Livestock facility audits praised by experts

Temple Grandin and Jennifer Woods say they boost both profits and PR

Temple Grandin and Jennifer Woods are both fans of the old saying: ‘You cannot manage what you cannot measure.’

Which is why the two animal welfare experts are in favour of audits.

The duo, who has known each other for more than two decades, both spoke at the recent Canadian Livestock Transport conference.

“Many people don’t think good thoughts when they think of auditing,” said Woods, owner of J. Woods Livestock Services in Blackie.

Jennifer Woods speaking at a conference

Jennifer Woods
photo: Alexis Kienlen

“But I always tell people you shouldn’t be afraid of an audit. An audit is there to tell a story. Audits don’t just tell bad stories, they can tell some really good stories, too.”

While audits are now becoming standard at livestock-processing facilities, they’re also showing up at the farm level for producers participating in specialized programs, such as those that guarantee animals are raised under specific protocols.

Audits are not only good for marketing, they can also lead to better management practices, improving both quality and profits, said Woods.

They’re also needed to reassure consumers who are increasingly worried about how food is produced — and increasingly being swayed by misinformation on the Internet, said Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University.

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“Radicals are the big voices online and they attack the people in the middle so much that you can’t even discuss issues in a rational manner,” she said. “The people we have to be talking to are the general public.”

The internationally renowned animal welfare expert has not only championed better treatment of livestock, but convinced the world’s biggest meat packers to use audits to drive change.

And it’s worked, said Grandin, noting JBS and Cargill now video what’s happening in their plants and send the videos to auditors.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, the plants were bad,” she said. “The plants are totally different today.”

Get specific

Woods has audited numerous slaughter plants as well as dairy, feedlots, and other livestock facilities. She is now regularly auditing the Western Hog Exchange, which called her in after an undercover Mercy for Animals video showed sick and injured hogs arriving at the Red Deer facility and being dragged, kicked, and hit with a plastic bat.

She often does second-party audits, reviewing the internal (or first-party) audits that companies conduct on themselves, as well as third-party (or outside) audits.

“We need all of these different types of audits and businesses find them beneficial,” she said.

They not only shine a spotlight on bad practices, but can also spur a company to innovate and find new ways that not only fix the problem, but create efficiencies or a better product.

But it all comes back to the yardstick you’re using, she added.

“There is a lot of audit criteria that is extremely subjective,” said Woods. “You really want to do your best to choose criteria that you can actually measure.”

It’s critical to avoid vague terms like ‘adequate,’ she said.

“You could line up five different inspectors and ask them to give you definitions of ‘adequate lighting’ and you’d end up with five different answers,” she said.

But it doesn’t have to be complex, said Grandin. When you start counting things like how often electric prods are used or how often bruising occurs, things start to change, she said.

“The bruising has got a lot better,” she said. “When people are accountable for bruises, they prevent them and that’s not that difficult to do.”

At the farm level things such as body condition, mud scoring, lameness, coat condition, and swollen hocks can all be measured, she said.

Changes needed

And there’s no question that many livestock operations need to improve, said Grandin.

Lameness in beef and dairy cattle is a major issue, and she’s seen issues such as lice at organic beef operations.

Part of the problem is that many producers simply aren’t good at assessing their operations, said Grandin.

“If you go to a dairy farm and ask people to estimate the number of lame cows, they will underestimate by half,” she said.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have companies with labelling programs trying to one up each other and coming up with standards that simply can’t be met, said Woods.

What’s needed is balance, she said.

“You need it to be attainable, but you also need it to have some teeth,” said Woods. “When you have everybody passing audits all the time, you’ve got a problem. We’re not that good. We can be good, but that’s just not reality.”

And in a world where it seems everyone is shooting video with their smartphones, don’t think that what happens on the farm stays on the farm, warned Grandin.

“If it’s not going to look good on YouTube, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it,” she said.

Grandin is no stranger to that medium, having made videos of her tours of beef and turkey slaughter plants, which included showing animals being killed and processed.

But both videos have been well received, she said.

“A lot of times you just need to show how things work.”

Having upped their game through audits, her clients are now open to strengthening them, added Woods.

“You can’t just set one acceptable standard and let it sit for 10 years,” she said. “We should regularly review things, even within a company so you can say, ‘We’ve been achieving this quite easily. Do we need to raise the bar a little? Is there an area we can improve? Can we get better?’”

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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