Independent, Third-Party Feedlot Audits – The Wave of the Future?

By: Jennifer Garreau

A growing number of beef consumers are looking for something more than just flavor and value, they want to know that the beef they are feeding their children is safe, wholesome and humanely raised.
In order to meet consumer demands RobEirich, University of Nebraska Extension Educator and Nebraska Beef Quality Assurance(BQA) Director believes processors, feedlots and producers should be prepared to see independent, third-party audits that are currently optional become more important and possibly mandatory in the future.

“An audit is the official examination that verifies something,” said Eirich at the Beef Feedlot Roundtable Meeting in Bridgeport, Neb. “We shouldn’t feel threatened by that. If we are doing everything we are supposed to, the audit just verifies that we are producing the product we say we are.”

“We want the auditors to verify we are using the best care and management of the animals we produce. Consumers continue to want more information about how their food is produced. They want to know how and where their beef is raised. They want to know it is wholesome and safe, and that they are getting a quality beef product,” he said.

Who are these consumers? McDonalds recently announced that by 2016, all of the beef they serve will come from sustainable producers. Tyson Foods has also required all of their suppliers to have third-party audits. WalMart, JBS and Cargill are considering implementing similar policies.

Audits evaluate if processors are obtaining their beef from a verifiable, reliable source and if feedlots and producers are using the 2009 revised BQA best management practices adapted from The Cattle Industry’s Guidelines for the Care and Handling of Cattle.

Feedlots can schedule audits in advance and usually have two weeks prior notice and are given a list of required documentation. The guidelines state that audits should only be scheduled under normal operating conditions and not during extreme weather or during disease outbreaks.

“When they come, they will want a daily schedule to see first-hand how the cattle are handled. They will want to watch how the cattle are loaded and unloaded and how they are processed. They will count how many fall and how many times the hot shot is used,” said Eirich.

The audit focuses on three main areas – animals, records and documentation of standard operating procedures and facilities and equipment. Auditors will look for animal abuse and neglect, withdrawal and residue avoidance, written protocols and documentation, facility maintenance, feed and water access and cleanliness, chutes and chute operation, stocking rate and space and for the amount of dry area available in pens.

An auditor will watch staff process one hundred head of cattle looking for excessive use of electric prods, cattle stumbling, tripping, jumping or falling out of the chute, cattle vocalization in the chute and how many cattle are miscaught in the chute.

Eirich said one of the most important things feedlots can do to prepare for an audit is to have standard operating procedures written down and on hand. Written protocols and documentation are required for employee training, pen maintenance, care of downers, euthanasia procedures, disease prevention, biosecurity standards, animal disposal, procedures for receiving, storing and handling of medications, broken needle procedures, verification of a veterinarian client relationship, feed delivery records, feed quality standards, medicated feed and supplement procedures, an emergency action plan, and shipping, receiving and processing procedures.

A feedyard cannot fail the audit. Scoring occurs in three categories – “acceptable” meaning that an operation meets guidelines, “needs improvement” meaning that action is required to correct problems and “unacceptable” meaning that immediate corrections must be made.

“It is a goal of the audits to help define the best management practices and educate suppliers in producing a high quality beef product for consumers. Eventually, unannounced audits will occur so they know producers are following the standard operating procedures on a daily basis,” said Eirich. “For producers this is part of product integrity which shows their commitment to produce a wholesome, safe and a quality beef product each and every time for consumers.”

The BQA Assessment Guides for feedlots, stockers and cow-calf operations can be found on the BQA website at www.bqa.org.