen Brown, the Food Marketing Institute's senior vice president.
Make note of that statement because it speaks volumes.
At the end of June, FMI and the National Council of Chain Restaurants released their joint report on farm-animal welfare. (See page 27 for details.) This long-awaited report saw two years and lots of fingerprints in the making, and it's only the first step. A more detailed report is scheduled for this fall, including auditing priorities and protocols.
FMI/NCCR solicited the guidance of seven independent advisors – a list that reads like a who's who of animal-welfare specialists. Retail members provided input as did the various species' producer groups, including the National Pork Board. The American Meat Institute offered the packer/processor perspective.
Upon reviewing this first document, the pork industry should feel pretty good. As expected, gestation-sow housing is the focus of the pork section, but there was strong recognition of and commitment to the need for science to direct decisions.
Surprisingly, the Humane Society of the United States applauded the report, but naturally added that it doesn't go far enough. The items outlined in the report do seem vague, but you can expect more specific details to come in the auditing section.
What this does illustrate is that the food chain can work together. First off, the retail food sector understands the activists. As one official put it, "People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has the same goals for us as they do for producers – to put us out of business."
The retailers are not trying to appease the activists, but they are trying to anticipate what consumers expect. More consumers today want to know that their food is raised and processed in a humane and safe manner.
These animal-welfare guidelines represent a good-faith effort on the retailers' part. (Provided some members don't decide that there's money to be made in setting oneself apart from the pack.) That industry does have a gentleman's agreement not to market against each other based on these types of issues.
Ultimately the effort's success depends on you doing your part. It's important that the production, processing and retail segments work to present a united front. If you follow FMI/NCCR's outline, you're less likely to get a hodge-podge of programs from different retailers – that scenario would be a nightmare.
Pork producers have long been a proactive bunch. It even paid off in this case as FMI/ NCCR tapped into the steps that NPB had already taken to address swine well-being.
Fact is, some sows simply are too big for their gestation stalls. We can do better, and it starts with keeping an open mind. I've attended several meetings where the idea of changing gestation stalls or management procedures have gotten producers pretty ruffled up.
Research is the backbone of this industry, and you need to rely on it to find animal well-being answers. You also need to accept that those answers may be different in the future.
Animal well-being is a particularly tough issue because when people suggest that you mistreat your animals it hits at the core of your being.
Remember that the goal of the FMI/NCCR project is to develop common farm-animal-welfare guidelines for the retail grocery and foodservice sectors. That is a monumental undertaking, and a critically important one.
Most companies don't want the kind of trouble these emotional issues can bring. They will work toward guaranteeing product standards with or without you. They will do it through branding, through their associations, other associations or the government, but it will get done.
The retailers are working with you right now. "My message to producers is, please, please, please follow the guidelines that we put out," says Terrie Dort, NCCR president. "We have to work responsibly and together."
Animal well-being is the first topic, and this is the first step. There will be more to come.