When Riley Lewis heard that his packer, Hormel Foods, was planning third-party audits of hog farms, the Forest City, IA, producer admits his initial reaction was less than lukewarm.
Lewis first learned of Hormel’s Farm Animal Care and Treatment Specifications (FACTS) program this past winter at an informational meeting in Des Moines, IA. The program, which requires producers to adhere to a specific set of animal care standards through development of standard operating procedures and other documentation, would award no premiums for the extra effort.
In addition, producers were told that they would be subject to third-party audits conducted on behalf of the packer to help ensure the principles of the program were being carried out. Lewis comments, “The rollout of FACTS came at a time when producers were losing more than $20 per head, fighting porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome [PRRS] and really didn’t need any more challenges.”
Likewise, Tyson and JBS United have also developed their own sets of comprehensive animal care standards that suppliers must adhere to. Each of the three packers’ programs vary somewhat, but are all based upon the National Pork Board’s Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA Plus) and Transport Quality Assurance (TQA) programs. All three packers have given notification to suppliers of the potential to be subject to third-party audits, which began in 2013. “Eventually it is likely all packers will follow suit,” Stricker believes.
To help with this daunting task, Lewis, an independent pork producer, quickly turned to swine veterinary consultant Amber Stricker of Suidae Health & Production (www.suidaehp.com), based in Algona, IA. Stricker worked with Lewis’ group of growers in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa to develop a customized handbook that would allow the group to become fully compliant with the new requirements in a way they felt was practical.
“She brought us the handbook, and we went through it and picked the items that applied to our farms, and the ones that we didn’t want included, we crossed off the list,” Lewis says. The refined handbook was approved by a producer board.
Lewis’ independent producer group annually buys 80,000, 12- to 14-lb. segregated early-weaned pigs from an Illinois producer to feed out on members’ farms. Scheduling is handled by the Farmers Co-op in Forest City, which provides feed and nutritional services for the group.
“We each take a share of the pigs and load them into our nurseries. I have four nurseries and about seven other finishing sites scattered around the area, and a 2,400-head finishing site at the home farm near Forest City,” Lewis says.
“We put the pigs out on different farms in our contract grower network,” he says. At any one time, he estimates he has about 10,000 pigs on feed and feeds out about 23,000 pigs a year. The elevator coordinates marketing the hogs, 70% of which are sold to Hormel.
Meeting Packer Requirements
Lewis says he is resigned to the fact that meeting Hormel’s guidelines is necessary and will require more paperwork. He bought clipboards for his growers to help with documentation of production methods. Stricker contributed by providing customized templates to be used for recording things such as daily observations, medication use and site maintenance.
Lewis’ main concern about the program is that the additional paperwork required to comply with the new standards will take away from the valuable time growers need to work with and observe pigs in the barns.
Stricker replies: “We work with producers in an effort to consolidate and simplify the documentation so that they can continue to focus on what is important to them.”
Lewis admits: “We were not ‘Johnny on the spot’ as we should have been with rodent control. But now we have feeding stations, and we are checking them to do the best that we can.”
Suidae’s Animal Care and Training Service (ACTS) also includes an on-farm assessment and is used as an opportunity to educate producers on ways to improve their animal care practices. Tasks such as rodent control, site maintenance and treatment pen management are just a few of the aspects of care that are evaluated as part of the audit.
Third-party audits can be a positive experience and a way for producers to showcase their commitment to animal care. Furthermore, having documentation of these practices is a way for producers to get credit for what they are already doing, Stricker says.
“The packer program is about providing consumer confidence and can also be viewed as the producer’s ‘insurance policy’ amidst allegations of improper animal care or food safety issues,” she points out.
It is a continuous improvement program, which still places the emphasis on the pig, but with an extra emphasis on documentation.
“This is something you can do yourself, but don’t be afraid to ask for resources [such as Suidae Health & Production], which is important to me as an independent producer who doesn’t have a staff to handle recordkeeping, etc.,” Lewis states.
Suidae Health & Production developed the ACTS program to help producers comply with the new packer requirements, Stricker explains.
“Our program is designed to meet the animal care standards set forth by all three packers in addition to those covered in the Pork Quality Assurance Plus site assessment,” she says. Stricker also met with and reviewed the ACTS materials with the packers to ensure the service was one they could have confidence in.
“The reality is, producers are going to have to do more things in the areas of food safety and animal care to maintain consumer confidence, and also because it is the right thing to do,” Stricker says.
Each producer plan is tailored to the individual farm and the protocols are personalized to the producer’s liking in preparation for a possible packer audit. Each site premise of an operation gets a customized handbook.
The handbook provides all necessary documentation including site information, standard operating procedures, protocols and policies, packer-specific information, site records and PQA Plus/TQA materials.
Veterinarians and production specialists with Suidae Health & Production conduct an on-farm audit of each site, reviewing areas such as pharmaceutical use, disposal of sharps, treatment pen management and removal of non-ambulatory animals.
A PQA Plus site assessment is also conducted as a part of the visit.
Specific documentation includes emergency contact information for each site, proof of a valid veterinary-client-patient relationship, and training and biosecurity protocols, as well as animal health and nutrition programs.
Animal care, a big part of the program, covers how to handle piglets, growing pigs and adult animals — helping producers to always thinking about ways to do it better, Stricker says. The program includes National Pork Board’s Whistleblower policy, which provides for anonymous reporting of alleged animal abuse.
Having a written plan on euthanasia is a critical piece of animal care. “It is important to include training not only on proper euthanasia technique, but also on how to confirm insensibility and death,” she says. The Pork Board’s On-Farm Euthanasia of Swine guide is included in the producer packet of information supplied for the audit.
“Once we complete the farm assessment, we will write a brief summary of the things that the producer can improve upon,” Stricker says. Producers then receive a certificate of completion, which signifies they have met the standards of the program and are equipped to excel in the event of a third-party audit.
“The idea that a consumer would question whether or not a producer goes into their barn daily is offensive to producers who take pride in caring for their animals,” she says. “The majority of the producers out there do most things right, and now they are just being asking to record it,” she explains.
Packer audits are being conducted by Validus, which is the third-party verification service working on behalf of the packers. Stricker emphasizes that audits are always scheduled in advance. This gives veterinarians time to go through a producer’s barns and advise him or her on things to fix or improve upon, which helps put the producer at ease before going through the official audit.
“You want to do well in an audit. Like I told a group of growers recently, consider this is a chance to showcase your operation, because you are good producers who are doing things right,” she says.
Another incentive to perform well in a third-party audit is to avoid penalties as a result of failure to comply with the packer requirements. More important or critical issues are considered to be major non-conformances and carry more serious penalties, which can result in suspension or refusal of future deliveries.
Examples of major non-conformance include willful acts of neglect or abuse, electric prod misuse and failure to use an approved euthanasia method for an animal’s size and age.
In some cases, non-conformances may require a follow-up third-party audit in which the producer is responsible for covering the cost.
“So far the packer audits have gone well among the clients I work with,” Stricker says. Scores have been in the low 90s, which packers have called excellent.
“Three months after having implemented the FACTS requirements, Lewis’ contract growers are doing an excellent job of implementing the program as required,” she comments.
“If producers can show retailers and consumers everything they are doing on the farm is in adherence to best practices, I think this process will turn out to be satisfactory for the pork industry,” Stricker believes.
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