Consumers are becoming increasingly interested in knowing where their meat comes from and, more specifically, how the animals that produced it were treated, according to the most recent National Beef Quality Audit (BQA). That trend explains another: More and more animal-welfare auditing programs are appearing — and more and more producers are signing up.  One of the upsides: These programs provide a way for the industry to tell its story, says Leann Saunders, president of IMI Global, which performs audits for the Global Animal Partnership animal welfare program that supplies Whole Foods stores. “How do we talk about the good things we have in place?” Saunders asks. “And if we have bad practices, we need to get them under control. This is a way for us to positively communicate that.”

The animal-welfare/beef-quality link
There are, of course, many reasons to be concerned about animal welfare, and one of them is the quality argument. The connection between how animals are treated and the quality of the beef they produce is a direct one, says  Ty McDonald, quality control manager at Verified Beef. The company recently added an animal-care component to its programs. “The more we take care of the animal’s well-being, the higher-quality product we are going to produce,” he says. “From a physiological and biological standpoint, happy, healthy animals produce a quality product.”

Saunders agrees. “Stress issues in cattle directly relate to quality issues on the meat side, such as dark cutters  in beef,” she says. “As much as we can keep them comfortable and happy, the better it is for everyone in the supply chain, and the better quality product we have.” Animal welfare also connects with issues more indirectly related to the end product. “Anytime you stress an animal,  there’s a correlation to increased sickness, less ability to eat and less ability to rest. It all relates to the animal’s ability to convert feed into lean meat and to marbling,” Saunders adds. “It’s all tied together.”

Giving the people what they want
As consumers become further and further disconnected from production agriculture, there’s a resulting gap in understanding of food production. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in knowing more about it. “They’re eager for information,” McDonald says. “That consumer wants transparency. But it’s tough for the consumer to go on the Internet or to watch the news and sift through all the information to find the truth.”

 

Verified Beef’s new Cattle Care and Handling program, which adheres to BQA standards for cattle care, represents the company’s effort to put more of that information  at consumers’ fingertips. “We’re tryingto be proactive by being receptive to what consumers want,” he says. “They want to know that animals are treated humanely so they can feel good they’re consuming a product that was cared for throughout its lifetime.”

 

For Adele Douglass, founder and executive director of Certified Humane, an organization that certifies animals were raised and  slaughtered (it’s a birth-through-death program) according to the program’s animalcare standards, her organization’s success and growth prove that consumers do care. “When I started this program, some people said that people didn’t care how animals were raised. But I said they do care — I care, and I think I’m pretty average,” she says. “And I was right. When I started the program in 2003, 143,000 animals were raised under our standards. In 2012, there were 76.8 million. That’s because of consumer demand. When they see these products, they buy them.”

To make it easier for consumers to find and buy Certified Humane products, the organization created an app that shows the stores where they are sold. The app is currently getting 12,000 hits a month.

“The trend we see with retailers — and they know their consumers best — you definitely see it matters to consumers,” Saunders says. “When you talk to consumers, some know a lot about it and ask specific questions, and some retailers are creating initiatives that are pretty specific. Others just want more generic programs. They just want animals to be taken care of,  but they may not know specifics.” Some of the factors that can drive those differences, she says, might include the consumer’s level of eduction, access to information and income level.

Andrew Gunther also stresses the access to information as a driving force behind consumer interest in animal-welfare auditing and certification. He is the director of the Animal Welfare Approved program,  which of fers animal-wel farecertification to participating producers. “With the advent of the Internet and cameras on everything, there’s a new era of transparency,” he says. “Consumers do know more, and they’re going to continue to want to know more and understand more. You have to evolve trust with your consumers, and that’s only done by being very transparent. It’s more important as each week or month goes by.

“Farmers ignore the consumer at their peril,” Gunther adds. “We have to be responsive to what our customers need and want.”

The premium question
With the programs’ increased popularity, premiums for participants may be on the rise too — with Animal Welfare Approved, producers are earning at least 20 percent, and sometimes much more, over market prices, Gunther says. Douglass agrees that participating producers do get a premium, because “a lot of people are looking for Certified Humane beef.” And that’s key to her vision for  the program. “We’re trying to expand the market, trying to getthem more customers,” she says. “We want to reward them.”

But there may be even more reason to participate in a certification program: It could become a baseline for doing business, McDonald says. “Down the road, this issue of handling cattle and making it transparent to the public is going to be bigger and bigger,” he says. “There’s going to come a time, in my mind, when you won’t be able to market your calves to the next producer down the chain without some sort of documented, independent verification that you have cared for and handled your cattle as specified by industry guidelines.”

Documentation and verification
In some cases, these programs may be simply documenting practices already being done; in other cases, they may require improving or changing those practices, but in all cases, they’re bringing a focus to the issue that is likely a positive for the industry. “I think this is primarily documenting practices already being done, but it does give a producer an opportunity to implement some practices that could improve his bottom line,” McDonald says. “The animals were always well cared for, but maybe some of these practices were not economically feasible to implement. This helps the producer add value to his set of calves, and it adds value to the industry as a whole.”

For producers with good practices in place, it’s probably more about documenting those practices as an assurance to consumers, Saunders agrees. “But I do think there are situations where these programs improve practices and make us all do a better job in the supply chain.”

At Animal Welfare Approved, an independent, confidential review of its records revealed that more than half of ranchers had to make changes in order to comply with the program, Gunther says, so “we are confident we are changing practices. And we think our standards represent the highest outcomes for the cow. My word of caution: Don’t mislead your consumer, because someone will leak that out.”

He stresses the importance of third-party verification in any certification program. “Make sure it’s honest, transparent and someone else is verifying it. We’re an independent voice that says someone who knows what they’re talking about — has five years of experience in food-animal production, specifically beef — has been on this ranch, has been in the kill plant, and can verify what you’re eating. It’s third-party verification of a set of principles.”

Like Gunther, Douglass prides her program on the knowledge its auditors have and can share with producers. “The key to our program is our inspectors. They all have master’s degrees or higher in animal science. And they are species-specific, so a poultry specialist doesn’t go to a beef ranch,” Douglass says. “They can give the producers information. Producers have always been very happy with the knowledge of inspectors and our scientific committee. People stay on the program for many years.”

This is an ideal outcome from Douglass’ point of view, whose bottom-line goal is supporting American agriculture. “We are a food-producing nation; I don’t want us to become a food-importing nation,” she says. “We have to protect our farmers. The only way I see of doing that is for our farmers to be the best in the world, and this is one way of accomplishing that.”