OKLAHOMA CITY - Sonic Corp., which operates 3,500 drive-ins throughout the U.S., will begin phasing in the use of pork acquired only from processors that are not supplied by producers who use gestation crates in raising animals. The chain is also moving to acquire eggs only from cage-free producers. These moves are included in Sonic’s new animal-welfare policy, which was announced January 14 after months in the development phase.

“Sonic formally adopted these policies this month. It’s something we’ve been working on for a couple of years and we published the policy last week.” Christi Woodworth, Sonic’s director of external communications, told MEATPOULTRY.com. “There are policies relating to training and auditing, as well as procurement.”

When asked why Sonic decided to adopt these policies, she answered: “A number of folks in the restaurant industry have been working on these issues for a number of years. We were approached by P.E.T.A. [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] several years ago and have worked with them at looking at [animal-welfare policy] options that make sense for our Sonic system.

“We realized we previously hadn’t said anything about animal welfare to our customers who are interested in this issue. We haven’t made anything available to them as to Sonic’s position relating to animal welfare and what we believe,” said Ms. Woodworth.

Sonic estimates at least 8% of Sonic’s pork products currently come from suppliers who no longer use gestation crates. Within five years, the company plans to double that to 16% of suppliers.
“Sonic will favor suppliers that raise hogs in a gestation crate-free environment and that can provide audit and tracking reports for sourcing crate-free pork,” the company states on its Web site.

Sonic is also encouraging its poultry suppliers to convert to controlled-atmosphere stunning systems (C.A.S.), after it is determined the systems are economically viable, commercially applicable and meet Sonic’s product specifications.

When asked if Sonic is anticipating any new policies relating to animal welfare and its meat and poultry suppliers, Ms. Woodworth answered, “We do have folks on our quality-assurance team who have been involved with this issue for a long time. While we hadn’t published a policy per se previously, we have folks who work on these issues and we will continue to do that as new technologies and different standards come on line. In the case of gestation crate-free pork, there are a lot of states that are legislating the discontinued use of those. We’ll continue to monitor [such situations] and keep our Q.A. folks involved in those discussions.”

Another component of the company’s animal welfare policy involves auditing. Effective January 2010, Sonic began requiring all of its suppliers to undergo third-party animal welfare audits, which will be conducted by trained auditors from a recognized auditing firm. The third-party audits will be conducted at least annually. Audit results will be reviewed by Sonic on an annual basis although all audits are available for review by Sonic at any time.

“Each industry, essentially, whether you’re looking at pork, poultry or beef, has their own animal-welfare standards,” Ms. Woolworth said. “We had not audited our suppliers related to those standards previously, but we are beginning to do that now.”

“Sonic suppliers that are directly responsible for the raising, handling or slaughter of farm production animals should be trained to understand humane animal-handling practices that are based on credible science and industry standards,” its policy states. “Ffrequent re-training is necessary to keep employees up-to-date with scientific understanding and current industry standards.”