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Humane standards and certification for beef products

Heather Smith Thomas Published on 24 April 2014

Animal welfare issues and concerns about humane handling of livestock have led to some new certifications for animal products.

Many consumers are interested in where their meat, milk and eggs come from and how the animals were raised. They seek out products that have certification assuring that the animals have good quality of life.

European livestock production has utilized this type of program for many years. During the past decade U.S. livestock industries have created several certification programs.

Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) was founded in 2003, and many branded beef programs have a humane certification process for their producers.

Temple Grandin

Temple Gandin

Temple Grandin, Ph.D. with Colorado State University, has helped educate producers, feedlots and slaughterhouses about safer and more humane ways to handle livestock and is on the scientific committee for HFAC.

“Today, more producers are becoming part of groups that market their products under a humane label, getting on-board with things that bring premiums.

Back in the early 1990s, when Coleman Natural Beef started, some people in the cattle industry attacked that program, but a few years later ranchers were lining up to become a part of it because it paid premiums,” says Grandin.

“Large-scale commercial markets and many niche markets (local, organic, humane/animal welfare certifications) are all legitimate segments of the industry.

There will always be consumers who can afford to buy niche products and others who prefer to buy cheaper products,” she explains.

“When cattle prices are high, there is less incentive to join niche programs. When cattle prices are lower, ranchers want to be part of these programs. The economy is a big factor driving this,” says Grandin.

“Each program has its own set of requirements for raising animals humanely. Beef standards have the least differences because cattle are raised outdoors in pastures. Where standards get into differences is on pigs and laying hens.”

When a producer is part of a certified humane program or similar label, someone comes to visit the farm to make sure the farmer is following that protocol.

“Most beef producers take good care of their animals; there’s not much to do differently,” Grandin says. Inspectors just make sure the standards are being met.

“Programs vary, but low-stress handling is always important. One program is thinking about requiring their producers to take a low-stress handling course,” she says.

Cattle handling is improving. Most people have heard about low-stress handling, and it’s not a new idea like it was 30 years ago. Now many branded products are taking advantage of humane certification on their labels.

Stacy davies

Stacy Davies

Stacy Davies of Roaring Springs Ranch in Oregon has been working with Country Natural Beef ever since the original producer co-op was formed by Doc and Connie Hatfield in 1986.

Davies feels the beef industry must be proactive, letting consumers know that ranchers produce cattle with high standards for humane treatment and handling.

“The animal abuse pictures shown on TV 10-plus years ago at the Halmark plant in California of a dairy cow rolled by a forklift, and other photos, stimulated a desire in many consumers to know more about meat production practices.

Retailers we do business with wanted assurance they would never be faced with a meat recall due to selling meat from mistreated animals,” says Davies.

“Discussions within our own co-op (Country Natural Beef) began more than 10 years ago, designing standards that could be audited – to assure that the good practices most ranchers and processors adhere to on a daily basis are always adhered to and that this story can be communicated accurately,” he says.

“With help from Temple Grandin and an international committee, we developed our Raise Well principles.

Simultaneously, Whole Foods developed Global Animal Partnership (GAP) and asked all their meat suppliers to adhere to GAP standards. As a result, we now use those; our ranchers are audited to GAP standards and we also continue to abide by our Raise Well principles.

This satisfies customers that our ranchers, processors and feeders are meeting a humane care standard they can feel good about,” Davies says.

“Our co-op doesn’t think the industry has bad animal handling. We just need to be able to communicate with consumers about what defines good and bad and let them know we stay on the side of good,” he explains.

“Most ranchers, feeders and processors currently meet the standards; it’s just a matter of whether they are willing to keep records and allow the auditor on their place.”

Certification

“Audits for Country Natural Beef take place every 15 months,” says Davies. That way the ranch is checked every season – spring, summer, fall and winter – over a four-year period.

The rancher must keep track of death loss and causes. Above a certain percentage raises a red flag; the auditor would take a closer look at overall management to see why animals are dying.

Records are also kept on dystocia and how the rancher deals with calving problems. “One question involves whether mating selections are made with calving ease in mind.

There’s a cap number on dystocias and a look at whether the rancher is watching animals calve and frequency of checking – and helping them if they need help,” he says.

“The rancher must keep track of lame animals, cause of lameness and how it was treated. Overall sickness is another category.

Any animals treated for any reason must be kept track of – how you treated them and with what. There is a certain threshold you don’t want to exceed,” Davies says.

Transport/hauling is evaluated. “There are limits on number of hours cattle can be on a truck and space requirement.

If you load animals responsibly, you will be within the space requirements. The hauls, depending upon the step rating, should be 24 hours or less, 16 hours or less, or 12 or less.

There are steps 1 through 5, and we’re GAP rated at 4, which means our hauls should be 16 hours or less,” he says.

“When the auditor comes to the ranch, things looked at include overall health and body condition score – and whether nutritional requirements are being met.

If the ranch has several herds, the auditor randomly chooses which herd to inspect. The auditor looks at the records and then looks at the herds,” says Davies.

“They want dehorning done before 3 months and castration at an early age. GAP 1 standard is 6 months, and GAP 4 is 3 months.

If the horn bud is already attached as a true horn, you should not dehorn that animal – just tip the horns. Producers keep records of when they brand, dehorn and castrate calves,” he explains.

Beef Northwest (with feedlots in Oregon and Washington) has been finishing cattle for Country Natural Beef since the 1990s.

Wes Killion, feedlot manager, says that in 2005 Beef Northwest enrolled in a process verification program called Progressive Beef.

“It outlined all feedyard operation procedures from arrival through harvest and gave us opportunities to document (daily, weekly or monthly) practices that we considered important, giving us a record of these events,” he says.

“If we had a non-compliance we were made aware of it and could remedy the issue. We had interventions that made sure we were able to meet claims on our program or on the conventional market from the safety and animal husbandry point of view.

After we started our certification, Whole Foods came to us and requested that we adopt their GAP standards, focused around animal husbandry.

We went through that process and became a GAP-certified feedlot to comply with Country Natural Beef’s next step in certification,” says Killion.

“Over the last few years, there have been more requests for process verification and standardization of practices. We also have certification from Tyson that involves a third-party audit.

This is called Farm Check and very similar to Certified Humane – the labeling used on products that go through Humane Farm Animal Care,” he explains.  end mark

Heather Smith Thomas is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

Humane Farm Animal Care – certified humane

Adele Douglass, CEO, founded HFAC in 2003. “In the U.S. there are no federal laws regulating farm animal use except for animals in research and teaching.

There’s a guide for researchers at a university; anything outside those norms has to go through the Animal Care and Use Committee for permission. About 20 years ago, I was asked to be on that committee,” she says.

She met animal scientists and later worked with one who received a grant to do a study at Texas Tech looking into humane housing systems for pigs.

“In England, there was a program called Freedom Foods. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), founded in 1828, had a program for raising pigs,” says Douglass.

“I went with a veterinarian and one of his graduate students to look at the UK program. Tesco, a major supermarket in England, featured Freedom Foods.

The RSPCA wrote a list of standards and Freedom Foods, a subsidiary, found producers who could meet the standards, bought the pigs, slaughtered and sold them as a brand. Their brand competed in the market; a consumer could buy Freedom Foods pork or other pork products,” she explains.

“Freedom Foods was spending 1.5 million pounds (about $3 million U.S. dollars) at that time in marketing costs for a country much smaller than ours.

I realized that if I were to start an organization, write standards and raise money for a non-profit, no way could we replicate those expenditures.

Also, if you want to help the livestock industry improve, you wouldn’t want to compete. You need a program enabling everyone to participate if they want to. It must be inclusive rather than exclusive,” she says.

“I thought the best way would be a market solution. I’d worked in Congress and knew this should not be a legislative issue, and the USDA is not interested in regulating animal welfare.

Also, people (including myself) are stubborn. If someone tells me I have to do something, it triggers a negative reaction,” she says.

“I don’t think government should regulate on-farm practices because farmers are very creative. If they come up with a better way, you’d need another act of Congress to change things.

I feel it’s better to use a carrot approach than a big stick – rewards for good behavior rather than punishments. Farmers are not bad guys, and you shouldn’t impose laws on them.

If there were laws, who would inspect and who would enforce them? It would cost a horrendous amount of money. A voluntary, market-based solution would be much more effective and less costly,” she points out.

When she created HFAC, she selected a scientific committee to help guide it. “Our scientific committee reviewed the RSPCA standards, looked at all the scientific literature and best practices, and came up with what constitutes the needs of the animals (laying hens, pigs, etc.) in all sorts of situations,” she says.

The standards for cattle are also very specific. “If they are finished in feedlots, they need a certain amount of space, mounds, windbreaks, sun shades, etc.

We don’t allow animal byproducts in feed for any livestock. Ruminant animals must be allowed out on pasture,” she says.

Carolyn Stull

Carolyn Stull

Dr. Carolyn Stull (cooperative extension specialist, University of California – Davis) is chairman of the Scientific Committee for HFAC.

This committee consists of more than 25 people from universities around the world. “I’ve been with this group from its beginning.

The philosophy is based on Freedom Foods in the UK. We looked at their farms, standards and how they marketed their products in grocery stores. This is how HFAC evolved the Certified Humane Raised & Handled program,” says Stull.

To qualify for certification, the producer must own the animal from birth to slaughter. To gain certification, the producer fills out the paperwork, answering questions regarding farm size, who is involved with the animals, whether employees are trained, what the training program entails, who trains them, etc.

“Then an inspector goes to the farm and spends a few hours verifying the standards. There may be minor issues that can be easily remedied. After a farm is certified, it is inspected once a year.

When animals, milk or eggs go to market, products that have been compliant through the whole chain can utilize the certified label on packaging.

A lot of Certified Humane beef goes to restaurants or small markets. Consumers are people interested in where their meat comes from and how the animal was raised.” Some of the producers are also organic, but that’s a separate inspection; those designations are different.

“If a certain farm or a branded product loses its certification, this means they were not compliant with standards. Every four or five years, HFAC updates the standards to keep them current.

Part of our job as Scientific Committee is to provide information. We learn new things and re-develop some of the standards,” Stull explains.

Scrutiny and standards

Oregon producer Stacy Davies says the industry should expect more scrutiny, and more political activity through ballot measures focused on animal confinement.

That means ranchers and farmers can’t wait to move on animal handlign standards.

“We need to be proactive and ahead of the curve, setting the standards ourselves rather than having them forced upon us.

If we ignore or fight humane care standards, we’ll have more laws and ballot measures changing our lives rather than us creating our own systems to assure consumers we are taking good care of our animals,” he explains.

By being actively involved, the beef industry can have a voice in how systems and standards are created, ensuring they are workable.

“HSUS and PETA, the strongest advocates for animal rights, want animal agriculture halted. The best defense is a good offense. By creating standards and systems that assure consumers that animals are being taken care of, we defuse and deflate the arguments of animal rights activists,” he says.

“By contrast, when we continually play defense, the industry always loses. The activists define the rules. Often the industry is viewed as greedy – and that we are only defending our position because complying with humane standards will cost money.

If we are proactive, we can get ahead of the battle and defuse the activists before they get started. This gives us a stronger position,” he points out.

“Country Natural Beef gives me marketing advantage as a proactive rancher. With a branded program I can do the things I think are right – and actually market these decisions as attributes and get paid for it,” explains Davies.

“Meyer Natural Angus was an early adopter of animal welfare standards. They are a big supplier for Whole Foods, and when Whole Foods ramped up their program and demanded GAP compliance, Meyer adopted that as well,” he says.

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