Five Things Accomplished by Animal Welfare Audits Conducted at the Farm Level


Animal welfare audits revolutionized the meat packing industry in the early 90’s.  Temple Grandin developed the first objective scoring system for measuring animal based outcomes at the plant level, and began to compile survey data annually.  Today, the North American Meat Institute’s Animal Care and Handling Guidelines[1]  function as an industry standard, and are widely used for auditing animal welfare in USDA-inspected red meat slaughter plants.

At roughly the same time the National Beef Quality Audits began.  This project considered the opinions of packers, producers, and retailers regarding quality and safety issues in the beef supply chain, and used findings to identify new targets.  The project expanded to include a focus on the cull markets, with the recognition that culled dairy cows, for example, were a growing part of the beef supply chain.  The Market Cow and Bull survey of 1994 reported that the industry needed to prioritize culling or marketing animals in a timely manner[2].  While the Quality Audits provided important information about safety and quality defects of animals destined for the food supply, there was limited information about how, where, or why these defects occurred prior to arrival at the plant.

Farm-level programs for animal care began to emerge on a national platform.  One such program, the FARM Animal Care Program, was implemented by National Milk Producers Federation.  The FARM program included guidelines for animal care developed by a technical writing committee that consisted of researchers, producers, and veterinarians.  Since 2008, independent, third-party verifications have been conducted at the farm level to verify the implementation and the integrity of this program.  Third party verifications include a review of training provided to personnel with animal care responsibilities; review of written SOPs for animal care and handling; review of critical areas of concerns (i.e. deciding when to euthanize animals, euthanasia technique, etc.); observations of housing, handling, and milking facilities; and animal-based measures such as body condition, hygiene, leg condition, and locomotion (ability to move).

Audits at the farm level accomplish the following five key things:

  1. Gauge success/adoption of program (i.e. FARM Program). Farm-level verifications provide a review of farm programs and management practices as evaluated against the FARM program.  Farms selected randomly for third-party verification have already been through a second-party evaluation, and presumably should be in compliance with the requirements of the program.
  2. Information obtained at the farm level can be used to track and report the progress of a program. A good example is the lameness rate for milking cows, which has improved from over 20% to the current target of 5% or less.
  3. Information about the program adoption, as well as year over year performance can be used by technical writing committees to revise the programs and set higher targets along the road to continuous improvement.
  4. Information gathered in the third-party verification process can be a valuable tool to guide decisions about farm and animal management for producers. An objective, outside perspective can be useful in identifying factors that producers might not have considered to be significant
  5. Animal welfare and food safety audits at the farm level drive transparency and confidence across the food chain. Now, more than ever, consumers want to know about on-farm practices.  They want to be confident that the animal products they consume come from animals that have been ethically cared for.  Many consumers state that a farmer being wiling to participate in a third-party audit in and of itself increases their confidence in the safety and quality of their food supply.  Confident, satisfied customers become loyal customers.

Between plant audits, the National Beef Quality Audits, and farm level audits, the food industry has a better picture today of the reality across the food production chain than we have previously.  The message is an overwhelmingly positive one: significant progress has been made in animal welfare at the farm level.  There is a credible system in place for the dairy industry that includes a plan for continued improvement, while recognizing the progress that has been made.

[1] http://www.animalhandling.org/producers/guidelines_audits

[2] https://www.bqa.org/Media/BQA/Docs/nbqa-exec-summary_cowbull_final.pdf

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