Consumer demand for better animal welfare is driving change for farm animals. This concept was the catalyst for the Global Animal Partnership (GAP), an organization focused on providing consumers with the opportunity to purchase meat from animals raised humanely.

Diane McDade, business development manager for GAP, says it’s the organization’s ethical responsibility to ensure farm animals are raised humanely, above and beyond just health and sustainability.

“The GAP board is made up of equal representation of farmers, ranchers, purveyors and animal advocates,” she says. “The thing we struggle with the most is having our stakeholders completely understand what the program is and how it differs from some of the other labels they see on the shelf.”

Whole Foods roots

In late 2004, Whole Foods CEO John Mackey had been having some public, heated conversations with animal advocates around products that were sold at Whole Foods stores. To take that conversation to a more private platform, he sat down with some of the animal advocates – including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) – about how they could co-exist.

“So, the Animal Compassion Foundation was started, which was an internal foundation of Whole Foods and that went on for a couple of years,” McDade explains. “The idea was to increase the farm animal welfare standards and develop a reasonably priced supply chain that could do better than what was out there at the time.”

By 2008, Mackey piloted a program at Whole Foods’ London flagship store in Kensington that was based around this concept, and he soon called for an independent organization to develop a farm animal welfare certification program. That led to GAP becoming a reality.

Growing the program

McDade has been involved in the natural meat industry for approximately 25 years, selling product to Whole Foods back when these conversations first started. She went on to work for the grocery chain as its meat buyer.

“When the GAP position came open in 2016, as they were starting to grow, I came on board because they felt I had a decent understanding of the entire supply chain from the farms over throughout the product into the consumer and I was pretty excited to have the opportunity to come over.”

There were some challenges in the beginning. When the program was first put together, the retailer had to go back to the suppliers and ask them to participate, but nearly 40 percent of them refused and left.

“I think all in all, about 80 producers stuck around and decided to flesh this out with them,” McDade says. “The first standards to be piloted were beef, pork, chicken and turkey and once those were fleshed out, they began to roll in all of the other species. About two years ago, we launched a sheep standard and we added goat, bison and laying hens over the last couple of years.”

McDade explains that for the first eight years, it was mostly an internal Whole Foods Market checks-and-balances program. Back then there was not any meat being marketed outside of those stores and departments were certified to Global Animal Partnership standards such as the delis and specialty departments and some of the grocery and frozen dairy products were GAP compliant as well.

In 2016, around the time McDade came in, GAP appointed a new executive director, and went about the mission of finishing up what had been started – to impact animals globally, not just for one retailer.

“We started to work on getting the product beyond both its market doors and started to get retailers and brands to connect outside and we have today about 5,000 stores that carry the products, including the nearly 500 Whole Foods stores,” she says. “I would say there’s nobody doing anything the size and scope that they are, but we feel like we’re starting to make progress and build demand for it.”

The Global Animal Partnership helps consumers easily identify meat products sourced from animals raised humanely on farms certified by third-party auditors.

Step by step

Once a third-party audit has been conducted and a GAP Step rating has been assigned, an appropriate GAP label is displayed on certified meat packages and other products.

McDade notes there are three factors auditors focus on:

1. Health and Productivity, which includes raising animals that are healthy and productive with good quality feed and water, shelter, and free from disease, illness and injury;

2. Natural Living environments with animals raised both indoors and outdoors to allow them to express their natural behaviors effectively; and

3. Emotional Well Being, where animals are placed in environments that allow them to be inquisitive, happy and playful, which reduces boredom, frustration, fear, stress and pain.

“By defining animal welfare, we can identify and improve farming and ranching systems and practices,” she says.

Over the past decade, GAP has grown to include more than 3,700 farms across six countries, with product available in more than 5,000 outlets.

“Our program supports systems across all climates and geographies while providing a road map for continuous improvement,” McDade says. “Certification also covers from hatch through processing for poultry, and breeding through processing for pigs and ruminants – in other words, a fully comprehensive program that covers the entire life of the animal.”

The GAP’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program was developed with the animal’s welfare as the primary focus and is defined by the trio of overlapping components that combine with good management and genetics to contribute to good farm animal welfare.

One of the taglines for GAP is “improving the lives of farm animals, step by step” and in the beginning, that was about explaining the different step ratings, but it’s come to mean a lot more than that.

“It’s actually six steps, ironically. The standards themselves are created by GAP,” McDade says. “The first standard that was created was for beef and it was done with producers, advocates, and veterinarians, and it was a simple standard when it rolled out compared to the more detailed programs we have today. That standard is being revived now for the first time in 10 years.”

Most of the others – pork, turkey and chicken – have been updated and amended over the years, as the program deals with different countries, different climates and different breeds. For example, the chicken 3.4 standard, released this spring, now requires natural light for chicken houses.

“Our third-party auditors that we work with are accredited to the program and they tell us how they’re going to audit it. Through years of experience and having new auditing companies join the organization, you get different inputs and so it continues to evolve all the time,” McDade says. “It’s obviously really different for somebody growing chicken in the deep South, then somebody outside of Maryland.”

Typically, every species will get reviewed and updated in about a five-year cycle, but if there’s a specific call from consumers or the animal advocate community or the producer community, they’re brought into the discussion by the board. Additionally, every farm who participates in the GAP program is audited every 15 months.

Around the time McDade came in, GAP appointed a new executive director and went about the mission of finishing up what had been started-to impact animals globally, not just for one retailer.

The impact on pet food

Somewhat recently the pet food industry started to take a strong interest in the GAP program.

“If someone is selling a retailer and the retailer wants specific middle meat and maybe a little trim, that doesn’t really get the producer the value back for the whole animal and what they’ve invested in the cost for doing the program,” McDade explains. “The pet food industry was looking to use other things that may not have a specific retail value or need – some trim and bones and things like that have come in at a pretty high demand. So that allows the producer to sell it with the claim attached and then sort of recapture the investment that they’ve made on maybe a one or two retailer demand.”

That segment has taken off like wildfire, and most of the producers who sell to the pet industry have been pretty much tapped out, so it’s developed nicely.

“We’ve had a few partners who came in and got certified through our labels program and then we went out to investigate the pet industry, started to attend their shows and found that claims on pet food are kind of vast and most of the products don’t go through USDA and FSIS,” McDade says. “There’s a bit of a different program for labeling; some of them do if they’re putting a human grade claim on, but the competitive edge that the partners we have are getting from the GAP claim is an indisputable third-party audited program and so it’s starting to pop up all over the place in mass retailers in the pet industry.”

GAP has also expanded its Labeled Produce Authorization (LPA) program to include assistance connecting the entire supply chain and launched its first-ever scientific advisory committee at the end of last year, which is adding a layer of expertise and a third-party perspective to the conversation.