Last week, Tyson Foods Inc. announced the launch of its Tyson FarmCheck program, which will include animal-welfare audits of beef, pork and poultry farms that supply animals to the meatpacker’s plants.

R-CALF USA this week criticized the plan, saying it “exemplifies supply-chain control found only in monopolistic markets.”

It its news release announcing the FarmCheck program, Tyson describes it as a service to its farmers, customers and consumers. The company says the audits already are underway on a trial basis with some hog farms, and will expand to include chicken and cattle farms by January 2014.

"We believe the farmers who supply us are the best in the world, and I think the audits will verify this," says Tyson president and CEO Donnie Smith. "But, if we find problems, we want them fixed right away.

"Where else but in a monopoly controlled market can a corporation infringe on the private property rights of independent farmers and ranchers to extract valuable marketing information without having to pay a dime?" asked R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard.

 According to Bullard and R-CALF, the program is “nothing but a means by which the mega-corporation can exert its muscle to violate the privacy of hard-working, independent family farm and ranch cattle producers; extract from those independent family cattle producers valuable marketing information at no cost; and then charge consumers a premium price for the information it has extracted for free.”

Tyson claims to be the first major meat packer to provide this type of audit, but of course, supplier audits are common across many industries. Wal-Mart, for example, in its 2009 Sustainability Report, says it conducted 11,500 audits in more than 7,000 supplier factories during 2008. And that was down 19 percent from 2007.

For years, McDonald’s and other large restaurant chains have required animal-welfare audits of packing plants from which they purchase their meat.

Also, animal-welfare audits are not new to livestock producers, although the programs have been voluntary. Several organizations including Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved and the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) offer audits and certifications producers can use to improve their management and marketing. For information on these programs, read Comparing welfare standards from Drovers/CattleNetwork.

From Tyson’s release, it is somewhat unclear what the audits would entail and exactly whom they would audit. The company currently is assembling a group of experts to set standards and audit procedures. The release notes that Tyson works with more than 12,000 independent livestock and poultry farmers, including 5,000 family poultry farmers, 3,000 family hog farmers and 4,000 family cattle farmers.

In any case, R-CALF views the audits as exploitation. "If Tyson wants this valuable marketing information, it should offer a premium to family farmers and ranchers who wish to participate,” Bullard says. “But, Tyson knows it possesses monopolistic power in the U.S. cattle market and it is brazenly exercising its monopolistic power to exploit independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers.

R-CALF says it will ask the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Justice to immediately investigate Tyson's FarmCheck program before it goes into effect to determine if it violates U.S. antitrust laws and the Packers and Stockyards Act by eliminating choices and competition for independent U.S. farmers and ranchers.