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Innovation, 'social license' and economics take focus at Livestock Care Conference

Posted: March 26, 2013

There's no question farm animal welfare is an issue putting livestock industries in the spotlight and driving new expectations. But what are the best pathways to bolster consumer trust while balancing industry economics and practical challenges?

That was the crux of the discussion and debate at the 2013 Livestock Care Conference, where a range of farm animal care experts, industry leaders, producers, students and other stakeholders took stock of the state of the welfare issue, industry progress and how to capture the opportunities ahead. The conference was hosted by Alberta Farm Animal Care (AFAC), which represents the major livestock producer organizations in the province, along with the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association.

"In a market system, the real driver of change is through the consumer," says Dr. James Reynolds of the College of Veterinary Medicine, Western University in Ponoma, California. "Livestock industries have a license to produce. Society gives the license and it comes with conditions. The challenge is to continually foster understanding and strengthen that relationship."

Livestock producers and their industries represent the front line of responsible livestock welfare and animal husbandry practices. Through efforts such as AFAC and similar-targeted efforts in other jurisdictions, they have emerged as leaders in promoting awareness, communication, research, guidelines and innovation on farm animal care.

Today there are increasingly higher expectations for transparency - not only communicating and explaining but also increasingly 'proving' best practices and approaches, says Reynolds. In Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere there has been a whirlwind of activity and progress over many years now reaching a high point.

The heavyweights of the global food industry are ramping-up their focus and programs related to animal welfare. "It's absolutely a top priority," says Dr. Lily Edwards-Callaway, Animal Welfare Specialist with JBS, the world's largest animal protein company and largest processor of beef. "We strongly believe we are stewards of our animals. It's our responsibility and we take it seriously." She oversees the animal welfare programs for cattle, pigs and lambs at JBS USA. Each of the company's processing plants in Canada and the U.S. now has a certified animal handling auditor and runs three different types of auditing systems.

In Canada, a key focus of activity in recent years has been the development of updated Codes of Practice for the care and handling of farm animals - a process coordinated through the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC). "The Codes" are guidelines designed to support responsible livestock welfare practices and keep everyone involved in livestock care and handling on the same page, says Jackie Wepruk, Manager of NFACC. They also provide a clear reference livestock industries can point to in addressing questions and rising expectations from consumers, the marketplace and society in general.

Individual commodity and producer organizations are helping drive a range of complementary, species-specific programs. Several case study examples were highlighted at the conference through presentations by Mike Slomp, Industry and Member Services Manager of Alberta Milk; Trevor Prout, Producer Programs Manager of Alberta Chicken Producers; and Catherine Scovil, Executive Director of the Canadian Pork Council.

At a broader international level, one of the big drivers is the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the major intergovernmental global organization responsible for improving animal health worldwide, with a total of 178 member countries including Canada. While OIE has traditionally focused on animal health, in recent years it has expanded the definition of this mandate to include a stronger focus on livestock welfare. This has included leading the development of consensus-based international standards for livestock welfare approaches, through the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

The Livestock Care Conference main agenda also featured an open-format "bear pit" session on the tough issues and buzz topics in farm animal care today, moderated by Dr. Clover Bench of the University of Alberta. The discussion was punctuated by strong viewpoints, frank talk and calls to action, along with reminders of the strength in working together and thinking bold about future potential. Economic implications and practical measures were a key focus.

"Continuing to share knowledge and build coordinated approaches is one of the clear priorities ahead," says Heini Hehli, a Rimbey-area dairy producer and chair of AFAC. "We all have the same interest in providing leadership in farm animal care, among all areas of livestock production."

A range of reports and resources out of the Livestock Care Conference are available for industry and media use, including special editions of the NewStream Farm Animal Care e-newsletter. Visit www.afac.ab.ca/lcc for LCC details and links and www.meristem.com for NewStream content and sign-up.