Grandin endorses Country Natural Beef standards

Mar 12, 2010

In n move to position themselves as the vanguard of sustainable beef production, Country Natural Beef (CNB), the Oregon-founded natural beef co-operative, recently passed a set of stringent animal welfare production standards. The standards, which will be put into practice immediately, were developed with input from renowned animal behaviorist and Colorado State University animal science professor Dr. Temple Grandin, who was the subject of a recently acclaimed HBO film. CNB hopes that Grandin’s high-profile image will add to the integrity of their claims that CNB beef is produced with the utmost concern for animal well-being.

Amid increasing concern among consumers that livestock be raised and handled humanely, CNB is getting a jump on the trend. 

"Animal welfare is getting to be a bigger and bigger issue with the consumers that we’re targeting, which is that customer that’s really concerned about what they eat," explains Dan Probert, executive director of CNB.

And the trend toward increased animal welfare is expanding. Citing the recent highly publicized cases of packing plant misconduct, Probert continues, "Some of the things that have made it into the news have brought animal welfare issues into the forefront. We’re working hard to get ahead of that. Rather than be reactive, we’re trying to be proactive; we thought it was important that we have a comprehensive set of animal welfare standards."

Yet keeping abreast of consumer concern only partially explains CNB’s move to develop and promote animal welfare standards as part of their product. The natural beef market has grown significantly since 1986 when CNB, then Oregon Country Beef, came on the scene as a dynamic co-operative of 14 family ranches offering a unique product produced without antibiotics, growth promotants, or animal byproducts. Since then, the natural beef market has exploded. Today, even industry giants like Tyson have gotten in on the act, offering their Open Prairie Natural Angus line and, in cooperation with Certified Angus Beef, the Certified Angus Beef Natural label. Arguably, "natural" is no longer a niche market in the cozy sense that it used to be.

In light of the growing saturation of the natural market, CNB’s new animal welfare standards represent an effort to brand their product as unique in this growing field of major players.

Probert explains, "Natural [beef] has in a lot of ways become commoditized; natural really doesn’t mean much anymore. There’s quite a few companies doing no [added] hormones, no antibiotics, vegetarian diet. We’re trying to add attributes beyond those basic things. So, having a set of animal welfare standards is one of those things we think will set us apart from other natural products."

The CNB animal welfare standards run the gamut from strict limitations on the use of hotshots (on no more than 10 percent of animals) occurrence of falls (no more than 1 percent) and vocalizations while working cattle; transportation, doctoring, and nutrition protocols; and confinement limitations, among others. According to Probert, the most difficult standard to approve was a ban on ear marking, a practice strongly discouraged by Grandin. Ultimately, CNB members voted to forego ear-marking their calves, except for removing one or several small notches for the purposes of testing for persistent infection bovine viral diarrhea.

Verification of compliance with the new standards will be achieved through a three-tier audit process involving internal self-audits, retail partner audits, and a third-party audit of each ranch every three years by Food Alliance, a third-party sustainable food production certifier.

There is no doubt that CNB’s move to promote their own animal welfare standards will raise industry eyebrows. That said, much could be learned by observing their ambitious experiment. CNB’s choice to develop their own animal welfare standards at the very least provides an example to the rest of the industry of how some pressing animal welfare issues might be handled.

In particular, CNB and Grandin have taken an approach to the practices of hot branding and castration that the industry would do well to take notice of. Although their protocol specifies that they are open to developments in short-term pain relief options, they emphasize a priority of reducing the overall stress and fear of the animal while processing as more important to welfare than reducing short-term pain. In other words, quick and efficient castration and branding is preferable to restraining a frightened animal for extended periods while an anesthetic takes effect.

There surely will be producers who feel that CNB’s promoting their own animal welfare protocol will reflect badly on the rest of the industry. After all, doesn’t touting a high standard of animal welfare imply that the rest of the industry is operating at sub-par levels? But Probert maintains that this is not CNB’s message. Rather, he believes that CNB is blazing a trail where the industry as a whole will soon have to follow.

Says Probert, "Country Natural Beef is not at all saying that the industry isn’t doing a good job [upholding animal welfare standards]. I think we’re just a little bit ahead of the curve in getting a set of standards out there, and that the whole industry is going to have to have pretty comprehensive animal welfare standards [in the future]."

In other words, Probert suggests that consumers will soon insist on knowing how animals are treated regardless of whether CNB implements its welfare standards or not. Increased assurance of animal welfare simply represents the direction that consumer preference is headed in, and a proactive approach is called for. But one way or the other, says Probert, welfare standards are coming. "It’s a mandate, and it’s going to be required by the customer." In the future, "[t]hose companies that don’t have them will not be in business."

The Oregon Animal Health Foundation, in association with the Oregon State University Pre-Vet Club, Department of Animal Sciences, and College of Veterinary Medicine, is sponsoring a free lecture by Dr. Temple Grandin on April 30, 7:00 p.m. The title of Grandin’s talk is "Animal Behavior and Animal Welfare." It is open to the public. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent