In November 2020 the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association released the Cattle Industry Feedyard Audit, a standardized comprehensive industry feedyard audit tool based on the sound science and common sense producers have come to know through the Beef Quality Assurance program. The Cattle Industry Feedyard Audit assesses key standards of animal care directly related to animal health and welfare and a safe beef supply. The audit includes both feedyard observation and document review.

Ruth Woiwode, assistant professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Animal Science Department, says there are definite benefits to having qualified professionals conduct a third-party audit. “We manage what we measure,” says Woiwode. She stresses the process must be outcome based and data must be measureable.

Woiwode has spent much of her career studying consumer confidence and the benefits of third-party audits. She recently presented her findings in a webinar “Consumer Confidence and the Benefits of a Third-party Audit.”

In her presentation, Woiwode emphasizes any independent third-party audit should be conducted by trained and certified personnel, such as auditors certified through the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization, or PAACO. Such certification assures the auditor meets training standards and is free from conflict of interest. The NCBA Cattle Industry Feedyard Audit is PAACO certified, as are any auditors conducting audits through the program.

It’s been coming

The trend toward on farm and animal welfare auditing was led by the meat industry, beginning in 1991 with the American Meat Institute’s recommendation for its members to participate in voluntary audits. The well-known work of Temple Grandin followed shortly thereafter, and in 1999 McDonalds, followed closely by Wendy’s and Burger King, led the restaurant certification charge.

Today, the USDA can mandate third-party auditing and training if a plant is shut down due to humane handling violations.

The NCBA effort stems from a 2017 Cattle Health and Wellbeing Committee task force, a diverse group of industry stakeholders looking to develop an industry-wide uniform tool for feedlot operators.

“This is an important step for continuing the momentum of added transparency in the supply chain,” says Dr. Dale Grotelueschen, co-chair of the NCBA working group.

Data collected by auditors can be used to track, and prove, progress over time – both within the individual operation and industry-wide.

For example, the Meat Institute Guidelines set a 95% threshold for effective stunning in packing plants. That means the method of stunning must be applied correctly and be effective on the first attempt 95% of the time. Only 30% of the plants audited in 1996 met the mark. By 1999, 90% of plants audited passed. By the 20th Revision of the meat plant guidelines, the target increased from 95% to 96%.

Likewise, progress toward meeting goals for bleed rail insensibility, slips and falls, electric prod use, even holding pen access to water, has steadily increased over time.

Internal vs. Independent review

Thee are benefits to internal review. But the external, independent third-party review eliminates internal bias. That not only means a clearer picture of the operation but the increased consumer confidence that comes with objective data, and measurable progress.

“An outside party provides a fresh perspective because there’s essentially a learning curve during a visit where the auditor is required to learn as much as possible about the operation to familiarize themselves with it,” says Woiwode.

The outside review is especially crucial in a case of abuse and neglect brought by animal activist activity.

Coming back from an allegation of animal abuse and neglect requires rebuilding consumer confidence. In some cases it can mean the difference between collecting, or not collecting, a product premium.

“There can be a pathway to return to good standing using third-party monitoring as a key component of the process,” says Woiwode. “The review by an independent outside party helps identify gaps in both management practices and in some cases, training or even breakdown in animal care.”

Even in operations with acute attention to animal welfare and solid production practices, activists have been able to identify and highlight gaps as they followed animals through the transportation process and watched handling practices.

“For a program to have credibility, how these events are handled is critical,” says Woiwode. “So, participating in third-party audits may reduce risk partly by the early identification of some of these gaps or other areas where attention is needed whether that’s improving the employee training program, whether it’s revising some of the animal care practices to ensure the program is being consistently followed or whether there’s a true animal care issue.”

Ultimately, for those doing things right, the third-party audit process contributes to consumer confidence by substantiating good practices. When non-conformities are identified, an operation’s animal care programs can include a structure for correction and re-instatement to good standing.

Here to stay

“The findings of third-party audits help document and measure progress and improvement,” says Woiwode. “And because of those key benefits, we’re not going to see a decrease in auditing as we move forward. We can expect the process to continue to evolve and integrate technology in new and different ways.”

In 2020, operating under travel and in-person visit restraints, auditors increasingly relied on the use of video cameras. Woiwode says there are both benefits and limitations to remote monitoring.

“It’s desirable because increased monitoring is possible,” she says. There is also a reduction in the “perceived auditor effect,” or the change in behavior of staff when an auditor is present.

Limitations include a limited camera angle and the inability of the auditor to pick up on subtleties in the environment.

But the use of remote video does allow for a reduction in bio-security breaches by eliminating outside persons and vehicles on site.

“What’s really important is having conversations about these types of activities, because in having these conversations both with producers, consumers, and the general public, each of those individuals understands the process better,” says Woiwode. “There is increasing buy-in on the part of the producer, increased confidence on the part of the consumer, and certainly increased awareness on the part of the general public that may not be consumers. And it’s these types of conversations that are crucial to ensuring the future of animal agriculture in a sustainable society.”

The NCBA Cattle Industry Feedlot Audit tool can be found at ncba.org/feedyardaudit.aspx