When fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp. required all of its beef suppliers to pass an animal welfare audit in 1998, it began a new era in the objective measurement of humane handling as a requirement to do business. Since that time, certification programs aimed at improving the humane treatment of food animals have grown. Some companies are seeing that marketing progressive animal welfare programs is a strategic advantage.

The newest certification is the “Temple Grandin Responsible Cattle Care Program.” Introduced in June of this year, it’s a collaboration between Food Safety Net Services and noted animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D. The catalyst for the audit is Grandin’s 2017 article in the Journal of Meat Science, “On-farm conditions that compromise animal welfare that can be monitored at the slaughter plant.”

The article was the expression of Grandin’s long-held position that many on-farm welfare conditions can be evaluated at the slaughter plant. She says, “To go out to every farm is hard. But to go to a few packing plants isn’t hard. You can’t audit everything at the plant, but there are a lot of things you can audit. Basic items like lameness, body condition scoring, swollen hocks, bruises. Over half the things you would need to audit at the farm, I can audit at the plant.”

Enter Food Safety Net Services (FSNS) division. Ruth Woiwode, manager of livestock audit services at FSNS, says Grandin’s article was ripe for adoption into an audit.

“It was out there for anyone to take and use, so my thought process was, ‘We’ll take that, look at those parameters, and put it into an audit that would be performed at the plant.’”

Woiwode, part of a team at FSNS that worked with Grandin, says, “The idea of the Grandin Responsible Cattle Care Program was born as a way of recognizing her work and contribution to the industry, partnering with her to answer ongoing needs in the industry, while contributing to her legacy.”

Pitching in

The search to find the right company to implement the audit led FSNS to Nolan Ryan Beef. The company is owned by Major League Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher and Texas rancher Nolan Ryan, and other local ranching partners. Founded in 2000, it offers product lines including Nolan Ryan Texas Angus Beef, 34 Prime Beef, Nolan Ryan Grass-fed Beef and Nolan Ryan Signature meats.

Cody Marburger, chief operating officer, recalls how the match was made.

“We were approached by FSNS about the program. As soon as we heard about how it was designed and what it stood for, we knew immediately it was something we wanted to be a part of. Nolan, a cattle rancher and steward of the land himself, shares in Dr. Grandin’s vision and passion, so for us, this was a very natural partnership.”

The company’s participation in the program is prominently incorporated in its marketing.

“One of the unique things we’ve done is to incorporate a QR code into marketing materials that allows consumers to scan the code and be directed to our website for more information about the program. We know humane handling and animal welfare are key priorities for today’s consumer and we want to make sure that they are well informed and confident that we share those values.”

When asked if the program will soon be applied to other species, Grandin says the approach is slow and steady.

“Beef and dairy are the ones they are starting with,” Grandin says. “No pigs and chickens yet.” It’s important, she emphasizes, “to roll it out slowly,” and get it right, before moving to the next one.

GAP focus

Since forming in 2008, the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) has been a leader in farm animal welfare certification. In that time, GAP has steadily grown and expanded its repertoire of certifications while staying tightly focused on its core strengths. After starting with a pilot launch in 2009 using 86 certified farms, the GAP program grew to over 3,700 farms and 416 million animals that were GAP certified by 2018.

GAP’s Animal Welfare Certified Program uses a multi-tiered labeling strategy, called the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating System, letting consumers know how the animal was raised. The higher the step number, the more the animal’s environment mimics a natural environment. This multi-tiered approach has strict standards that promote animal welfare, as well as encouraging producers to make continuous improvement in farm animal welfare.

Anne Malleau, executive director of GAP, is emphatic about the factors that have made GAP a success. “There are so many programs in the marketplace, and there’s a discrepancy in robustness,” she says. “We want to make sure that we are authentic from farm to fork. We do that by auditing and certifying every single farm every 15 months; auditing the chain of custody from slaughter forward; and delivering what the consumer wants.”

Libba Letton, media relations for GAP, adds: “When you see a chart comparing different animal welfare programs, it judges all the programs based on standards, but that’s not all there is. If someone says ‘All our farms get certified,’ it doesn’t mean all of their farms are audited. All of our farms are audited and certified every 15 months.”

Business sense

A key step to GAP’s development occurred in 2014, Malleau says. “We learned that for any standards program to work, you really need the business side. In 2014 we created a framework for a business team and added Diane McDade as business development manager in 2016.”

McDade adds: “When I started, I looked for new industries to take parts of the carcass that hadn’t been embraced in the past. For example, pet food; slaughterhouses hadn’t been segregating and labeling GAP offals. Now we have a nicely developed pet food category, with several premium brands labeling GAP on their products. Partners in the pet world are really finding a huge advantage for their brand to have the GAP claim on it. It’s brought extra value to producers and processing partners in raw material.”

While staying true to its fundamental audit regimen, GAP continues its focus on marketing the certification. Malleau says, “In January, we had a soft launch of a new label, with partners involved in the rebrand. We have a big launch this fall and feel it will be very attractive to consumers.”

“I think the support and robustness of how Diane and her team support our partners and add value, helps them find markets for their product that rewards their commitment to animal welfare and our program.”

McDade says, “It’s a strategic advantage proposition. Companies come for that strategic advantage, and it sets them apart from the rest of the industry.”

Pitman Family Farms

David Pitman is the third generation leader of Pitman Family Farms in Sanger, California. His family’s company has been GAP certified since GAP’s beginning, and was the first farm in the United States to receive GAP’s highest certification as a Step 5 operation for its “Mary’s Chicken” line.

Pitman acknowledges the advantage GAP makes in marketing: “We achieved the first Step 5 for chickens. When we got the Step 5 rating, sales really did pick up because we had a scorecard. We were doing about 300 birds a week before it was Step 5, then when we got the certification, it instantly jumped to 800-1,000 birds a week of these Step 5 birds. That was exciting.”

Pitman credits the unique process with the success of the GAP program. “There’s a third party that comes to visit my farms every 15 months. They visit every single site, and we have multiple sites. A lot of organizations will certify and spot check some sites, but GAP physically visits and audits every single farm. The payback is a scorecard that gives a lot more validity to what we are doing, and it pays off in the marketplace.”

Handling with care

Much of the recent activity in livestock transportation certification is focused on beef. The Beef Quality Assurance-Transport (BQAT) Certification was introduced in November 2017. The four largest packers have required that all drivers be certified by Jan 1, 2020.

The last major species without transportation certification, consumer demand had pushed the beef industry to catch up. An animal welfare leader from a major packer notes, “BQAT moved fast from the point it was launched to packers making a commitment, which tells the story of how much customers and industry wanted a certification program for truck drivers.”

North of the border, Canadian Livestock Transport (CLT) has required certification for all livestock haulers since 2007. Jennifer Woods, an animal transportation consultant and the owner of J. Woods Livestock Services, says that regulatory changes for transportation in Canada necessitate a major upgrade to CLT.

“The new requirement is that all commercial drivers are going to have to have a certificate of competency. Training will be required by law, and they’ve outlined what needs to be included in the training.”

Woods highlights two areas that will require major adjustments: Time in transit for livestock and transfer of care documentation. Addressing the transit time issue, Woods says the focus has shifted. “Before, there were so many hours they could be in transit; now it’s time off water,” she says. “Drivers are going to have to document the last time the animals had access to water; then they have to receive water within a certain amount of time, determining their time in transit.”

As for driver training, there is a paper trail that is required. “You can’t just drop cattle off at an auction barn or slaughter plant. There has to be a transfer of care document where the plant or auction barn actually accepts the transfer of the animal over to them.”

After a one-year statutory notification period, the new regulations will take effect, in February 2020.