Animal care and well-being is a priority every day on every hog farm. However, conveying that to non-farm folks can be a challenge.
Tyson Foods is taking that effort a step further by launching a program called FarmCheck to audit animal treatment at the livestock and poultry farms that supply animals to the meat processor.
“Our company is made up of ethical, responsible and compassionate people, and we believe the family farmers who supply us share our values,” says Donnie Smith, Tyson Foods president and chief executive officer. “We know more consumers want assurance that their food is being produced responsibly, and we think two important ways to do that are by conducting on-farm audits and continue to research ways to improve how farm animals are raised.”
“To our knowledge, no other major U.S. meat or poultry company offers this kind of service to its farmers, customers and consumers,” says Donnie Smith, Tyson Foods chief executive officer, about the FarmCheck audit program. “The goal is to add chicken and cattle farms by January 2014.” The audit program has already been tested on some of the 3,000 independent hog farms that supply Tyson Foods. Under the program, auditors visit the farms to check on such things as animal access to food and water, as well as proper interaction between human and animal, and worker training.
“We’re working with these animals every day, so it’s to our benefit that we treat them properly and keep them as healthy as possible,” says Dennis Gratz, a pork producer near Farmington, Iowa. “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.”
The Springdale, Ark.-based company involved veterinarians and animal-welfare experts to finalize the auditing program. So far, Tyson personnel have been conducting the on-farm audits, but the plan is to involve independent, third-party auditors.
“Tyson should be commended for taking the initiative to develop and implement an on-farm auditing program,” says 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 that farmers are fulfilling their obligation to provide proper care for the animals they raise.”
Tyson Foods emphasizes that its FarmCheck auditing program is not in response to this year’s run of animal-activist pressures being placed on pork production. Company officials emphasize that Tyson has had Office of Animal Well-being since 2000.
“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,” says Dennis Gratz, Farmington, Iowa. Smith says the company is determined to help find better ways to care for and raise healthy animals. “We believe the farmers who supply us are the best in the world, and I think the audits will verify this. But if we find problems, we want them fixed right away,” he says, adding that the company will not do business with any farm where animal treatment or conditions do not meet its standards. Tyson currently works with more than 12,000 independent livestock and poultry farmers. This includes 5,000 poultry farmers, 3,000 pork producers and 4,000 cattlemen.
Tyson’s customers like the idea. “Tyson’s FarmCheck program is aligned with Wal-Mart’s commitment to ethical sourcing, and shows leadership and dedication to addressing an issue all food suppliers and grocers face,” says Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of food, Wal-Mart 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.”
Foodbuy, the nation’s largest procurement organization for the North American foodservice industry, supports Tyson’s FarmCheck program and overall strategy. Mark O’Callaghan, Foodbuy’s vice president, called the program “a leading-edge, collaborative and progressive initiative — a genuine example that will elevate the art and science of animal husbandry and human interaction.”
Of course, not everyone is equally impressed. “We’ve not suggested that Tyson contractors are denying food to animals or intentionally abusing them, but that they are denying them enough space to even turn around,” says Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and chief executive officer, pointing to gestation-sow stalls. “Tyson’s announcement would mean more if the company was getting its pork from farmers who do not confine sows in crates that immobilize the animals.”
HSUS has submitted shareholder resolution, requesting that Tyson disclose how it plans to meet—as HSUS puts it-- “the growing demand for pork produced without the use of gestation crates.” Also in the works, HSUS has filed the paperwork for Pacelle to pursue election to Tyson Foods’ board of directors. According to HSUS, billionaire investor Carl Icahn has agreed to serve as an adviser in Pacelle’s effort to join the board.
(BF lead-in) A new Farm Animal Well-Being Research Program is another part of the overall effort that Tyson announced last month. The intention is to review existing research as well as fund and promote research that the company believes will lead to continued improvements in animal-rearing methods.
“We want to identify and study the critical points — from breeding to harvesting — where the quality of life for livestock and poultry can be improved and use the results to make a difference,” Smith says. “We know that content farm animals are healthier, and at Tyson Foods we want healthy animals.”
An external Animal Well-Being Advisory Committee will be organized to oversee both Tyson’s audit and research programs. Committee members will include individuals with expertise in farm-animal behavior, health, production and ethics. It is expected to begin work in March 2013. Dean Danilson, Tyson Foods’ vice president of food safety and quality control, is now vice president of animal well-being programs. This will include managing the audits, research and external advisory committee activities for hogs, cattle and chickens.
“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 (non-governmental organizations), government leaders and others to ensure the food supply system in place today is safe, sustainable and affordable,” Sinclair says.
As a producer supplying hogs to Tyson, Jim Pillen, of Pillen Family Farms, Columbus, Neb., emphasizes, “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. 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.”