Spreading animal welfare: Standards transforming animal agriculture worldwide

Published Aug 12

Since Global Animal Partnership created its first pilot program in 2008, our goal has always been to improve the lives of farm animals. We started with standards for chicken, pigs and beef cattle and have since added turkeys, bison, meat goats and meat sheep. We have continually increased the number of farms and ranches that are certified to our 5- Step® Animal Welfare Rating program over the past 8 years.

While some of our farmers and ranchers were already familiar with incorporating practices that provide good animal welfare, for many, becoming certified to the 5-Step® Animal Welfare Rating program was something new. For newcomers, there can be a big learning curve, and in partnership with our certifiers, we work to help them understand the complexities – and benefits – of following and adhering to our animal welfare standards.

In this program, farmers and ranchers learn how to manage animal health without using antibiotics; and how to document that they’re in compliance with the standards through record keeping methods (yes, that means paperwork)!

Spreading good animal welfare practices is an organic, continuous process, and it’s easy to see why some people misunderstand our efforts, our standards, and how we enforce them.

Why are so many farms at Step 1 and so few at Step 5?

We created five Steps to provide farmers and ranchers with a platform to make changes incrementally. The Steps are designed from a systems perspective – moving animals from indoor systems to outdoor and pasture-based systems. While we believe outdoor systems provide animals with the greatest opportunity to express natural behaviors, we still firmly believe that good animal welfare can also be achieved within completely indoor systems. Ultimately, what drives the farms and ranches to advance to higher step ratings are the consumers who buy their products.

Why does GAP require audits only once every 15 months, instead of yearly?

This way, the certifier can evaluate the farm in a different season each visit. Because each season poses unique challenges to the farmer or ranch, this 15-month interval ensures that over time, each operation and the animals they raise are audited in all four seasons. Also GAP is one of the few programs that requires every single farm and ranch to be audited, not just a random sampling.

Why are audits scheduled in advance? Doesn’t that leave farmers/ranchers time to “clean up” any bad practices?

First, a good auditor can tell if a farmer or rancher is trying to cover something up. Most management practices that result in good animal welfare are the result of a great investment of time. It’s hard to hide a bunch of unhappy, unhealthy animals. Besides, an audit is not meant to be a “gotcha” surprise spot check. It’s an in-depth visit and two-way conversation between the auditor and the farmer to make sure that the auditor understands how the farm operates and is managed, as well as how the animals look under those practices so that an accurate certification decision can be made. What are the most common problems that auditors find? The most common issue is record keeping. Many farms aren’t used to having a formal process for how they do things and keeping track of it. The program provides the opportunity for producers to learn how this new level of accountability can also be helpful in making management decisions.

What if the auditor sees signs of animal abuse?

If an auditor saw it, the Certifier would let us know that the farm or ranch was denied certification. Similarly, we have a comprehensive process for investigating any allegations or reports of certified farms or ranches not complying with our standards, including charges of animal cruelty. We work with our third-party certifiers to ensure any 5- Step® certified producer not meeting our standards or breaking the law would be removed from the program and reported to the authorities.

What about the claim that Step 1-2 birds and pigs can be housed in the same crowded conditions as conventionally raised animals?

The difference is that every 5-Step® certified farm has a minimum space requirement for each animal, a standard that conventional farms aren’t necessarily held to. For example, Step-rated pigs must be allotted not only a minimum space requirement, but also a solid floor and plentiful, clean bedding.

Why are the death rates for young animals not lower on GAP farms than on conventional farms?

This is comparing apples and oranges. Firstly, 5-Step® certified animals are not given antibiotics (though sick animals are required to be treated and marketed as non-Step rated) or growth hormones, and are fed a diet containing no animal by-products.

Secondly, many aspects of the housing system of our 5-Step® certified farms differ from conventional farms. For example, our sows are not permitted to be kept in conventionally used gestation stalls or farrowing crates, which restrict her movements during pregnancy and when she is with her piglets. Alternatively, we require that sows be housed in pens during this time, where they are able to exercise, build nests and often are healthier and live longer than those kept in systems that utilize crates. While there is a higher risk or piglets being accidentally laid by the mother and killed in a pen system, we often find that it’s not necessarily the case. Starting at Step 1, the GAP 5-Step® Standards for Pigs also prohibits tail docking and requires that piglets nurse longer and pig is given a minimum of 75% solid floor with bedding.

Raising animals takes expert care and understanding of a wide assortment of factors – it’s a profession where you can be guaranteed a lifetime of continued learning. Taking the leap to follow and embrace our standards and successfully completing a certification process is a level of transparency that should be applauded.

For consumers who want to know how their meat was raised, or just want the assurance certification brings, the 5-Step® Animal Welfare Rating program is a perfect fit.

As an informed consumer, company, brand, farmer, or rancher, you can change the face of animal agriculture. Join us in shifting the food industry to be more animal welfare conscious and GAP 5-Step Rated.

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