OLDS, Alta. — Livestock codes of practice are only lip service unless audits and consequences for bad actions exist, says a California veterinarian.
Jennifer Walker, who works for Dean Foods, which supplies dairy products to companies like McDonald’s and Sysco Foods, said the public may be lulled into thinking these codes prescribe common practices, but not every farm follows standard operating procedures.
“For farms that take advantage of it, that is great, but they also don’t tend to be very robust to verify and follow up on what is being done,” she told the Alberta Farm Animal Care annual meeting in Olds March 23.
She also said the codes offer no protection to the farmer. A farm that ends up in an undercover video depicting serious animal abuse will be thrown under the bus even if a code of practice was in place.
Walker said animal welfare regulations in the United States were driven by undercover videos produced by animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S. or Mercy for Animals.
“We have been challenged, not on food safety, but on ethics,” she said.
The result is inconsistent state by state legislation, which makes it difficult for corporations such as Dean Foods, which buys milk from farmers across the country, to deal with a range of requirements.
“That is impossible to handle from a supply chain perspective.”
More corporations are driving higher standards of care, but she sees varying levels of customer expectations.
There are those she calls “box checkers” who go through the paperwork but ask few questions about what is happening until something bad happens.
The next group is made up of people who ask questions because they want to understand how farm animals are treated.
The final group has specific issues and uses academics for advice to develop animal welfare standards. The people in this group are critical and can produce significant change.
For example, Walker said McDonald’s invests considerable time and energy but does not get much credit for its support of animal welfare and sustainability initiatives. However, its emerging requirements for beef sustainability and treatment of laying hens can force change right back to the farm.
She urges farmers to stop saying their animals are well taken care of simply because they wouldn’t do otherwise. Instead, good welfare should be equated with ethics.
“Treating farm animals well does not make them our pets. It makes us good stewards and good human beings,” she said.
Canadian livestock and poultry groups have worked through the National Farm Animal Care Council to create codes of practice that are finding their way into commodity groups’ on-farm food safety programs, including audits.
The system is not perfect, said council manager Jackie Wepruk.
“I don’t know if an audit can do much more than be a snapshot in time,” she told the AFAC meeting.
“Industry groups come to us because they see value in developing or updating their codes because they know they will have something that is credible and helps build toward public trust,” she said in an interview.
The codes are meant to be practical and tailored to each commodity.
Commodity groups make take the codes to the next level by developing an animal care assessment module.
Good welfare practices may come down to moral rather than economic decisions, she added.
“Animal welfare is all about the ethics of what we ought to do with animals and what are the expectations. It is not strictly an economic conversation. It is an ethical conversation,” Wepruk said.
“There is still a lot of education that needs to go on with all people in respect to their ethical obligations in regards to their animals.”
Many livestock and poultry organizations have incorporated animal care modules in their on-farm food safety programs. In some cases, compliance is tied to their ability to sell their product. For example, Chicken Farmers of Canada audits farmers annually, and 97 percent are certified under their program.
Dairy Farmers of Canada is introducing an animal care assessment program that includes the 2009 code of practice. Called proAction, the program includes requirements for milk quality, safety, traceability, environmental care and animal welfare.
“The dairy code of practice has become the bible for the dairy industry,” said Mike Slomp of Alberta Milk.
The code of practice was distributed to all Canadian dairy farms and includes requirements as well as recommended practices.
Farmers were expected to adhere to the code, but the new program will see their practices assessed by trained auditors. The program starts with a benchmarking study to show how farmers stack up, and the next stage will be to work on improvements.
Holstein Canada will assess every dairy cow in the first two years of the program while it is doing classification scores.
Provincial organizations such as Alberta Milk are offering workshops on the program so farmers know what is required for transport, euthanasia, body condition score and other welfare barometers.
“We tell them exactly what is expected,” Slomp said.