By JEANNIE NUSS
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) -- The nation's largest meat company, Tyson Foods Inc., announced Friday that it will do an animal treatment audit of suppliers' farms.
The news comes as animal welfare activists have been pressuring Tyson to move away from cramped cages for pregnant pigs, but the Springdale, Ark.-based company said its latest move is not in response to actions from the Humane Society of the United States or other organizations.
"We know more consumers want assurance their food is being produced responsibly, and we think two important ways to do that are by conducting on-farm audits while also continuing to research ways to improve how farm animals are raised," Tyson president and CEO Donnie Smith said in a statement.
Audits have already begun on some of the 3,000 independent hog farms that supply the company with pork. Tyson said it plans to expand the program to include chicken and cattle farms by January 2014.
Auditors visiting the farms will check on things such as animals' access to food and water and proper human-animal interaction.
Tyson said its employees have been conducting the audits so far, but the company plans to involve independent, third-party auditors.
"These audits will give us a chance to correct any minor problems that are discovered and, if necessary, to stop doing business with any farms where animal treatment or conditions do not meet our standards," Smith said.
Tyson's announcement earned praise from Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
"We believe Tyson's plan is a good model, and we strongly encourage suppliers without such programs to look for ways they can improve the way food is produced," Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of food for Wal-Mart U.S., said in a statement.
Not everyone was so pleased.
The Humane Society of the United States, which has been leading the fight against cramped cages for pregnant pigs, said Tyson's announcement would mean more if it would stop buying from farmers who confine pregnant pigs in so-called gestation crates.
"Audits are valuable if the inspector asks the right question," HSUS president Wayne Pacelle told The Associated Press in an email. "We've not suggested that Tyson contractors are denying food to animals, but that they are denying them enough space to even turn around."
Tyson works with more than 12,000 independent livestock and poultry farmers. Thus far, it has resisted pressure from HSUS to move away from farmers who use gestation crates, even as companies including McDonald's, Burger King and Safeway have pledged to do so.
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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.