Friday, August 28, 2015

Whole foods 5 step(r) animal welfare rating: Would my farm qualify?

 You can read the details below, but for folks who want a summary:

The standards that whole foods promotes in their meat overall are fine, but there are several cases where they apparently want you (demand that you) kill animals that could otherwise be salvagable by transferring to another farm, for instance, and they prohibit "split" operations.  In other words, your whole farm is managed per their specs or you can't be certified.  There's also no mention of cost for certification, but I presume there's fees for this, too.

Would my farm qualify as any step on the GAP 5 step animal welfare rating system:  

I was reading the local paper and spotted an article comparing two grocery store chains for prices; trader joes (r) and whole foods (r).  Given whole foods reputation for high prices ("whole paycheck") I wasn't surprised that the article found that whole foods was about 30% more expensive.

But one of the items compared was whole chickens -- and the author of the article made a point to say that while the trader joes chicken was cheaper,

I'm pretty skeptical about industry claims in general, and it's often worth finding out what these standards mean -- but most consumers don't.  In fact prior to this article I had no idea that whole foods had an animal welfare certification system, as I never shop there; mostly because there's no whole foods within 30 miles of my house.  This articles author apparently just accepted the statement from the retailer unconditionally.  

So I'm going to look at the GAP 5 step rating system and see how my own farm does - would I qualify?  

Whole foods summarizes the steps on this page.,  But that's not the standard.  Each species has its own standard, but I'm going to look at the pig standard and see how my farming practices rate.  

The standard for pigs is 45 pages long

This is a pretty detailed standard, and that's actually a good sign.  If you're going to have standard it might as well be detailed, right?  

But right off the bat my farm wouldn't certify.  We use farrowing crates for some of our sows, and here's why:  

  We want the largest number of piglets to survive.  

Most of our sows do great in an 8x10 or 8x12 farrowing pen, and we'd actually prefer them to have their pigs there.  We can monitor their progress, check the welfare of mother and pigs, and each piglet gets access to mom at all times; the sows, for their part are pretty content.  If we just used farrowing pens we'd be able to be certified.  

For the sows that have trouble with mothering, are too agressive, (either with their pigs, with other sows or with the farmer - me) or have an issue that requires treatment of some sort, I use a farrowing pen as an alternative to culling the sow.    The sows are in the farrowing pen long enough to make sure that their pigs get a good start -- usually 3 weeks -- and then go to group housing with other sows with piglets.  Group housing can be in a building, or on pasture - we do both.  

I find a farrowing pen to be a useful management tool, and I much prefer it to just killing the sow, which is what I'd have to do if I were to eliminate a farrowing crate as an option.  

Other than the farrowing crates, I think that my farm qualifies as a step 2 farm, or possibly a step 3 farm, with the following notes:  

 rule 1.3.6 states that pigs with hernias larger than a grapefruit must be killed -- they can't be transferred to other farms, or sold as step-rated animals.  This seems odd, and wasteful.   Hernias happen from time to time, and honestly, we market them as BBQ pigs for the most part.  Requiring the farm to kill the animal and prohibiting the transfer or sale to another farm seems arbitrary.  

rule 1.4 talks about the ways to kill a pig, and specifically rules out gunshot for the smallest pigs.  That seems a little arbitrary, too.  You can beat it to death with a hammer (blunt force trauma), but a gunshot is against the rules.  

rule 2.6.2 seems really concerned about tail docking.  We don't routinely dock tails, but we do if a customer asks us to.  But pigs do bite each other, and other than the ears, the tail is the only part that sticks out.  So now and then a pig will lose either a bit of its tail to another pig, or its whole tail.  you've got to have a written intervention plan for tail biting.  Potential cause for the outbreak?  Sow in a bad mood.   A squabble over a particularly desirable place to sleep.  Pigs establishing or maintaining their pecking order.  You want to know why whole foods pork is so expensive?  This sort of record-keeping is part of it!

3.2 talks about feed, and apparently prohibits the use of dairy to feed pigs - mammalian by-product - or the use of fish or fish meal, or the use of any animal-derived feed.   If you buy pigs raised on a step-rated system, my guess is you're getting corn-and-soy fed pigs only.  

3.2.8 talks about "edible forage" being presented to the pigs, but then lists stuff that is really not edible as examples - like corn stalks.  Hay is marginally edible.   My farm provides both hay and sawdust as bedding and access to either pasture or crop residue.  

4.7 talks about farrowing space; they require 48 square feet; I provide 96 or more square feet to my sows in the farrowing pens.  I actually consider 48 square feet - their standard - too small, especially for large-frame sows.  

I've skipped the majority of the rules they put out; some are common sense (trailers must be cleaned after use) some seem to be just un-needed conditions (feed must not be withheld for more than 8 hours before transport)...  

But I will say that in total it's an awful lot of record keeping. With a retail price of $18/lb for a pork chop, I'm hoping that the farmers get a substantial cut of that.  


EBrown said...

I've been aware of their rating system for a while. I rarely have an opportunity to go into a WF because there aren't any close to where I live. But I try to walk through whenever possible since I retail my meat for premium prices compared to "typical" groceries. I'm amazed at the prices WF gets for completely conventional meat. Just the cachet of being in the WF meat section is enough for them to charge similar prices to what I charge, and that was for Level 1 beef.

I've never seen pork rated higher than Level 2 for sale in their cooler - usually its ALL Level 1. Must be that most pig farmers don't want to bother with the system either.

I'm certainly not about to try. I feed dairy byproduct. I raise barrows, and think it's pretty risky to grow out boars. People do the boar thing, but I'm not about to risk losing customers from a case of taint.

 Incognomen said...

The proposed standard for sheep bans tail docking for level 5, which means you can only use Northern European Short-Tails and Hair Sheep. Long tailed wool breeds are always docked for a reason.

Anonymous said...

Hi Bruce,

We have Berkshire pigs and were approved for the Whole Foods 5 step welfare rating just before Christmas. We're due for another major farm inspection sometime in June.
It's not really a bad program, and it is one that is used by Whole Foods; it was not thought up by Whole Foods.
Here in Canada we could start selling our pigs to a different big customer other than Whole Foods if we wanted under this 5-step rating, as the certification is all done by an independent third party.
Our processor told us the cost per inspection (again, this is for us here in Canada) is $1,000 which is paid by our processor unless our farm fails the inspection. Then we have to pay for the re-inspection.
I keep a diary with calendar for each of our pig groups. That covers the "record keeping" they want you to do. Keeps it simple.
From looking at your pictures and reading your blog, you should have no trouble qualifying. The only thing we had to add to our farm to get our 5-step rating was toys for all the pigs and we had to castrate our piglets sooner. We were doing 3 weeks and they want 3-10 days.
Hope this info helps answer some of your questions about the 5-step welfare program.