Corporate focus on animal care sparks on-farm changes

Many food suppliers have adopted a sustainability plan that requires producers to meet high animal welfare standards.  |  File photo

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Major food corporations have taken a role in mandating animal welfare standards and wide-reaching effects that impact the farm.

“Our ultimate goal is to make sure the animals are being taken care of as well as respect for the farmers and the suppliers,” said Christine Summers of Costco.

With $116 billion in sales last year, Costco has clout, and while it has set high standards, it is also looking for sustainable supplies, she said during a panel that discussed welfare requirements at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture annual meeting held last month in Columbus, Ohio.

Costco has 725 stores in 11 countries. All its customers must be paid members.

“When you pay to become a member there is a little bit of expectation that comes with that. Costco is expected to do what is right,” she said.

Costco is involved with animal welfare audit programs that start from the farms and trace it to slaughter in processing facilities.

It relies on third party programs like American Certified Humane and independent auditors like Validus to work with suppliers. Some suppliers are already under the blanket of a commodity-based quality assurance program like those implemented by the pork and dairy industries.

“We do trust our suppliers that they are taking care of this for us,” she said.

In 2016, the company started an animal welfare task force to evaluate its standards. Around the same time it joined the coalition for responsible antibiotic use from the Centre for Food Integrity.

Costco’s major concern is finding enough supplies that meet its standards. These are expected in all countries where the company operates.

“Our biggest issue is finding sustainable supply. We are a large consumer of goods. Last year we sold 83 million rotisserie chickens,” said Summers.

It expects to sell one billion organic and cage-free eggs in 2017 so finding a reliable supply is ongoing.

The Kroger Company has 2,800 grocery stores across the United States and tries to offer a wide choice to consumers of different income brackets, said Mike Brown, who oversees dairy supply.

Krogers has an overall sustain-ability plan that includes animal welfare standards. The store is also broadening its organic selections but has agreed to work with farms in transition so they have a sales outlet for their products.

Krogers recently announced it will go for cage-free eggs based on changing consumer preferences.

However, people need to know there are added costs associated with meeting some of those requests.

As standards change, costs and prices may level.

“We expect to pay more for eggs and we expect over time the costs will moderate as egg suppliers have time to adapt,” he said.

As a major meat supplier, Hormel Foods has a detailed animal care program that starts at company-owned farms and processing facilities, said Jose Rojas, vice-president of farm operations at Hormel.

The company follows the national pork quality assurance program that covers welfare, balanced nutrition, good environments for the animals and properly maintained facilities. It also allows the use of antibiotics because it links good health and welfare with appropriate veterinary treatment, said Rojas.

In 2015, an animal welfare council was formed to discuss welfare practices. That includes a decision to move toward open housing systems in company-owned facilities in Wyoming, Arizona and Colorado.

Staff training is company policy, but issues can occur, said Rojas.

“It would be naïve to say our production systems are perfect.”

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