Gestation housing remains a touchy subject for the pork industry. It's also the focus of the swine section in the long-awaited retail food industry's agricultural animal-welfare report.

The Food Marketing Institute, representing retail grocers, and the National Council of Chain Restaurants, representing retail foodservice outlets, released their joint recommendations as promised in late June. The associations and their independent advisors spent nearly two years reviewing production practices, research and programs to come up with a set of animal-handling suggestions.

The action was initiated to provide FMI and NCCR members with recommendations that they can use to ask their meat, milk, egg and poultry suppliers to meet.

Several retail institutions had experienced pressure from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other activist groups. Rather than let each retailer sort through this effort and come up with a vast range of animal-handling standards, FMI/NCCR tackled the issue.

"This was not a reaction to PETA or any other group," says Terrie Dort, NCCR's president, "Customers are demanding some of these changes."

FMI's and NCCR's goals for the project include:

  • Create consistency across the U.S. retail food sector.
  • Implement practicable and attainable guidelines based on science.
  • Develop a measurable auditing process.
  • Establish an ongoing advisory council of independent animal-welfare experts.
  • Improve communications across the supply chain on animal-welfare issues.
  • Further develop and support industry policies strengthening animal welfare.

"It's important that pork producers look at this as a proactive approach to a future market," says Kathy Chinn, chairman of the National Pork Board's animal welfare committee.

Building the Base
To come up with what they're calling "best practices," the FMI/NCCR advisors reviewed existing producer-based, animal-welfare guidelines, identified gaps and recommended additions and revisions. The process included a listening session involving industry representatives. In pork's case it involved Paul Sundberg, DVM, NPB's assistant vice president of veterinary issues, and John Deen, DVM, director of University of Minnesota's Swine Center.

"We provided them with production and science-based information," points out Sundberg. "Our efforts were to ensure that the recommendations were practical, and to give all producers the opportunity to implement them on the farm."

As a producer, Chinn is pleased with the report. She appreciates the fact that FMI/NCCR's advisors recognize that there are various types of systems, facilities, genetics and practices in the industry.

"While there are advantages and disadvantages to any sow-housing system, there's no one optimal system that's been developed," says Beth Lautner, DVM, NPB's vice president of science and technology. "FMI and NCCR recognize that, and they recognize that we're researching and working on multiple animal-welfare issues. They also challenged us to do what producers challenge us to do – keep looking at ways to improve swine welfare."

Focusing on animal husbandry skills is one area that Chinn says producers need to prioritize – for themselves and their staffs. "Our welfare committee is working on making sure everyone understands what it takes for husbandry skills to be at their best regardless of the facilities," she says.

This FMI/NCCR report is one in a series meant to communicate the industry's progress. It is not a stand-alone document; it is to be used in conjunction with animal-welfare guidelines of the producer and processor organizations.

"We have to work responsibly together," says Dort. "That's what this current action is about."

FMI/NCCR will consult with its advisors and others to establish objective, measurable indices for animal rearing and handling practices.

The retail groups recognize the issues addressed are important and complicated. The report specifically points out: "Some recommendations have economic implications; some require an implementation timetable because they cannot be accomplished immediately. Some areas are still being researched to confirm that changes will enhance, not hinder, animal well-being."

What's Expected of You?
The FMI/NCCR report identified breeding and rearing animals for food as the "most challenging area for guideline development."

It recognized that in some cases structural changes in facilities, including increased space allocation may be needed. In the guidelines, the advisors focused on areas where they know research is underway and where phase-in periods may be necessary.

FMI/NCCR's report acknowledged the National Pork Board's animal-welfare guidelines and the development of a "swine-welfare indexing system" as positive steps. The index (see sidebar on page 28) will be a tool to assess the animal's welfare through all production phases and will be applicable to all operation types.

The advisors identified gestation-sow housing as the most challenging issue facing the pork industry. The report points to specific enhancements regarding sow stalls.

As a short-term measure, FMI and NCCR support the following sow-housing guidelines:
1. The pregnant sow should be able to lie down on her side without her teats extending into the adjacent stall. (This should not be achieved by compressing the udder with a wall, bar or other barrier.)

2. Her head should not have to rest on a raised feeder.

3. Her rear quarters should not be in contact with the back of the stall.

4. The pregnant sow should be able to stand up unimpeded.

The advisors recognize that individual and group gestation systems present challenges. While individual housing systems prevent some movements such as walking and turning, many group-housing systems have the potential to cause aggression and food intake challenges. FMI/NCCR challenged the pork industry to develop a plan to implement systems that will improve the welfare of gestation sows.

Transportation and Slaughter Practices
NCCR and FMI recommend that members' suppliers use the American Meat Institute's slaughter guidelines, training materials and audit documents. Specific areas addressed in the report include:

  • Animals should be transported to processing facilities and unloaded in a way that keeps them free from injury and distress.
  • Animals that are not capable of entering a transportation vehicle should not be loaded onto the vehicle.
  • Animals that cannot leave a vehicle on their own must be handled appropriately.
  • Animals must be processed humanely and in accordance with applicable Federal, state and local laws.
  • Animals must be completely insensible prior to any slaughter procedures . (Religious slaughter will be addressed separately.)

More to Come
FMI/NCCR's advisors will meet again this summer to review progress of the producer organizations that are still developing their animal-welfare programs.

Developing auditing systems for each species will be the next big step. The goal here is to help retailers identify suppliers who are implementing recommended animal-welfare guidelines. In October, FMI and NCCR will issue another progress report. By year's end, FMI and NCCR will begin to review guidelines for veal calves and ducks.

This is stage one in a multi-prong approach. There will be more on this, and possibly other issues.

"The take-home message for producers is that animal welfare and on-farm practices are something that our customers – whether that's FMI, NCCR, packers, individual companies, foodservice or whomever – are watching. They are asking the hard questions and there will be more questions," says Sundberg. "We (NPB) are working to provide answers and help prepare producers to answer the questions when they come."

Sending the Message
Retailers, animal-welfare experts, animal-welfare advocates, producers, processors and the public share the common goal that all animals in agricultural production be cared for in a manner that accounts for their daily well-being and health. This means that in addition to having access to fresh water, feed and adequate shelter, animals in agricultural production must be kept in an environment designed to protect them from physical, chemical and thermal abuse, stress and distress. Managers and those responsible for handling these animals must be thoroughly trained, skilled and competent in animal husbandry and welfare. Animals must be transported in a safe and appropriate manner. They must be processed humanely.

From FMI/NCCR Animal-Welfare Program, June 2002 Report.

How Will You Score?
In pork production, tools of the trade include things like genetics, feed, facilities, management and records. Soon you will have access to yet another tool, one that focuses on your operation's animal-welfare protocols.

For 18 months, the National Pork Board's Animal Welfare Committee has been working on an index to measure the welfare status of your gestation sows. On-farm testing has revealed positive results. Now NPB's committee will expand the package to include the farrowing, nursery and grow/finish stages.

There's also a new name – the Swine Welfare Assurance Program – notes Anna Johnson, NPB's director of animal welfare. "It will be applicable to all operations, regardless of type or size," she notes.

Experience from the gestation section will shorten the implementation gap for the remaining stages. "By the first of next year, we will have a program that is ready for producers," says Johnson.

Kathy Chinn, NPB animal welfare committee chairman, views the SWAP program as similar to the Pork Quality Assurance Program. "Producers will be able to see their strong points and weak points, and what they would like to improve," she says.

The committee still needs to work out the details of how the program will be transferred to the producer. Paul Sundberg, NPB's assistant vice president of veterinary issues, points out that producers will be able to use the SWAP program as a total package or as individual sections, depending on the operation's needs.

The Food Marketing Institute and National Council of Chain Restaurants have released their joint agriculture animal-welfare recommendations. Next to come are directives on auditing programs. "We have to make sure that our program dovetails into what FMI and NCCR are looking for, because we don't want two separate programs," says Beth Lautner, NPB's vice president of science and technology.

NPB's Animal Welfare Committee continues to support other related efforts, including funding research to address swine welfare. You can learn more about those projects by going to www.porkscience.org, click on the "Animal Care," then go to "Research."

Who is FMI and NCCR?
By now you may be casually familiar with the Food Marketing Institute and the National Council of Chain Restaurants. But who do these groups represent?

  • FMI represents 2,300 member companies made up of food retailers and wholesalers composed of large multi-store chains, regional firms and independent supermarkets. International membership includes 200 companies from 60 countries.

    U.S. members operate about 26,000 retail food stores with combined annual sales of $340 billion. This represents 75 percent of all U.S. retail food sales.

  • NCCR represents 40 of the nation's largest multi-unit, multi-state chain restaurant companies. These companies own and operate more than 50,000 restaurant facilities.

    Through franchise and licensing agreements, another 70,000 facilities operate under those 40 trademarks.

Editor's note: This article presents an edited summary of the FMI/NCCR agricultural animal-welfare report as it relates to the pork industry. You can access the complete report, which also addresses laying hens, broilers, turkeys, dairy and beef cattle, at www.fmi.org.