Last fall, you may have read about Tyson Foods’ announcement of a new audit program, called Tyson FarmCheck™, that aims to ensure responsible on-farm treatment of animals. This multi-species program will include an animal welfare  and handling audit at the feedlot level. While the beef program likely won't be launched until January 2014, pork audits are already up and running. I had a chance to visit with Anne Burkholder, a cattle feedyard manager at Will Feed, Inc., in Cozad, NE, on her thoughts about the program and her role as a member of Tyson’s advisory board for these audits.
First, let's look at some statistics. According to a Tyson press release, “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 Tyson FarmCheck™ Program has 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 audits are done by an independent, third party. And the board, which includes Burkholder, consists of veterinarians, animal welfare  experts and livestock producers.
“This is the first time a packing plant has come out and said, 'we want to ensure animal welfare  in our feedlots and want to audit for it.' It’s kind of new ground for the beef industry,” says Burkholder.
She explains that the ultimate goal of Tyson’s audits is to improve animal care  and build trust with consumers.
“I’m excited about this program; I think this is something the industry needs,” she adds. “We can’t sit on our laurels and perpetuate the notion that we don’t need to get better. We can take those core values like the Beef Quality Assurance protocols we already use, and through an audit , we can verify the good care we provide our livestock to ultimately build trust with our consumers.”
Burkholder expects some producer pushback over yet another audit for beef producers, but the changing face of the beef industry and consumers are calling for it.
“It’s my belief that this is our reality. We can act like ostriches and stick our heads in the sand, but consumer demands and retailers' increased expectations are not going to go away. We’ve lost a lot of trust from our consumers over the years. This is a significant challenge for us.
"There are fewer than 2% of us out there raising beef. Not only that, but the other 98% doesn’t have trust in what we do. I think the industry is beginning to accept that and realize that we’ve got to make a change. There's a saying that ‘if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu.’ I hope my comrades in the beef industry will realize that this isn’t a chore, or a mandate; it’s a chance for us to all work together to get better. If we can come with the right attitude , I think it's going to be a very good thing.”
Burkholder believes the impact will go beyond the feedlot sector.
“It’s going to be necessary for the cow-calf sector to get on board when it comes to animal handling and welfare . There is going to be some push from feedlots to have cattle that are easier to handle coming from the cow-calf sector. For me looking forward, there is going to be some trickle-down because animals that can’t be handled well in the feedyard aren’t going to work well. I would hope that we can unite under our product; that’s my wish. I hope that before I die that we can vertically collaborate, not vertically integrate, but work together as a whole industry to remain viable in the eyes of the consumer and sustainable for future generations.”
Even though the launch of the beef audits isn’t until 2014, Burkholder wanted to share her thoughts on this program with BEEF readers now to get the conversation rolling and get producers thinking about ways that they can improve their animal welfare protocols on their own operations.
I completely agree with her thoughts on constantly improving, looking ahead to the future, and meeting the expectations of consumers and retailers. And, maybe this is the perfect place to get started.
What do you think about the audits? How do you feel about a packer leading the charge on this? Do you feel this will improve the way beef is produced? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.