Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Discussion: Whole Foods rabbit care standards.

I could subtitle this, rabbit production done right on an institutional scale, but out of reach for small operations. Before I get to the rest of this post which is going to be a bit long probably, I want to note that I'm not a fan of a 40 degree morning mid August.

There has been a lot of uproar from some pet rabbit groups about the inclusion of rabbit meat for sale at Whole Foods Market in some places. Right now it is a non universal program based on the local availability of rabbit to those stores. http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/department/article/rabbit One of the things you can note in that link is a link to their animal welfare standards. If you haven't clicked through to read it here.

I read through it, and it isn't overly legalese in its presentation. It is in fact a clear document stating the requirements for keeping rabbits for sale to Whole Foods. I'm going to start with the ethical side of the keeping of the animals, and move on to the difficulties to the farm after I have covered the pure ethics and animal welfare side. I'm going to go through in some detail below the cut.

Section 1: Farm Plan and Documentation:
This looks fairly standard to me. You have to document everything thoroughly, and have the resources needed for everything else to be done correctly. We should keep better documentation, and their guidelines are good.

Section 2: Breeding and Source of Animals:
There's some relevant sections that I think are important among not allowing artificial insemination, or genetically modified or cloned animals. The reason for the ban on AI is to prevent situations like many cattle that can't properly breed anymore and require AI.

2.2 Breeding programs must be designed to include welfare traits (such as good 
mothering ability, longevity, temperament and the ability to sustain lactation)
rather than solely for production. 

I think 2.2 is particularly important, because it encourages and forces a welfare focus beyond simple production.

2.4 Does must not be bred before 6 months of age.
2.5 In systems where bucks and does are kept separately, does must not be re-bred 
until after their existing litter is weaned.
2.6 In systems where bucks and does are kept separately, does must be taken to 
bucks for breeding, to minimize aggression.

2.4 - 2.6 I appreciate the hard no on breeding before 6 months. This prevents stunting the growth of rabbits in the pursuit of production above all. It also implies that later on the document is going to talk about colony breeding, and groups of rabbits while still allowing for bucks separate from the does for differing visions of how you want to handle breeding. Overall, I like it so far.

Section 3: Animal Health:
Mostly just the animals must be kept in good health, and treated if they are ill.

3.2 Sub-therapeutic (preventive) levels of antibiotics, ionophores, growth hormones, 
beta agonists or sulfas are prohibited.
3.3 i) The therapeutic use of antibiotics, ionophores or sulfa drugs is prohibited for 
rabbits sold to Whole Foods Market;
ii) Failure to treat an ill or injured rabbit in order to maintain eligibility for sale to 
Whole Foods Market is strictly prohibited;
iii) Any rabbit that has been treated with antibiotics must be identified and must 
not be supplied to Whole Foods Market.
3.4 If a rabbit is injured or sick it must receive treatment.

The section above is something I like a lot. The sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in particular has led to a health crisis for everyone as the effectiveness of antibiotics has been dropping due to over use which increases development of resistance. I think that is important from a world wide ethical standpoint much more than an animal welfare standpoint. It also specifically requires that treatment be given even though it is disadvantageous to the facility. 3.4 is very clear that if a rabbit is injured or sick it must receive treatment.

3.5 If treatment for illness or injury is not effective, veterinary advice must be sought
or the rabbit euthanized. 

3.5 gives a reasonable way for farmers to not expend so much on treatment they can't maintain their farm while also encouraging and enforcement that animals get treatment. This is actually basically the system we use. If an animal is injured we treat it, if treatment isn't effective we euthanize. We don't call the vet, or bring the animal there. In a perfect world that would be nice, but with treatment costs this out is important.

Section 4: Animal Management:
Just read over it in the document, it's fairly self explanatory. The only thing of note to me is their weaning directive.

4.5 The minimum weaning age for rabbits is 30 days.
Note: Does and kits begin a natural separation at about 4 weeks of age when 
doe milk yield drops and kits begin to eat more solid food as their digestive 
system matures. 

I'd probably be happier with weaning at 6 weeks, or a gradual weaning process for the temperament of the rabbits. I can see this as an acceptable minimum standard, though I'd rather it be the re-breeding point for does, allowing for their kits to be with them 2 - 3 weeks more with proper date management.

Section 5: Feed and Water:
All of this is fairly basic. For those of you who don't know what it means from section 5.2:

Ad libitum is Latin for "at one's pleasure" (at liberty); it is often shortened to "ad lib" (as an adjective or adverb) or "ad-lib" (as a verb or noun).

Section 6: Housing Requirements for Rabbits:
Now we get into the real meat of the document, and in a lot of ways the most important part.

6.1 a) Kits and fryers must not be kept individually.b) Does can be kept individually only if it is necessary to minimize aggression Note: A group size of 2-5 breeding or replacement does is encouraged - this group size was based on research of the behavior of rabbits in near-to-natural conditions. Does formed stable breeding communities when kept in groups of 5 with one buck and their offspring; conflict and injury between does was extremely rare (Stauffacher 1992).

I like the group size suggestion of 2 - 5, and the backing of a scientific study. I haven't gone through and looked up the study yet, but 2 works well for us in 24 sq feet with a shelf providing an extra 10 sq ft. Right now it's actually working for us in 18 sq feet with a shelf providing an extra 6sq ft.

6.2 Bucks must be kept either:
i) permanently with breeding and replacement does OR
ii) in an individual pen adjacent to the group pen where they can see 
and smell their breeding group
Note: if the buck remains permanently with the group, does in a group give birth 
every 31-32 days. After 4-6 litters they go into an anoestrus period for several 

Learn something new every day. I didn't know that after 4 - 6 litters does would go into an anoestrus period for several weeks. The buck with the does seems like it would be better for the buck, but lead to over breeding the does fairly quickly. It may however be ideal for production in this sort of setting. This is one I'm interested in, but need to look at more.

6.4 Rabbits must have enough space to express their natural behavior such as allo-grooming, hopping, foraging, gnawing, and playing.
6.5 Stocking density must not exceed 2lbs/ft2.
Note: Nest boxes are excluded from this measurement.
6.6 Housing must allow rabbits to sit upright on their back legs with ears erect.

For those who don't know, allo-grooming is better known as social grooming. I can say that rabbits that get
that seem to be happier. The stocking density they require as the worst possible is a little lower than I'd like to see, but that is their hard cap for minimum space. For example with their density requirements you could have a 12lb rabbit in a 2'x3' hutch. From experience that's smaller than I'd be comfortable with. However combining that with the other requirements, and that they're focused on multi rabbit housing I'm less concerned. I especially appreciate that housing must allow the rabbits to be upright with ears erect, we've noticed how happy rabbits are to be able to stretch when they come to our hutches from small spaces.

On a technical side I appreciate the requirements for temperatures and air quality. Air quality is especially important in my opinion. For your information, 25ppm is the level that is noted where one starts getting eye and respiratory problems from it. https://www.osha.gov/dts/chemicalsampling/data/CH_218300.html Obviously by having outside hutches it's less of a problem, but that requirement just says that the area must be kept clean at all times.

6.15 Rabbits must be provided with raised platforms large enough to allow all rabbits to lie on their sides simultaneously and high enough off the ground for an adult rabbit to lie underneath. Either one large platform or a set of smaller ones is acceptable.
6.16 Rabbits must be provided with structures in the pen that provide opportunities to hide such as tunnels and

I particularly like these requirements. Allowing rabbits areas to be up, down, and hide is really important for rabbits to be friendly with each other, and happy. Combine that with:

6.18 Flooring must be solid. Slatted flooring is only permitted around the drinking area but not in other areas of the pen.
• Slats must not extend more than 12” from the drinkers.
• The slatted flooring should allow feces to fall through.
• Openings between slats or mesh must be no wider than 14mm or 0.5”.

Foot problems shouldn't be a problem at all for these animals. It does however mean a LOT of cleaning. It also means that the surfaces are going to need to be impermeable. Not the wood and wire we use. That combined with the temperature requirements where we start getting into this being a very expensive operation. Depending on your climate you'd probably need an indoor setup with a good amount of space and heating and or cooling.

Section 7: Outdoor Conditions:
Although outdoor access is not required, the following standards apply in order to qualify a system with outdoor access or as an outdoor-based system.

I think just reading that section is worth while if you're interested. It's not required, but I do think it's a good thing that they do provide requirements for what outdoor housing means, and how to do it safely.

Section 8: Catching and Handling:
Don't mistreat the animals, handle them properly. This one's fairly simple.

Section 9: Transport:
On a personal level I still think that for truly ethical processing of rabbits due to their nature that processing should be done in house, but given the commercial requirement to butcher in USDA facilities, and the cost to have one on site being prohibitive their requirement that from catching the first animal to arrival at destination be no longer than 8 hours is about as good as you can get I think That allows for a reasonable distance transit and traffic.

Section 10: Rodent and Predator Control:
A sensible set of rules that aren't really within the focus of this blog.

Overall it's a good set of rules in my opinion. I think that as commercial guidelines it is good. I'd be interested in seeing what Whole Foods considers acceptable as a facility. I am actually going to be contacting Whole Foods about trying to get a walk through one of their facilities to see what is acceptable. Realistically the requirements listed here are good, though I'd like to see their minimum space per rabbit requirement go higher, but I don't have solid data on how much larger at this point. Given that the living space is their whole space for most rabbits I would like to see 1lb/sq ft minimum because I know that having that much space helps behavior, and comfort of the rabbits. As it is though the fact that the space has to be multiple level, should ideally be colony space, and aside from at the waterer must be solid rather than wire floor, it's better than we can do. I think if we could achieve the standards that Whole Foods requires, and keep our space set up I'd be very happy, of course money is the concern.

I am aware that the protesters are of the opinion that rabbits are pets, and shouldn't be food, but I have to say that I think that from an ethical standpoint that Whole Foods is doing this right, and I hope to see them continue. I also strongly hope that it influences the rest of the meat rabbit industry to move to larger hutches and away from the wire bottom 2'x2' hutches that are the standard right now for breeding does with kits. The other note I'd make is that this is a pilot program, and may not be the final format of these rules.

I'd love to hear input, questions, thoughts, and concerns about their standards from others, and about things I may have missed.

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