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The Trend is Clear

April 1, 2013

The drumbeat of headline-making announcements about product sourcing trends in the food industry continues:  restaurant chains wanting cage-free eggs; pizza chains wanting gestation stall-free pork; supermarkets only selling sustainable seafood; Whole Foods labeling all GMO ingredients.  Each of these developments adds to a growing chorus of concerns putting added pressure back up the food chain, ultimately at the front gate of farmers, ranchers and fishermen.

Fortunately, there’s another bit of good news of late on this issue:  the National Dairy FARM program has reached a participation threshold of 70 percent, meaning nearly three quarters of the nation’s milk supply is enrolled in the nation’s preeminent dairy animal care program.  With the addition of several major cooperatives and proprietary processors in recent months – and thanks to funding from the national dairy checkoff for the third-party verification element in the program – we have a compelling, critical mass of support behind FARM.  And given the trends in the industry, it’s not too soon to reach this mark.

NMPF started the FARM program three years ago to provide a consistent, national, verifiable means of showing consumers and the food value chain how milk is responsibly-harvested from cows.  Even then, the writing was on the wall:  we either had to develop a scalable, uniform program with real teeth and performance metrics in it…or, others entities further down the supply chain would do it themselves.  Farmers, cooperatives and processors would then be looking at having to adopt not just one, but multiple animal care systems, all with similar expectations and goals, but each requiring a different verification methodology and a separate set of paperwork.

The challenge in implementing the FARM program, or any such system that looks at a series of practices on farms, is two-fold:  farmers have to understand and abide with its expectations, while retailers and restaurateurs must appreciate that this approach meets their animal welfare expectations.  We’ve had fair questions raised on both ends of the spectrum during the FARM program’s first three years of operation, but as the program continues to grow, those questions are being successfully addressed.

From the standpoint of farmers, they need to see that the criteria used in the program are based on good veterinary science, are measurable and not arbitrary, and were developed by peers and those who understand what happens on a farm.  That’s why the FARM program’s animal care checklist was the product of a technical working group of such experts, as well as NMPF’s Animal Health and Well-Being Committee, which is made up of dairy producers and veterinarians.

From the standpoint of those companies further down the value chain, dairy product end users don’t expect perfection, but they do expect farmers to collectively demonstrate responsible practices, and our commitment to quality animal care.  They need to see that there is a path for continually improving the care standards in the program.  And there has to be evidence that the program is catching on, which is why reaching the 70% participation level is so critical.

The need for ongoing improvement is a big reason why the program’s animal care guidelines are in the final stages of an extensive review and revision process. After nearly a year of consultation, throughout the industry as well as with external experts, the care manual will be updated with slight revisions later in 2013 to reflect the latest knowledge and best practices about proper dairy animal care.  We’ve learned a great deal about animal care just through the 364,000 animal observations collected through on-farm evaluations for FARM program during the last three years.  All these data points will allow us to adjust slightly the 77 different checklist criteria used on each farm in the program.

I am also pleased that the dairy industry’s Innovation Center has endorsed the National Dairy FARM program as the industry standard.  Because the Center is the leading collaborative platform for U.S. dairy marketers, its adoption of this particular program sends a clear signal that other approaches would only detract from the hard work and momentum that the FARM program has built in the past three years.

We’ve long understood that dairy farmers, by and large, have a vested interest in providing conscientious animal care to their cows.  However, we’re no longer in an era when just talking that talk will satisfy everyone.  This benefit of the FARM program is that it transparently quantifies the care that farmers provide and sets a timeline for their continual improvement.  It shows we’re walking the walk, and that proper animal care is not a finite goal achieved through punishment, but an ongoing process that can be attained through education and effort.