Don Butler chairs a Murphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods' committee which is developing and refining a new, comprehensive "animal welfare management system" (AWMS) for their company-owned hog farms.

Q. Why is Murphy-Brown developing AWMS?

A. Increasingly, Smithfield Foods' customer base wants assurance that animals on our farms are being cared for properly – that they are comfortable, safe and healthy. The days when producers can merely say that they practice proper animal-welfare are rapidly diminishing. More retail and foodservice customers are demanding detailed and verified animal-welfare and environmental-management programs. Although animal welfare is not new with Murphy-Brown, we are being asked to provide objective evidence that our animals are treated humanely and that pork from our farms is clean and safe.

Q. How will you change your farm operations?

A. It is too early to say. On our farms now, animal welfare is already a priority. We are taking an in-depth look at all aspects of animal handling, pin-pointing any shortcomings or weaknesses. The complete plan is still in development. We are reviewing farm-employee training materials. A lot looks OK but we may refine some parts that deal with the animals' well-being. Our system will have teeth in it – not just be words on paper.

Over time, we believe it will improve animal performance and reduce costs of producing pork.

Q. How does AWMS fit with the retail and foodservice industry standards?

A. We believe that our AWMS standards will meet or exceed the animal-welfare guidelines of the Food Marketing Institute and National Council of Chain Restaurants.

Q. Do you expect to have restaurant./grocery chain inspectors on your farms?

A. Probably not. We believe our program will be strong enough to convince our customer base that it is effective and adequate. Its credibility will be supported by third-party verification. SGS International Certification Services is highly respected around the world. Their auditing will provide objective evidence of our responsible animal-welfare practices.

Q. Will the AWMS guidelines apply to your contract producers?

A. Yes, we plan to extend the system to them, but not immediately. We want to get the wrinkles worked out. We will provide technical assistance and training to our contract producers to ensure their understanding of the importance and benefits of our AWMS program. We also are developing an environmental management system that will be appropriate for contract producers. It is patterned after the one on our eastern U.S. company farms.

Q. Does Smithfield Packing plan to involve producers from whom it buys finished hogs?

A. It is too early to say. A high percentage of hogs processed by Smithfield Foods come from Murphy-Brown. As to the rest, we will have to see if it is feasible to extend the system. Because we think the benefits of our system will be clear, we anticipate that other producers will see the need to adopt similar practices in their operations.

Q. What is your opinion of the animal-rights and animal-welfare movements?

A. They represent two distinctively different points of view. One is to eliminate all meat as humans' protein sources. People truly interested in animal welfare express a desire for farm animals to be comfortable, safe and healthy. On this, we agree fully with non-farm folks interested in animal welfare.

Q. Does Smithfield plan to market AWMS consumers?

A. Not at present, but we believe consumers will appreciate the assurance that animals on our farms are comfortable, safe and healthy. Smithfield Foods has pledged to be the pork industry's environmental and animal-welfare leader. Time will tell how much, if any, we advertise this to the general public.

Q. What advice can you offer other producers?

A. Do your best, within reason, to keep your animals comfortable, healthy and safe. Do not hesitate to take a close, hard look at animal welfare in your operation. Do not be afraid to speak out privately and publicly about your concerns and commitment to animal welfare. Everyone in the pork industry is in this together – and our future is at stake.