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Canada's pork industry part of global trend to animal welfare audits

by 5m Editor
24 January 2003, at 12:00am

Banff, Alta. - "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." This was a recurring theme of presentations by two leading animal care experts at the Banff Pork Seminar, January 14-17, who spoke on the role of Canada's pork industry in meeting

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"It's very clear that we have entered a new age of consumer and retailer expectations about the products they buy and the foods they eat," says Dr. Tina Widowski of the University of Guelph, who led the session along with Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University. "The consumer wants assurances and verifications about the health, nutrition and food safety of the products, about the environmental impacts of agricultural practices, and now, increasingly, about animal welfare."

Major food companies around the world, from fast-food giants to grocery chains, are responding by working with suppliers to ensure high standards of animal care as part of food quality assurance systems, say Widowski and Grandin. In Canada, the Canadian Pork Council has established an Animal Welfare Working Group that is now in the early stages of examining auditable standards for animal welfare in the Canadian hog industry.

"It's not yet clear what direction animal welfare audits will take in Canada - how they will be administered or what types of measures will be used on farms - but some form of verification of the standards of animal care provided on farms is likely to be in our future," says Widowski, a member of the Working Group and a leading researcher on livestock animal welfare and behavior.

Developing practical systems for on-farm animal welfare audits is a major challenge, she says. "The trick is that welfare is basically a subjective state - it's how an animal feels, and that's impossible to know exactly without being inside the animal's head."

Still, years of research have led to many animal welfare indicators that can be measured objectively, says Grandin, an internationally recognized leader in designing livestock handling facilities and an expert on livestock animal care. For the last four years, Grandin has worked with McDonald's and other food companies on designing and implementing auditing systems for meat packing plants. She says the key to a good auditing system is identifying specific, reliable indicators, such as number of times electric prods are used or number of times animals squeal or "vocalize" in specific situations. For sows in an on-farm situation, important things to measure include body condition, lameness, air quality and other factors.

"A good auditing system cannot be vague," explains Grandin. "I can't stand the words 'adequately,' 'properly' or 'sufficient', because one person's idea of what's proper might be another person's idea of poor handling. In a good auditing system, we want to get away from somebody's opinion of what is good or bad."

Grandin has developed a numeric scoring system for assessing handling of cattle and pigs at meat plants, which many large corporations now use to improve animal welfare.

Regular measurements and audits over the long-term are key to an effective process, she says. "When things aren't evaluated regularly, they have a tendency to deteriorate. As the major food companies have started regular audits of their big suppliers over the past few years in North America, I've seen more improvements than I have in a 25 year career of working in this area."

Widowski says Grandin's approach is a good example of where the global trend is headed. Referring to examples from the U.S., Australia and Europe, she explained the two main types of measures that have emerged for practical on-farm animal welfare assessment. The first category includes "engineering standards" for housing and management, and the second category includes "animal-based standards" or measures of the animals' actual responses to the production system.

"Most audit systems include a combination of engineering standards and animal-based standards," says Widowski. "Ultimately, you need a cocktail of measures to get a good idea of animal welfare." On-farm welfare assessments often include components such as "yes" and "no" checklists and detailed record keeping of health, mortality, the physical environment and management practices.

The Banff Pork Seminar, held annually since 1972, is one of the premier pork seminars in North America. It is coordinated by the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Sciences, University of Alberta, in cooperation with Alberta Pork, Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development and other pork industry representatives. Full program and proceedings of the 2003 Banff Pork Seminar are available on the new Seminar Web site, www.banffpork.ca.

Source: Banff Pork Seminar - 23rd January 2003

5m Editor