By Lori Ernst
With today’s average consumer three to four generations removed from the farm or ranch, resulting market forces regarding animal care move the burden of proof downstream from the producer to the meat processing plant.
The requirement to implement internal policies that document and audit commercial practices in regard to animal welfare, now reside with plant operators. The effect of that evolution means that plants must now direct new resources, both financial and human, to an area that more agriculturally savvy consumers left to the producer just a few years ago.
While plant executives may look at the market-driven emphasis on animal welfare as an added cost, many forward-looking plants can and should turn the requirement into a strategic benefit. The key is choosing the right third-party auditing body.
As a result of undergoing an animal welfare audit, organizations benefit from the added value generated by the audit when it points out what is being done well, as well as areas for improvement. With a solid third-party auditor, the client receives that value when they follow through on those recommendations for improvement.
In the animal protein industry, where heavy rivalry exists in marketing both intra- and inter-species products, a strategic company seeks to differentiate itself from the competition by leveraging the results of its third-party audit. The rationale lies in the fact that strategy gurus have said that competitive advantage doesn’t start with the company as a whole creating a brand. Rather, getting a leg up on competition begins with documenting, auditing, improving and certifying each of the distinct processes that go into producing, marketing and delivering products to the customer and ultimately the consumer.
In the protein industry, those processes encompass converting live animals into meat products that deliver nutritional and other value to customers. Since today’s consumers say they want information about the animal’s welfare as it travels through the plant’s value chain, passing an audit conducted by a qualified third party makes a meat plant stand out from the competition in the eyes of its direct customers as well as the meat-buying public at large.
Some experts attribute consumer concern for animal welfare to the actions of animal rights groups over several decades. Certainly, consumer pressure on retailers and foodservice franchises caused not only individual companies but also meat industry organizations to pro-actively develop strong animal welfare standards that serve as the foundation for their modern commercial practices.
Regardless, the weight that today’s consumers place on animal welfare — particularly in relation to the commercial protocol of receiving and processing live animals — elevates records, audits and assessments to a prominent place in the meat processing value chain.
At the same time, consumers seldom accept these records and documents if they are self-policed. On the other hand, if the standards are audited by a qualified third party, consumers accept the results more readily — especially since third-party verifications have become ubiquitous in their purchasing decisions.
For instance, when pioneer websites had trouble gaining consumer trust in the early years of the internet, the more progressive vendors turned to third-party rating sites to gain consumer confidence and thereby differentiate themselves from the competition. Those early web vendors who were unwilling to submit themselves to rigorous examination have long disappeared from cyberspace commerce.
Closer to the food industry, a recent Michigan State University study showed that consumers want food that has received a safety certification from a third-party. Not only do they want to see certification, but more than a third of those surveyed also said they would pay up to 30 per cent more for products that carried an independent safety label. Companies that adhere to those wishes stand out from those that don’t.
By extension, the same situation applies to animal welfare auditing. If consumers feel reassured in their purchasing decisions based on an animal welfare audit, then working with qualified third-party auditing bodies is vital for all meat plants. For that reason, a plant should approach audits as strategically advantageous procedures from which a plant gains advantage over its peers.
Here’s a check list that helps a plant find the right auditing firm to enhance their audited reputation:
- Qualifications – To start with, each auditor should have an animal husbandry background. The complexity of dealing with livestock destined for the food chain makes it illogical to use an auditor who doesn’t know animal production practices, animal behaviour or the ultimate role of farm animals in the protein industry.
In addition, make sure the auditor has been certified for the species from which the plant processes protein products. That includes not only certification through the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization Inc. (PAACO) for red meat and poultry, but also thorough understanding of American Meat Institute (AMI) guidelines for red meat or for poultry through the National Chicken Council (NCC) and American Turkey Foundation. Auditors who have certification through these bodies better guide the plant through the checks and balances that make the audit process more valuable. Proper qualifications are an important first step in making an audit a worthwhile tool for any plant wanting to implement improved animal welfare practices within its walls.
- Training and Calibration – Next, the plant administrators should ask further questions about the scope of the assigned auditor’s training. For instance, was the training rigorous or did it involve merely asking a candidate to do some cursory study and then put him or her in a classroom to take a PAACO certification test?
Even more critically, find out about retraining. We call our retraining “calibration,” and it’s important that every auditor is periodically calibrated to make sure that a second audit, or even an audit at another plant, is as similar as possible. Calibration keeps people focused and on point and few companies do that.
The best calibration method monitors all auditors in a group to ensure conformity, consistency and compatibility so that each interprets the system the same way. Calibration also promotes knowledge transfer to share new ideas or concepts. At the calibration, each of the auditors updates the team as to what he or she has seen at the facilities. This helps use shared experiences – so best practice would be meeting for calibration in person once a year at minimum and ideally shoot for monthly calls.
At Food Safety Net Services Certification and Audit (FSNS C&A), animal welfare experts, such as Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., also participate in the calibration sessions to provide expert counsel based on their knowledge of animal behaviour and consumer welfare concerns. What calibration amounts to is that you want to make sure your auditors have been approved to perform the audit through training, calibration and oversight. That way the plant knows that the auditors know what they are doing because they see the auditors live it daily.
- Integrity – Integrity starts with an objective position on the requirements, assessment of the situation and animal welfare plan. If the auditor’s goal is not to put the highest focus on an objective-based assessment, then there is no integrity in the process. For the results to be trusted by consumers, it is vital that third-party audits be performed with integrity, with objectives and principles that are consistent with consumer interests.
When there is integrity in the process, the third-party assessment becomes a point of differentiation because the ultimate consumer trusts the capability and philosophy of the meat processing plant for animal protein products. For the canny marketing team, expanding that trust can create a competitive advantage through promotion of the audit certification at point of sale.
- History – All segments of the protein industry have followed sound animal welfare practices for decades. However, audits of the prescribed practices are relatively new. What that means is that the tenure of the auditing firm in doing animal welfare audits can be a critical component for the plant. For instance, an auditing firm with 10 years of experience has kept up with changing standards over the decade’s regulatory evolution. That might not be the case with a more recent arrival on the scene. In addition, the experienced audit firm’s knowledge will flow deeper than just the most recent industry development. There will be precedent for making recommendations for changes of a plant’s policies and procedures following an assessment.
If the history is there, the auditor becomes the plant’s resource for assessment of unforeseen circumstances and their resolution, which in the end is the welfare of animals and the confidence of consumers. That historical reference can lead to determining that a concept is unsafe for the animal when doing an audit that a less-informed auditor might miss.
- Reputation – Finally, there is no doubt that the plant’s goal will always be to use the value of the animal welfare audit as a means of convincing the consumer to place a premium on the reputation of the company, its products and its label. In essence, that consumer trust becomes a reflection of his or her confidence in the third-party audit and the firm that provided the service. In turn, there’s no doubt that reputation relies on whether the auditor is PAACO certified and follows the guidelines of the different species including AMI, NCC and ATF. But it also includes the auditing firm’s specific vision and mission.
An auditing firm should have strong expectations from its auditors and hold them to high standards of customer service and integrity. That is the biggest piece of it. Most customers get audited every year so that they benefit from another set of eyes. All that makes the final assessment from the audit reputable in the eyes of the consumer.
At the end of the day, competitive advantage is more than just thinking your company is head and shoulders above your peers. More accurately, it comes from the efficiency of the internal processes and controls that a firm uses to compete. For the best advantage, plant executives must look internally for features they can exploit. A strong auditing firm for animal welfare is one of those features that helps a strategic company satisfy its customers, while at the same time helping give them the value advantage.
Lori Ernst is vice-president of Audit Services for Food Safety Net Services Certification and Audit (FSNS C&A). She is a food industry veteran with 27 years of experience in food operational and audit management. Contact Lori at Lori.Ernst@FSNS.com , or visit http://www.fsnsaudit.com/