In 1953, U.S. consumers spent 20 percent of household income on food. Today, that number has dropped to just 10 percent. When you combine an inexpensive food supply with a more affluent society, you have consumers who are more willing to vote with their pocketbooks. And when it comes to the issue of animal welfare, you had better start paying attention.
“We live in a world where people care about animal welfare,” explains Jim Reynolds, veterinarian at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “And in order to sell our products, we must maintain consumer confidence.”
These trends have not been lost on the grocery store and restaurant industries. The National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) have worked with livestock groups to develop animal-welfare guidelines, which, in turn, has given restaurants and grocery stores the right to ask for animal-welfare audits of their suppliers — and that means you.
So, if you haven’t already gotten your house in order, now is the time to do so. Here are three reasons why you need to be aware of the NCCR-FMI animal-welfare audits.
Grocery stores and restaurants now want “custodial control,” explains Monte Hemenover, of the Avenues for Change consulting firm in St. Louis, Mo. They don’t want to own the animals. But, they do want a say in how animals are raised so they can assure customers that their food products come from animals that are treated humanely.
Restaurants track customer comments. And many NCCR member restaurant chains have seen an increase in consumer comments about animal welfare on comment cards and in e-mails, explains Terrie Dort, NCCR president. But instead of each restaurant developing its own guidelines, the restaurants joined forces with grocery stores and livestock organizations to develop a set of practical guidelines that meet the stated need without placing an undue burden on food-animal producers.
“Our members need to be able to tell their customers that they are taking care of and addressing the issue of animal welfare,” says Dort.
Restaurants don’t want to raise livestock. But they do want partners within the food chain that can give them consistent-quality products from animals that were humanely treated, explains Dort. The audits give them a chance to confirm that.
Issues such as animal welfare can ultimately decide your future access to markets, says Hemenover. If you want to stay in livestock production, you must stay informed and understand the implications of these types of issues.
Generally speaking, the consuming public no longer has ties to the farm, nor does it understand modern production agriculture. So, when an issue arises — genetically modified grains or animal welfare — and the public responds negatively, bad laws get passed. Take, for example, the gestation-crate ban that was passed in Florida. What people fail to understand is that gestation crates keep sows from fighting while pregnant, which helps ensure live piglets.
Livestock groups, including those in the dairy industry, need to help consumers and lawmakers understand modern production agriculture, stresses Hemenover. Failure to do so can result in laws that are detrimental to agriculture.
For example, Denmark used to supply the majority of eggs in Europe. Then, the national legislature passed a law stating that laying hens could no longer be housed in wire cages. Today, Denmark has only 12 percent of the European egg market. Producers who were forced to change their production practices could no longer compete with low-cost producers in other countries who were still allowed to use wire cages. In the blink of an eye, the Danish farmers lost their market.
Make more money.
Perhaps the most important reason to use good animal-handling practices involves simple economics.
“The better you take care of your cows, the more profitable your dairy is,” says Reynolds, who chairs the animal welfare committee of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. “I’ve seen it time and again in practice. When producers take better care of their animals, those animals become more productive, live longer, and contribute more money to the dairy’s bottom-line.”
That’s what the Dairy Quality Assurance Center’s Five-Star Quality Assurance Program was designed to do — improve cow comfort, as well as the profitability of producers, says Keith Carlson, DQA director. “What we have been certified from the hundreds of producers who have went through the DQA program, is that when they improve cow comfort, milk production increases,” he adds.
The newly adopted NCCR and FMI animal-handling guidelines are generally based on the DQA’s “Caring for Dairy Animals: Technical Reference Guide.”
Be an early adopter
Some producers have already received letters from their co-op or milk processor requesting that they sign up for and complete the NCCR-FMI animal-welfare audit.
But, this shouldn’t be cause for alarm. If you have good animal-care guidelines in place, you have nothing to fear. In fact, completing the audit may put you in a position to sell milk that fits a particular marketing need for a restaurant, grocery chain or even specialty ice cream maker.
“Remember,” says Reynolds, “in our economy, it’s the early adopters who reap the economic benefit.”
The basic rules of animal husbandry have not changed. What has changed is the marketplace.
How to request an audit
SES, Inc., in Lenexa, Kan., is managing the animal-welfare audits. To learn more about the audits, or to request one, you can:
Call (800) 897-1163 and ask to speak to Eric Hess at ext. 15.
Go to: www.awaudit.org, complete the audit application and submit it online. While there, you also can print out a copy of the audit form.
To learn more about the dairy quality assurance center’s five-star Quality Assurance Program, contact Keith Carlson at the Milk and Dairy Beef Quality Assurance Center in Stratford, Iowa. Call (800) 553-2479.