New audit program designed to help ensure responsible treatment of animals

Oct 19, 2012

Food processing giant Tyson is taking the animal treatment topic head-on, but adding a caveat that their actions are not a response to pressure from any animal activists groups.

But the company has not been immune to activists. In May, Tyson was linked to an animal abuse video taken at a pork farm in Wyoming. While the company maintained that they did not purchase animals from the supplier, opening paragraphs, such as Little Rock, AR, KTHV’s “The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released undercover video footage revealing cruel treatment of animals and inhumane conditions at a Wyoming pig breeding facility owned by a supplier for Tyson Foods,” were widespread.

While Tyson sent out a response, stating “Contrary to the impression left by HSUS, there is no connection between this Wyoming farm and the pork that we process. Tyson Foods does not buy any of the hogs raised on this farm for our pork processing plants,” the media damage was already done.

The company, in what many consider a proactive move, announced last week that it will have an animal treatment audit of all of their suppliers, more than 12,000 independent farmers.

The launch of the new program has the company personally auditing the treatment of animals at the livestock and poultry farms the company uses. Tyson reports say the effort is in line with the company’s core value to serve as a steward of the animals entrusted to it.

“Our company is made up of ethical, responsible and compassionate people, and we believe the family farmers who supply us share our values,” said Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods. “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,” said Smith.

Tyson currently works with more than 12,000 independent livestock and poultry farmers. This includes 5,000 family poultry farmers, 3,000 family hog farmers and 4,000 family cattle farmers. The company said in their release it has long been an industry leader in animal welfare, employing more than a dozen veterinarians and maintaining an Office of Animal Well-being since 2000.

“We believe the farmers who supply us are the best in the world, and I think the audits will verify this,” Smith said. “But, if we find problems, we want them fixed right away. To our knowledge, no other major U.S. meat or poultry company offers this kind of service to its farmers, customers and consumers.”

Temple Grandin, professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, put her praise in on the audits. “This program makes it very clear that mistreatment of farm animals will not be tolerated. It will be useful for training farm employees on proper animal handling,” she said.

HSUS was quick to release a statement after Tyson Foods shared its new animal welfare audit program.

In the statement, HSUS mentions the complaint filed last May with the Securities and Exchange Commission, arguing that Tyson’s emphatic animal welfare assurances were hollow, given that the company lacked any meaningful audit program.

The HSUS statement also mentions a piece they believe is missing from Tyson’s audit program. “The company’s declaration today omits mention of the most pressing animal welfare issue of the day: the extreme confinement of pigs in gestation crates,” the release says.

HSUS is not the only one critiquing the program. The head of R-CALF USA is asking the USDA and Department of Justice to investigate the legality of the audits.

In an R-CALF press release, Bill Bullard claims the program is an infringement on farmers’ property rights. Bullard wants the government to determine if it violates U.S. antitrust laws and the Packers and Stockyards Act by eliminating choices and competition for independent farmers and ranchers.

“Where else but in a monopoly controlled market can a corporation infringe on the private property rights of independent farmers and ranchers to extract valuable marketing information without having to pay a dime?” asked Bullard in the release.

About the FarmCheck™ audit program

The audits, called the Tyson FarmCheck Program, have already begun on a trial basis on some of the 3,000 independent hog farms that supply the company. Auditors are visiting the farms to check on such things as animal access to food and water, as well as proper human-animal interaction and worker training.

The FarmCheck program has been under development since early spring 2012. Although Tyson personnel have been conducting the audits so far, the company plans to ultimately involve independent, third party auditors. It also intends to expand the program to include chicken and cattle farms by January 2014. The audits are being developed by experienced veterinarians and animal welfare experts and are expected to include measures that build upon current voluntary farm industry programs.

“These audits will give us a chance to correct any minor problems that are discovered and, if necessary, to stop doing business with any farms where animal treatment or conditions do not meet our standards,” Smith said.

Farm Animal Well-being Research Program

Tyson Foods also plans to develop a new Farm Animal Well-Being Research Program to review existing research as well as fund and promote additional research that the company believes will lead to continued improvements in animal raising methods.

“We want to identify and study the critical points, from breeding to harvesting, where the quality of life for livestock and poultry can be improved, and use the results to make a difference,” Smith said. “We know that content farm animals are healthier, and at Tyson Foods, we want healthy animals.”

Farm Animal Well-being Advisory Committee

Both the FarmCheck program and the research programs will be overseen by a new, external Animal Well- Being Advisory Committee that Tyson Foods is establishing. Those selected to serve will include people with expertise in farm animal behavior, health, production and ethics. The committee is expected to begin its work in March 2013 and will help Tyson Foods determine research priorities and ways to improve the Farm-Check program.

Internal management structure

Tyson Foods is selecting a special team of senior leaders from key areas of the company to oversee the FarmCheck program, the research program and the company’s interaction with the external advisory committee. Dr. Dean Danilson, who has been vice president of Food Safety & Quality Control for Tyson Foods, is now vice president of Animal Well-Being Programs. He and his staff will manage the audits, research and external advisory committee activities for hogs, cattle and chickens. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor