Applebee's enforcement of an extensive set of new animal welfare guidelines on its suppliers has brought a quick response from livestock and related industries.

Ten groups, including the National Pork Board, expressed “deep concern” over a Dec. 19, 2001 letter that Applebee's sent to suppliers.

In that letter, Applebee's called on all suppliers to adhere to “minimum animal welfare standards” and to work to “continuously improve the minimum living conditions of animals.”

The industry groups agree with Applebee's that animal welfare issues are of “paramount importance.”

However, they pointed out in a Jan. 16 letter to packers that some of Applebee's standards are not grounded in science. They also noted that the letter's language resembled terminology often used by animal rights groups.

For instance, Applebee's standards use the term chicken “flesh” rather than chicken meat, says Paul Sundberg, DVM, assistant vice president for veterinary issues, National Pork Board. They also stipulate that poultry and egg suppliers not debeak chickens and ducks. And, the standards require suppliers to “begin a process to phase out utilizing farms that continuously confine sows to stalls.” In the letter, Applebee's also vows not to accept any suppliers that “mutilate animals for convenience (needle teeth clipping, tail docking)” or “practice branding of animals.”

Dangerous Precedent

Sundberg says Applebee's is setting a dangerous precedent in trying to address animal welfare concerns alone.

“Addressing animal welfare in isolation without consideration of animal health, food safety and the environment is not wise and will certainly lead to unintended consequences,” the industry letter stated. Also, “mandating welfare standards that are an attempt to appease animal rights activists will not only be unrewarding, it will also force producers out of business as there are significant costs associated with housing, feeding and other animal production infrastructure.”

Sundberg says what happened in the United Kingdom is a prime example. Foodservice outlets, fueled by animal rights activists, required producers to make changes in the name of animal welfare. When those changes were made, more demands were imposed. Animal welfare standards became a moving target, he says. That type of activity helped lead to the demise of many in the British pork industry.

“Basing husbandry practices on sound science is not only the right thing to do for the animals' benefit, it also provides a relative stability that allows the food animal producer to address welfare concerns in an ongoing, practical and sustainable manner,” suggests the industry letter.

“As sound science evolves, animal welfare guidelines will change,” notes Sundberg.

Such things as vaccination, weaning, tail docking and other production practices criticized in the Applebee's letter may be short-term stressors. But they provide long-term welfare, health and management benefits to the operation, according to the industry letter.

Swine Welfare Projects

The Swine Care Handbook is being completely revised and will be available the end of February, says Sundberg. For example, producers are no longer given specific guidelines for gestation stall size as no research was found to support a specific stall for a specific size animal. But recommendations are made to provide for sow comfort in stalls.

The Pork Board has allocated $400,000 to find animal welfare answers for sow mortality, sow housing, transportation of young pigs and proper timing of euthanasia.

A series of fact sheets being developed for producers and veterinarians will cover ethical treatment of farm animals, welfare considerations and food safety, transportation and handling issues and others.

Efforts continue on developing a new Swine Welfare Indexing System, led by the National Pork Board's Animal Welfare Committee. The Index, which is being pilot tested on multiple farms in the U.S, lists objective production measurements for producers.

The first index being developed is for sow gestation housing. The work is being tested in coordination with the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and university swine and animal science specialists.