Talk is cheap in the animal welfare debate when animal activists depict a chilling image of tortured animals on America's hog farms.

Unless hog producers take steps to prove animal activists wrong, the public won't know fact from fiction, says Don Butler, director of government relations and public affairs at Murphy-Brown.

For the country's largest pork producer, proof is in their new Animal Welfare Management System (AWMS), which comprises all of the care procedures of the National Pork Board's Swine Welfare Assurance Program, (SWAP) plus added checks and balances across the 14-state enterprise.

The animal welfare program provides solid evidence that the company is serious about addressing animal welfare issues, Butler told University of Illinois students in an undergraduate seminar class on current topics in swine production.

“We realized early on it is imperative that we have some means of assuring our customers that those claims are ludicrous,” Butler explains. “We had to demonstrate that we were doing the right thing by our animals.”

Bringing in the Experts

The first task in developing the new program was to evaluate current practices. They contacted Stanley Curtis, professor emeritus of animal science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana; and Temple Grandin, a renowned animal handling expert and associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. The duo examined every production practice and identified shortcomings in animal care from air quality in confinement buildings to proper use of euthanasia.

These internationally recognized experts considered most of Murphy-Brown's practices satisfactory, but the review found that the company needed to improve some of their hog handling methods, including employee training in that area.

All animal handlers involved in transporting animals must now be certified under the National Pork Board's Trucker Quality Assurance (TQA) Program. Today, even contract haulers must be certified to work for the company.

The company had identified sow lesions as an area of concern, but prior to AWMS implementation, they had no formal system to track the frequency and severity of lesions to learn the extent of the problem. Murphy-Brown worked with Curtis to develop a scoring system to systematically assess the skin condition of the breeding stock.

Since implementing the AWMS system, breeding females are checked and scored three times during each reproductive cycle — at first service as they become available to breed, at 28 to 35 days after breeding, and prior to entering the farrowing facility. The goal is to assess the status of preexisting lesions that might affect farrowing performance. Veterinary treatment is provided for the lesions, and a root cause analysis is conducted to determine whether changes are necessary in procedures or in the facility.

All on Board

An animal welfare program is only effective if it can be implemented throughout a given production system. Otherwise, employees will choose their own methods, which may not always be optimal.

“If everyone is doing their own thing, that's not good enough in an outfit like ours where we expect everybody to do the same thing — follow the established best-management practices, all the time,” says Butler.

Therefore, the company developed and field-tested new procedures before presenting the program to its production employees. The program encompasses a system of daily, weekly and quarterly checklists to ensure adequate steps are taken to provide high-quality animal care. They also have an internal auditing department that inspects facilities and addresses environmental and animal welfare issues.

“That, in and of itself, was not enough to convince McDonald's or Wendy's or anyone else that the company was following proper procedures,” says Butler. “We needed third-party verification.”

They found a verifier in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Process Verified Program to conduct random audits in different company locations. The company expects all sites to be prepared for a USDA site visit at any time. Butler believes some kind of third-party verification audit is in the future for all U.S. pork producers.

The Animal Care Conundrum

Any sound animal welfare program must identify and prioritize the factors that influence animal well-being, says Butler.

To date, there is no scientific consensus on a set of standards for animal comfort and contentment. Some groups believe that standards should be based on how the animal thinks and feels. Others base care decisions on factors that are observable and measurable.

“The different groups are arguing back and forth, and we're the industry caught in the middle,” says Butler. “I don't know where that trail ends. What we (Murphy-Brown) have chosen to do is to manage the things we can identify and measure. If you can measure it, you can manage it.

“We believe the path we've taken is the right one. And our customers seem to understand that,” he adds.

Confronting the controversial housing issue, Butler says the company has reviewed the research literature and determined there is not enough scientific evidence to prove that group housing is superior to individual stalls. (See related story on page 10).

Murphy-Brown is conducting its own commercial-scale research project to look at the variations on group housing from a management and cost standpoint.

A willingness to consider new ideas and various options, and continually look for ways to improve practices, has contributed to the success of the business, Butler says.

Customer Communication

Once the AWMS was in place, they realized they had not placed enough importance on communicating with the company's customers, such as national restaurant and grocery store chains, about their new animal welfare standards. Customer communication is the second-biggest challenge after initiating an animal welfare program, Butler says.

“I believe it is incumbent on us to tell our customers about the good things we are doing,” he says. “If we don't, other people will fill that vacuum with misinformation.”