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Farm Audits—Trend or Treason?

Two of the most-read stories this week on the National Hog Farmer Web site were devoted to Tyson Foods, Inc.’s recent announcement about implementing an on-farm auditing program, called the Tyson FarmCheck program.  

In the first story, “Tyson Foods Unveils New Farm Audit Program,” Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods, explains the motivation behind the program, saying, “We know more consumers want assurance their food is being produced responsibly, and we think two important ways to do that are by conducting on-farm audits while also continuing to research ways to improve how farm animals are raised. Here’s what I want people to know: at Tyson, we care enough to check on the farm; and we’re determined to help find better ways to care for and raise healthy animals.”

In the second story, “Industry Experts Respond to Tyson Initiatives,” the words, “transparency,” and “accountability,” are used by people who are responsible for pork procurement for some of the nation’s largest foodservice and retail companies. This isn’t the first time we’ve had an inkling that the people who stand on the front lines to deliver pork from the meat case to the shopping cart are fielding some tough consumer questions.

At a recent meeting of food industry professionals, David Fikes, director of consumer and community affairs for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), explained, “Animal welfare issues are only going to get more prevalent. We have a whole generation that does not know where food comes from and, sometimes, it seems they are all out there looking for an issue to get up in arms about. Consumer perception is reality. Producers and retailers need to be on the same team because we (retailers) facilitate the relationships between the consumer and the farmer.” He noted that third-party verification, through programs such as the Pork Quality Assurance Plus program, managed by Pork Checkoff, may need to receive more emphasis to help retailers effectively explain production practices used on the farm.

The new Tyson FarmCheck program is just one example of an auditing program that helps provide retailers with data to back up the message that producers really do care about their animals and are doing a good job of providing a safe, wholesome product. Tyson is not the only pork production system to implement training and audit programs. Within the last year, Iowa’s largest pork producer, Iowa Select Farms, launched its SelectCare program. Both internal and third-party audits are part of the new program, plus they’ve formed an expert animal well-being advisory committee consisting of an animal ethicist, a consulting veterinarian, and an animal scientist/animal well-being expert. This expert advisory committee reviews internal farm audits of sow, nursery and finisher farms, reviews standard operating procedures and conducts their own third-party audits.

While striving to improve the pork production process within another production system, Carissa Odland, DVM, Pipestone Vet Clinic, recently worked to develop a third-party audit system for the sow farms within the Pipestone System. “Animal care is our first priority and our audit program is part of a continuous improvement process for us,” she explains.  Odland outlined ways to set up third-party audits and improve barn culture during a recent Minnesota Pork Producers Association training seminar. She encouraged attendees, regardless of size,  to take advantage of programs such as the Pork Quality Assurance Plus program to help fine-tune their operations.

Odland acknowledges that producers care deeply about their animals and take their responsibilities for providing a safe product in a humane manner very seriously. She also emphasizes that it is especially important for producers to tell their stories about how they keep their “houses in order.”

Making a reference to the tactics that groups such as Mercy for Animals use to pressure retailers by using undercover videos, Odland says, “The number one reason we work hard to continuously improve is because we care about our animals and our employees. However, it’s important to realize that just because you get your house in order, doesn’t mean you won’t end up on YouTube (the video channel).”

Of course producers care. Those of us who work in the pork industry know it. But the bottom line is consumers need to know and believe it too.

Some of the visitors to were critical of being asked to participate in audit programs.  Do you support third-party audits?  Would you be willing to have an independent auditor visit your farm? Share your thoughts and experiences in the “comments” section below.

TAGS: Business
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