Lately, the grill isn't the only thing heating up at Applebee's, a national chain of more than 1,300 casual restaurants. Applebee's is under fire for its recently announced plan to adopt an animal welfare policy many say is not based on science.

In a December 2001 letter to suppliers, Applebee's followed in the footsteps of McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's by requiring suppliers to adhere to “minimum animal welfare standards” and to work to “continuously improve the minimum living conditions of animals.” Applebee's went beyond that, however, by asking suppliers to refuse product from producers who brand animals.

Unlike McDonald's and Burger King, Applebee's stepped a lot more into the production side, says Chad Vorthmann, associate director of technical services for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).

“A lot of prior guidelines had focused on the slaughter plant, making sure animals were stunned properly and things of that nature,” he says. “Applebee's stepped back further than that and showed some misunderstanding of what we do on the farm.”

Some of the standards in Applebee's policy are not grounded in science, argues a Jan. 16 letter that NCBA and nine other agriculture and veterinary organizations sent to packers.

“In addition, some of the language (ex., flesh, mutilate) is that used by the animal rights community whose ultimate goal of eliminating meat consumption is contrary to Applebee's main menu offerings and your business,” the letter says.

Animal welfare, animal health, food safety and the environment must be addressed simultaneously, the groups wrote. Procedures like vaccination and weaning, which are short-term stressors, are performed for specific long-term health, welfare and management benefits, the letter explains.

“Any suggestion that these procedures might be mutilation of the animal for the convenience of the producer is misguided, misinformed and an affront to all food animal producers and veterinarians.”

Applebee's refused to comment for this story, but the chain appears unable to enforce its policy and apparently has decided to review its requirements. Some reports indicate it will go along with guidelines being developed by the National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR) and the Food Marketing Institute (FMI).

FMI and NCCR plan to endorse a set of species-specific guidelines in June. The two groups will recommend that their memberships use the guidelines with suppliers of animal protein products. Together, the two groups represent more than 26,000 grocery stores, more than 50,000 restaurants and account for half of the $843 billion annual food retail sales in the U.S., according to the Omaha World-Herald.

All this comes as the beef industry itself is reviewing its current guidelines for animal care and handling. A working group of the NCBA's Cattle Health and Well Being Committee plans to introduce updated guidelines to the organization's leadership later this summer.

“Yes, our industry is addressing this issue,” says Gary Cowman, NCBA's executive director of research and technical services. “Not because of Applebee's alone, but because of certain issues raised by some activist groups and because of the fact that science shows there are certain issues we can address.”

The beef industry has had animal care guidelines for more than 10 years. They were last updated in 1998, he explains.

“The vast majority of producers provide excellent care for their livestock, so this is not a new topic for livestock producers or beef producers,” says Bob Smith, DVM, Extension veterinarian at Oklahoma State University.

The Beef Quality Assurance advisory council developed the beef industry's current animal welfare guidelines, called “NCBA's Recommendations for the Care and Handling of Cattle.”

“This is a more general set of guidelines for feeding and livestock facilities, shelter, animal health practices, handling sick, disabled or deceased livestock and transportation of livestock,” Smith says.

“That's about where we thought we needed to be a couple of years ago,” says Smith, who is vice chairman of NCBA's Cattle Health and Well Being Committee. “We felt just general principles of animal welfare would be adequate, and the recommendations weren't always highly specific.”

But looking to the future, he says now's the time to develop more specific guidelines and provide more specific direction for producers.

What's more, Cowman says the retail groups getting pressured by animal rights activists are recognizing they need to work with groups like NCBA to develop practical standards.

Science-Based Guidelines

Smith heads the NCBA working group that is revising the guidelines. Comprised primarily of livestock producers, the group also includes representatives of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, the Academy of Veterinary Consultants and a few university folks with expertise in animal welfare.

“We have some good balance here to bring the best science forward to develop the guidelines,” Smith says.

The science-based and producer-developed guidelines will hopefully clear up some retailers' misunderstanding of how livestock are raised, he says.

For example, Smith says one retailer publication says that every animal must be able to socially interact. “In the beef business, I can't think of a situation where cattle cannot socially interact; none are raised in isolation,” he says.

Moreover, the committee hopes to bring forward information to explain why certain practices like branding are done, Smith says. The working group is closely examining the practice of branding under different management conditions. It plans to make recommendations based on industry needs and the best interests of livestock, he says.

In some states, branding is required by law, and data from the 2000 Beef Quality Audit shows that 50% of U.S. cattle are branded.

“There is not another workable identification system currently available that helps us to go out into large rangelands, large pastures, and find the neighbor's animal,” Smith explains.

“The brand is registered with the states, is legal proof of ownership and provides a way of being able to find your cattle when they are running with somebody else's,” he explains. “But do we need to brand cattle when they come into a growing yard on the way to the feedyard? Likely not.”

The committee plans to submit written recommendations to the NCBA leadership during the July mid-year meeting. Once approved, the guidelines will be distributed to producers through Extension and NCBA's network of state livestock, veterinary and feed manufacturing organizations, as well as allied industries.

In addition, Cowman says he expects the committee will present NCBA's animal care and handling recommendations to FMI and other retail groups. This might be done even before the guidelines are presented to NCBA's membership — to make sure they will buy into what the beef industry can deliver.

What's more, Smith says states will include the updated care and handling guidelines in their beef quality assurance programs.

“This is one way of keeping this topic on the front burner so that it doesn't just lay there and collect dust,” he says.