AS part of an 18-month process, Butterball, the nation's largest turkey producer, announced changes to its animal care and well-being program.
Butterball announced Sept. 17 that it is "striving to set industry standards" for the nation's turkey producers and has taken steps to renew and "aggressively strengthen" its commitment to ensuring the safety and care of its animals.
Among its efforts, the company said it is pilot testing video surveillance of its turkey production operations to ensure the best care and handling of its animals at all times. Video footage will be reviewed by both internal and independent, third-party experts.
"There is a lot of video-based auditing done in the processing plant side of the business," Butterball chief executive officer Rod Brenneman said. "There are third-party companies out there that set up the technology in the plants and audit them on an ongoing basis, but that has not been done in the live production side of the business. We're working with one of those companies and doing some pilot testing now throughout our system to try to take that same type of technology to the live operations."
Brenneman said the pilot project, along with new care and handling procedures and methods also being tested, are part of a renewed focus on continuous improvement to ensure that Butterball's animal welfare is the "best in the industry."
As part of its animal care program, Brenneman said Butterball focused its efforts across four key areas:
1. Animal Care & Well-Being Advisory Council. Butterball created a new, independent council of animal and poultry experts to help address important animal care, well-being and food safety issues today and in the future.
2. Enriched employee training. Because the welfare of its animals is in the hands of its employees, Butterball has increased and enriched its training program to ensure that all employees are up to speed on company animal welfare standards, including its zero-tolerance policy.
3. Independent American Humane Assn. (AHA) certification. AHA is the nation's first independent, third-party humane certification program for farm animals. Through rigorous inspections and examinations, AHA audits and certifies that Butterball meets or exceeds the AHA Humane Certification standards.
4. Continuous improvement of operational processes. Butterball is already putting the advice of AHA and the advisory council of experts to use by evaluating on-farm and operational processes as a way to ensure the best animal care and handling procedures.
Butterball was the target of an undercover video last November filmed by animal rights group Mercy For Animals. The video was shot in October using a hidden camera by an "investigator" for the group who had obtained employment at several farms in North Carolina.
Prosecutors did not find sufficient evidence to file charges in the case, although a similar case in January 2012 led to the firing of several workers who later pled guilty to animal cruelty charges. Butterball said animal health and welfare remain its "number-one priority" and reiterated that it has "zero tolerance" for mistreatment of turkeys on its farms.
Butterball's video surveillance project is one key to upholding that zero-tolerance promise, as is the firm's commitment to enhanced and ongoing employee training and engagement.
Along with having the input of its new advisory council, however, Butterball's biggest commitment might be to obtaining and maintaining AHA certification.
Butterball partnered with AHA to conduct a comprehensive, two-year audit of its system-wide operations, and the company's fresh, whole turkeys are now approved to carry the certification label as an American Humane Certified product.
"In order to continuing improve as a company, you have to be looking at yourself, and you also have to have outside people looking into what you're doing," Brenneman explained. "We want to be held to other people's standards as well as our own, and we've partnered with AHA as an independent, third-party group with their own criteria. They're auditing our facilities, and we've been able to be certified for our whole-bird products this year, and our whole hope and goal is that by the middle of next year, the entire Butterball system will be certified."
AHA recently announced that its efforts have protected nearly 1 billion farm animals through its certification program.
Butterball's success in these latest animal care efforts could set the stage for animal well-being discussions for quite some time.
Editor's Note: Butterball CEO Brenneman discusses his company's efforts to improve animal care and well-being via the "Feedstuffs In Focus" podcast online at www.Feedstuffs.com.