Flocking to poultry welfare

by Bryan Salvage
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Improving poultry welfare has always been a top priority for the US poultry industry, however, the bar on humane animal handling has been edging upward in recent years. But the fast-moving humane poultry-handling evolution can be confusing for consumers not familiar with how food in the US is produced.

“Every aspect of the modern-day animal-protein production system is being questioned [i.e., from production throughout slaughter] these days,” says Dr. S.F. Bilgili, professor and extension poultry scientist at Auburn Univ., Auburn, Ala. “This is due, in large part, to the ‘disconnect’ of the society at large from agriculture/farming and food production. The food system is now an intensive, highly technical and centralized business and this adds more to the mystery and mistrust. All farm animal-welfare programs now target places/processes [handling, transportation, euthanasia, slaughter etc.] where there is significant human-animal interaction to assure that the metabolic, physiological as well as behavioral needs of the animals are met.”

Humane poultry handling and continuous improvement should go hand-in-hand. On Feb. 10, the 2014 update of the National Chicken Council’s Animal Welfare Guidelines was announced. It incorporates new parameters to improve bird welfare and includes material on whistleblower protection, more assistance for training programs for proper handling, more documentation and monitoring of various practices and a more streamlined auditing tool for ease of auditing, among other things.

Developed in 1999, the NCC Animal Welfare Guidelines and Audit Checklist have been widely adopted by chicken farmers and processors to ensure all US chickens are being properly cared for and treated humanely. The guidelines cover every phase of a chicken’s life and offer the most current, science-based recommendations for the proper treatment and humane care of broiler chickens.

The US Poultry and Egg Association (USPOULTRY) supports research that pushes continual improvement in bird care, says John Starkey, president. “We are in the midst of a $72,000 study entitled, ‘Enriched Colony Cages: Stocking Density on Laying Hen Well-Being’ [Darrin Karcher, Michigan State Univ.], that will help our egg members understand the relative advantages and limitations of various housing systems,” he adds. “And we just announced a new $125,000 research initiative on investigating the influence of transportation conditions on poultry well-being.”

Industry will continue to adopt science-based approaches to enhance bird well-being. Improvements made over the years include better feeding and watering systems, tunnel ventilation to provide better thermal comfort, automatic control systems, etc., Starkey says.

Last October, another Glass Walls Project video was released by the American Meat Institute and the National Turkey Federation highlighting a turkey farm and processing plant operations. Hosted by Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State Univ., president of Grandin Livestock Handling Systems and a long-time Meat&Poultry columnist, she interacts with the birds in a climate-controlled turkey house. Birds are shown being humanely stunned before processing. The video is available on NTF’s YouTube channel or by visiting AMI’s “Glass Walls Project”.

Processor, customer ‘buy-in’

Consumers deserve to know their food is produced responsibly, using best practices for animal handling. Tyson Foods takes that responsibility very seriously, says Worth Sparkman, manager of public relations. “One of our Core Values is to serve as stewards of the animals that we depend on to operate,” he adds. “For us, proper animal handling is an important moral and ethical obligation.”

In 2000, Tyson Foods was the first processor to create an Office of Animal Well-Being, which focuses on proper treatment of live animals at processing plants. In 2012, the Tyson FarmCheck Program was launched, which involves animal well-being audits of farms that supply the company. It also includes an Animal Well-Being Advisory Panel, Farm Animal Well-Being Research Program and an internal management team led by the vice president of Animal Well-Being Programs.

Tyson Foods initially performed FarmCheck audits in its pork business, but began the process to audit poultry at the beginning of 2014, Sparkman says. Visit www.farmcheck.com for more details.

Supermarket and restaurant customers have also established animal-welfare working groups, policies and guidelines for its poultry suppliers. Kentucky Fried Chicken has an Animal Welfare Advisory Program plus created an Animal Welfare Advisory Council. Safeway has developed an animal-welfare and audit program to ensure its national brand and private-label suppliers have programs in place for the humane treatment of animals in all aspects of animal husbandry, shipment and handling during the harvest process.

Wendy’s expects its suppliers to exceed government regulations by meeting its more-exacting standards pertaining to the humane treatment of animals. One of its chicken suppliers, O.K. Foods, Ft. Smith, Ark., installed an innovative system it claims significantly improves the welfare of chickens. The processor’s LAPS (low-atmospheric pressure system) produces permanent unconsciousness in the bird before handling by plant workers replacing the industry standard of electrical stunning. Wendy’s claims to be the first quick-service restaurant chain to embrace the LAPS system.

Auditing is critical

When Redfield, Iowa-based Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization Inc. (PAACO – www.animalauditor.org) began training poultry welfare auditors in 2006, much of the third-party auditing at that time differed in content and scope. “We felt it would be advantageous if auditors received uniform training and understanding [regarding poultry welfare auditing],” says Mike Simpson, executive director.

The initial target audience was third-party auditors poultry companies and their customers used, but courses now attract meat and poultry company production personnel, their retail and foodservice customers who utilize audits, academia and government employees.

PAACO conducts three-day Poultry Welfare Auditor Courses – the initial certification course for broiler, egg/layer and turkey auditors. PAACO is made up of five animal organizations with expertise on best-management practices and current science in animal agriculture. The course’s goal is to train potential poultry welfare auditors using the welfare criteria and standards generally found and accepted in industry audits for broilers, turkeys and egg layers. But some attend the course to gain animal-welfare updates.

Humane-handling criteria for turkeys through broilers start at the hatchery and end at death, which is the scope of the welfare audit. Why is there an increased interest in enhancing poultry welfare among packers, processors and their customers? Simpson answers: brand protection.

Last year, this course was held at the Univ. of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The first sessions provided an understanding of industry and production structure plus the background of modern and unique production methods and welfare programs. On day two, the course covered euthanasia; poultry welfare audit updates and other topics; turkey welfare auditing; layer welfare auditing; auditor protocol and ethics; plus a presentation of audit scenarios attendees could face. The third and final day covered on-farm production/slaughter auditing – and the day ended with a question-and-answer session, studying and then testing.

Poultry-welfare interest

“The real interest in poultry welfare started with the fast-food industry around 2000,” says Karen Christensen, Ph.D., who has been a poultry specialist in the poultry science department at the Univ. of Arkansas, since Jan. 2, 2014. Prior to that, she was director of technical services for O.K. Foods for 16 years and has been teaching PAACO’s broiler auditing course for six years.

Christensen iterates attendees are concerned with poultry welfare from egg to death. “In some cases, it even begins with the breeders who produce the eggs that are hatched in broiler-company hatcheries,” she adds.

The most visible areas of animal welfare are during transportation, including catching, hauling and working at the plant. “We have seen great strides in reducing wing damage during transportation,” Christensen says. “Wing damage can occur throughout the entire process.

“We’re looking every day to management practices that improve animal welfare at the Univ. of Arkansas,” she says. “I want to keep looking for ways during the slaughter process where we can stun birds in containers to eliminate having to unload and shackle live birds. Industry will eventually move to some type of a stunning process where birds are stunned in containers.”

After completing the Poultry 201 course, attendees must pass a test with a minimum score. Next, they are required to conduct two shadow poultry welfare audits satisfactorily to become certified. Certified auditors then must complete continuing education each year to be recertified.

“Auditing gives us a means of continual improvement and provides a bridge to the customer so they have assurances producers are doing the right thing,” Christensen says.

Dr. Dave Hermes, DVM, a regional veterinarian with Perdue Foods LLC for 21 years, has been on the PAACO Board of Directors since 2007 and is an active participant in the PAACO Poultry Welfare Auditor Training Course. He has taught the Turkey Welfare Auditing segment several times.

Customers expect their suppliers to have a corporate culture that demonstrates a commitment to animal welfare, he says. “The supplier’s welfare program should reflect that dedication to improving welfare,” he adds. “Retail and foodservice customers expect increased verification and documentation. They need to reassure their consumers and other constituencies their products come from animals that were humanely raised and processed.”

Through robust auditing, companies need to identify their own areas of opportunity for animal-welfare improvement, Hermes says. As a follow-up to the auditing process, effective corrective actions can be put in place to improve those areas to maintain consumer and customer trust.

Poultry processors were first to develop welfare-audit tools with a broad scope from hatchery to farms to processing, Hermes adds. The vertically integrated nature of poultry production made it easier to implement third-party welfare audits.

“This has been an advantage for poultry producers compared to livestock producers, which are at various stages in implementing on-farm auditing,” he concludes.

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