In March, Tyson Foods Inc., announced it is implementing the US Poultry & Egg Association’s third-party certification for the proper handling and transportation of live birds that are used in the company’s chicken operations. Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson is the poultry industry’s first large producer to adopt the Poultry Handling and Transportation (PHT) certification and make it part of its regular activities. Karen Christensen, senior director of the office of animal well-being at Tyson, says the adoption of this program by the company, ensures the welfare of the birds, and the employees who work with the animals.

The adoption of this program is far from the first move Tyson Foods has made in making animal welfare an important part of the company’s operations. Under Christensen’s direction, Tyson operates a program of remote video auditing (RVA) technology in its processing plants. Last year, a new project to incorporate RVA with poultry catching crews was started. “Documenting how our animals are handled is important to Tyson Foods and may well lead to new innovations in animal welfare we’ve not yet considered,” Christensen says.

Christensen has overseen animal welfare at the company for a year-and-a-half. In fact, Christensen’s entire career of more than 30 years has been a deep commitment to animal care. Before coming to Tyson, she was an associate professor in poultry at the Univ. of Arkansas. The decision to go back to a position in the meat and poultry processing industry after such a great experience in academia was difficult to make. “I enjoyed being at the Univ. of Arkansas very much. I thought I would finish my career there. However, the opportunity to impact the well-being of the farm animals raised by this company – both poultry and cattle -- was too important for me to turn down,” she says.

“What I discovered when I came here is that at Tyson Foods, there is a very strong commitment to the welfare of the animals. The team that I lead is extremely dedicated to improving the lives of the animals that are raised for our company every day.”

Even more important, there is not a corporate conversation or decision made by Tyson Foods that doesn’t include consideration of the impact on both the welfare of the animals and the holistic approach to sustainability, she says. “The welfare of the birds is part of our decision making. We provide birds with different lighting intensities and schemes. We measure their feed intake. We ask, ‘Where do they spend time? Where do they move in their patterns?’”

Being heavily involved in taking care of the animals at Tyson is exactly where she wants to be. “You know, when I think back about it, every opportunity I’ve ever had prepared me to be here,” she says.

Prepping for the role

If you’re thinking that Christensen comes from an ag family, you’d be wrong. “No, my dad was a biochemist at the Univ. of Washington in Seattle. That’s the part of the country I’m from. We always had pets. I always enjoyed animals of all kinds. When I was in the fifth grade, we had an incubator, and a company supplied us with fertile eggs, so I took control of all the electric blankets in the family. I had a Leghorn rooster as a pet.

“As you can see, I had a passion for animals,” she laughs. She got her degree in animal science from Washington State Univ. in Pullman, Washington. She worked with chicken eggs for a genetics company, but then decided to move into the broiler industry, getting her Master’s degree in poultry science.

Twenty-one years ago, Christensen moved to Arkansas. “I’ve worked in live production my entire career,” she says with pride. This included working for a broiler integrator in Arkansas, where she got involved on behalf of animal welfare for the company. She wanted to teach and do research at the Univ. of Arkansas, but first she needed her Ph.D. She earned her doctorate in poultry physiology from Mississippi State Univ. Then returning to Arkansas, she did research and taught in the poultry department about the connection between lighting density and stress for the birds.

But it wasn’t long before Christensen moved into the area that she’s involved in heavily today, in a very big way. She got involved in the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO), a group that’s involved in helping livestock, poultry and dairy producers and their related industry partners provide humane animal care on farms and in plants consistent with sound science and economics. She’s served on the board of the organization, and this year is committee chair for training and education. This year, she’s also chairing the Poultry Science Association’s Welfare Committee. She has trained 600 broiler welfare auditors so far.

The organization began because companies in the meat and poultry production and processing industry needed third-party auditors to verify the welfare and the well-being of animals on farms and in plants, a priority in the company’s operations.

“The mission of PAACO is to promote the humane treatment of animals through education and certification of animal auditors, as well as the review and certification of animal audit instruments, assessments and programs,” Christensen says.

“PAACO helps various species organizations to help develop animal well-being programs,” she says. “In poultry, there are welfare audits that are used for layers, broilers, and for turkeys. Audits also exist for meat packers, swine and dairy,” she points out. The PAACO organization is funded by the Food Animal Science Society.

Need for transparency

Christensen says there is a great necessity for the meat and poultry industry to increase and advance the transparency of animal welfare. This includes utilizing new technology to help the industry take care of its animals even more. “Because of a few bad apples in the industry, consumers and customers sometimes have the feeling that animals are not treated well by our industry – that they’re treated very badly because eventually they’re going to be slaughtered for human food. That’s not true, and we must tell the public the real story so people will understand it. But for a long time, the industry wasn’t very comfortable getting into it. We’re just starting to be comfortable telling our story to consumers,” she says.

The problem exists partly because of the lack of knowledge among consumers about animals and the food industry. “Today, consumers are more removed from how their food is produced. They’re interested in food production, but they often don’t have the background. Our country has become much more urban than it used to be, and that doesn’t help,” she says.

Christensen points out there has always been a great passion in the industry for caring for its animals. “The teams of people who are involved in animal well-being, whether for Tyson or for the industry, are very passionate about this. But since the late 1980s and 1990s, there have been more formal entities for doing this,” she says. “As we continue to learn about animal welfare and well-being, we’re doing more to train people both in our plants, and our growers as well.”

Christensen believes very strongly that consumers also need to be educated about the importance of animal well-being and welfare in the food industry.

“I want consumers to understand animal well-being is important – at Tyson and in the industry – because it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “Our animals must be treated with respect.”