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U.S. Gets On Board Pork Quality Programs

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Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal.

The Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA Plus) program is being rapidly adopted by pork producers in the U.S., according to a series of recent news releases and statements by industry organizations and leading production companies.

The National Pork Board says that as of April 6, more than 26,000 pork producers had received PQA Plus certification. The number of sites that have received PQA Plus site status also is growing and more than 16,600 individuals have been certified.

The new program replaces the previous Pork Quality Assurance program, which was launched in 1989 and was aimed purely at improving food safety. Development of the PQA Plus program, which began in 2006, added animal wellbeing and site assessment components to the PQA program. The PQA Plus program provides producers with information about on-farm Good Production Practices (GPPs) for the promotion of pork safety and pig well-being.

“We are excited that the momentum behind the program continues to build,” said Erik Risa, manager of education programs for the Pork Checkoff. “We anticipate that recent announcements of support of the program by participants in each segment of the pork supply chain will be the drive behind more producer participation.”

With U.S. pork exports having risen sharply over the last few years, enthusiasm for the new program is no doubt partly driven by the demands of buyers in other countries, who are increasingly demanding assurance regarding production methods. Pork-producing companies like Smithfield and Cargill need to operate to internationally accepted standards in order to widen their marketing options.

Murphy-Brown LLC, the livestock production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc., announced that it is on schedule to complete the certification and farm site assessment components of the PQA Plus program for all its company-owned and contract grower-owned swine production farms in the U. S. before the end of 2009.

“As the industry leader, we are proud to report that we are on schedule to complete PQA Plus certification and farm site assessments for all 480 company-owned farms by 30 September 2009,” said Don Butler, director of government relations and public affairs for the company and chairman of the Murphy-Brown Animal Welfare Committee. “In addition, we will be assisting all of our approximately 1,700 independent farmers who grow animals for the company on a contractual basis to do the same,” he added.

Cargill goes group housing

Cargill Pork also announced in October last year that it was instituting a policy whereby it will purchase hogs only from farms that have been certified under the PQA Plus program. By December 2008 Cargill Pork’s live production business had completed PQA Plus certification site assessments for all of the 450 farms where it has production contracts.

In April this year, the company said that it had achieved eight priority animal welfare assurance objectives. Advancements are in the production, handling, transportation and harvest of hogs, it noted. The program establishes strict certification criteria for many aspects of hog production, including animal welfare standards.

Cargill also made the commitment more than two years ago to adopt group housing for gestating sows. “We decided to take a leadership role in sow housing because we think it’s the right thing to do to support our customers and our brand,” said Cargill Pork president Dirk Jones. The company recently reported that it has achieved its goal of having 50 per cent of contract farms using group sow housing rather than traditional gestation stalls for pregnant sows. All new contract producers will be required to meet the company’s sow housing standards. Cargill has also instituted the pork industry’s Transportation Quality Assurance (TQA) policy that only truck drivers who are certified in humane handling of livestock are allowed to deliver animals to the company’s plants.

Twenty of the company’s plant animal-handling personnel have been trained and certified by the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization (PAACO), which is the elite, industry-recognized training body for meat plant auditors. Besides the PAACO training, all Cargill plant employees who handle livestock receive specialized training in humane animal handling.

Other major companies and their suppliers have been quick to join PQA Plus, including Hormel, who announced in December last year that it would require its producer suppliers of pork to be PQA Plus certified and have their sites assessed under PQA Plus.

It appears that, with this high level of uptake, the new assurance program will become the standard for the industry and play an important role in reassuring consumers both in the domestic and export markets.

With this rapid move towards a new and more comprehensive pork QA program, one wonders whether the Canadian industry is being left behind in this area. The 10-year-old CQA program developed by the Canadian Pork Council remains largely unchanged and an Animal Care Assessment Tool, which provides a welfare component, has not been generally adopted by producers. This begs the question as to whether the Canadian industry needs to be more aggressive in the area of on-farm quality assurance.

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