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Providing Assurances Across the Dairy Supply Chain

January 31, 2018

One of the most obvious trends in marketing today is that consumers are seeking assurances about how their food is produced, and consumer goods companies, as well as restaurants and retailers, are working hard to deliver those assurances. But providing assurances is no longer as easy as generating an image and creating a story. Instead, dairy customers are looking for documented, verifiable evidence that their food is being produced in a responsible manner.

Dairy foods have a great nutritional story behind them, as no category offers the same consistent package of vitamins and minerals for such a low cost in such a variety of appealing forms. That reality once was enough to win the marketing battle. We all know that for a variety of reasons, however, the promotional truisms of the 20th century no longer hold sway.  Consumers – at least some of them – take low-cost nutrition for granted, and now want to hear more about where their food originated and under what conditions.  And those stories about the provenance of food need facts and evidence to back them up.

The marketplace is well past the point where people will simply take proclamations about happy cows for granted.  Key performance metrics and data points are augmenting brands’ use of icons and slogans, as the influence of social media opens up barn doors and informs the marketing process.

In the dairy community, we have the National Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Program to deliver those metrics, assisting the entire value chain in telling the honest story about America’s dairy farms and the cows in their care. We’re now in the ninth year of operation for the FARM Program, and the need to leverage this national benchmark for dairy cow care is greater today than it was in 2009, when NMPF worked with its member cooperatives and Dairy Management Inc. to launch the initiative.

That need is greater because the entire livestock sector is facing growing levels of scrutiny about animal care overall, as well as challenges to certain practices involving the production of meat, eggs and milk.  Some of this focus certainly has been driven by those who consume no animal products and are motivated by a desire to eliminate the use of livestock. Late last year, our industry was confronted by a series of undercover videos in south Florida, promulgated by a new animal rights group, the Animal Recovery Mission. While the videos showed conduct that was unacceptable and did not meet our FARM Program standards, it was the program’s established protocols and our strong relationships with key customers that helped farmers weather the storm.

Since the incident, FARM Program participants in Florida and across the supply chain pulled together to identify where things went wrong, and will continue to use the incident as a teachable moment to bring farmers up to speed with the latest version of the FARM Program. This includes extensive requirements for employee training and management — two key issues highlighted in the Florida videos. There’s certainly more work to be done to help our FARM Program participants meet the program’s standards and emphasize to their employees the importance of top-notch animal care and handling.

The recent situation in Florida has reinforced one of the core principles of the FARM Program: continuous improvement. Our customers are in the business of selling dairy foods, and we must give them the tools to respond to the questions that arise about dairy animal care. Part of that is assuring our customers that as dairy farmers and members of the cooperative community, our work on animal care is never done — that we’re always striving to do better for our consumers and our cows.

The FARM Program’s animal care standards comprise dozens of different criteria involving the care of dairy cattle throughout the course of their lives, and these standards evolve with new research on animal health and wellbeing.  With 98 percent of the milk supply now enrolled in the program, we are collecting hundreds of thousands of data points to assess how our industry is delivering on its promises to be good stewards. Our focus will remain on inclusion, education and training to maximize the effectiveness of the program.

Our customers — both here and abroad — believe in the FARM Program’s spirit of continuous improvement, and acknowledge that the alternative to having a widely utilized, national program is a fragmented system of competing programs that would be nearly impossible for dairy farmers to implement in a meaningful way.  That’s one reason why we recently worked to ensure that the FARM Program is recognized by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), making it the first livestock animal care program in the world to attain that status. ISO compliance means that dairy customers can trust that their products are held to stringent, internationally recognized animal welfare standards.

Our industry’s story about dairy animal care continues to evolve. What I’m most proud of is how far we’ve come — together — in the last nine years. The program’s strength is found not only in its standards and implementation, but also in the partnerships and trust we’ve built with customers. That trust allows us to celebrate collective successes in animal care, and to come together during challenges, harnessing our collective abilities to do better and come out stronger.