Center for Food Animal Well Being established, plans research and outreach

June 8, 2011
Contact Information:

Yvonne Thaxton, director, Center for Food Animal Well Being
479-575-3595 / ythaxton@uark.edu

Dave Edmark, Division of Agriculture Communications
479-575-5647 / dedmark@uark.edu

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Yvonne Thaxton

Yvonne Thaxton
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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- One hot topic today in agriculture is the welfare of animals being raised for food production. The subject has become important enough for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture to establish the Center for Food Animal Well Being with its stated goal of improving animal health, animal handling, food safety and productivity. The center’s first director, Yvonne Thaxton, has arrived at the Fayetteville campus to take up her position and has a slate of events and activities already in the making.

“The center is going to identify areas of research to get projects done and identify people to do the research,” Thaxton said. “I’ll be working with poultry, swine, cattle, goats, all food animals.”

The center is associated with the Division of Agriculture’s food science and poultry science departments and with the National Agricultural Law Center at the UA School of Law. It was established earlier this year with the support of a $1 million gift from the Tyson Foods Foundation matched by the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation through the university’s Matching Gift Program.

Thaxton, who came to the university from Mississippi State University where she was a poultry science professor, has also been vice president for science and quality assurance at Marshall Durbin Food Corp. in Birmingham. In industry, Thaxton witnessed the emerging trend among food processors to pay particular attention to the conditions in which food animals are raised.

“What we’re trying to do here is take research that’s being done every day in nutrition, food safety and different breeding techniques and look at their impact on the well being of the animals,” Thaxton said. “This includes confinement, transportation, every aspect of the agricultural animals’ life.”

Researchers will examine indicators of stress or pain on animals. Thaxton said she is currently working with a research group in The Netherlands that is using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity as a way of determining if an animal is showing aversion or stress.

“I think large-scale confinement rearing is a good thing, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing it the very best way it will ever be done,” she said.

Some of the center’s research will go back over areas covered previously, but with a new focus on how particular aspects of animal development affect their well being. New information can have an impact on how food animals are raised.

“A big issue with poultry is that the bird has evolved so much with natural selection to where the bird of today has very little in common with the bird of 20 years ago,” Thaxton noted. “So if we’re making our decisions today based on research done 40 years ago, we can be going down the wrong path. Some research is going to have to be repeated with the modern bird.”

Thaxton has several projects for the center lined up to begin in the coming months. In August, an annual seminar for industry and faculty will debut that will feature speakers on swine, cattle and poultry issues. The program is still being planned and will include updates on regulations and research.

Thaxton is working with the organizers to bring the university into the Animal Welfare Consortium, a newly established organization that is receiving funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Grandin Foundation founded by Temple Grandin, the Colorado State University professor who is a livestock handling equipment designer.

The consortium, Thaxton said, will have species-specific units with centers at its member universities to identify research needs and provide expertise to various groups. Arkansas will house the center to examine poultry-related issues for the consortium.

The American Humane Association’s scientific advisory committee will meet at the university later this year at the center’s invitation, Thaxton said, and will bring animal welfare experts to the campus.

Thaxton’s activity on the center’s behalf also includes developing academic courses for graduate and undergraduate students in the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences, probably by the fall of 2012. Short courses for industry are also on the agenda.

“My vision is that we’ll have a holistic center that brings in as much expertise from outside so we can maximize the dollars that we have,” Thaxton said. “We’ll have seminars and short courses to relay this information back to our stakeholders.”