Customers want it: the business case for higher animal welfare

Forget that the government is in disarray and won’t be able to take a position on animal welfare post-Brexit for a while.

Foodservice must lead by investing in higher welfare as a priority because customers want it, and it strengthens business by reducing risk. From blockchain to food systems being fit for the future, Amy Fetzer reports on these and other key takeaways from October’s Footprint Forum: The Future of Farm Animal Welfare, in association with McDonald’s.

Key insights:

Industry must lead without waiting for government. Keynote speaker Lord Teverson revealed in stark terms the lack of clarity that government has in predicting what level of British welfare standards will be set post-Brexit. This is partly due to the challenges the government faces in structuring deals with economies such as the US or Australia whose economies of scale and lower welfare standards make it virtually impossible for British livestock farming to compete.

However, industry acknowledged that whatever deals are made as part of the Brexit negotiations, the drive from customers will remain. “We are certain that irrespective of what goes on in the political, legislative or financial landscape,” speaker Connor McVeigh, supply chain director, McDonald’s, noted, “our customers in the UK, irrespective of what [foodservice] business they enjoy, will continue to have increasingly heightened expectations around animal welfare.”

Lobby Gove to ensure animal welfare and farming remain top of Defra’s priority list. According to Teverson, the intel is that Michael Gove, the current secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, is supportive, and inclined to push for a Brexit deal that prioritizes animal welfare.

The topic has gained a lot of media traction, with a recent government report “generating more publicity than all the other reports put together”. Noting the role that industry and citizens have played in pushing animal welfare to the fore in the past, the onus is on industry to keep the pressure up.

Consumers care so the business case is a strong one. There is a wealth of market research which demonstrates consumer’s care, and that ethical living is powerful ongoing trend, with new stats coming out all the time. Indeed, on the day of the forum, the Soil Association announced that organic meat sales rose by 8% during Organic September, a rise it attributed in part to increased interest in animal welfare. This is a continuing trend. Back in 2015, Mintel research found that three quarters of respondents agreed with the assertion that “meat coming from animals which are looked after well is among the top issues that make a food company ethical”.

Other research also demonstrates how millennials and Generation Z are particularly driven by ethics. Footprint’s own research found 67% of consumers want more info on ethics when eating out, 62% said ethics would influence what and where they ate, but less than 17% say they find this information easily available.

It is satisfying to learn that it was this type of customer expectation that lead McDonald’s to prioritize the issue, a stance which is credited with helping to turn around the fast food giant’s fortunes.

“We made a pivotal decision 10 years ago to put consumer expectations at the heart of our business,” explained McVeigh. “And it’s no co-incidence we have seen consecutive like for like growth in our business since then. And this has been very much led by supplier partners who have linked in to what our consumer wants too…

“Customers are canny and switched on and they recognize companies that are acting with genuine credibility and substance... we can’t afford not to be actively investing in this area. …Taking a positive, progressive stance on environmental standards, on animal welfare, is intrinsically linked to businesses performance. These are areas that customers are looking out for, and they will actively vote with their feet and their wallets if they do not feel that their expectations are being delivered.”

This sentiment has been noted across the board. According to panelist Joe Bailey, head of agriculture, RSPCA Assured, “The public want to be reassured that what they are eating is high quality and that the animals have been reared to a high standard. And this is happening globally, I’ve even seen the trend in action in Asia.”

Block-chain could change everything. A tool like block-chain could transform industry by allowing companies to share information on suppliers, traceability and welfare standards. “Thus far it’s been really hard for competitors to share information when it comes to issues of traceability and transparency,” noted keynote speaker Mark Driscoll, head of food, Forum for the Future. “Digital platforms such as Blockchain could lead to a revolution in transparency and traceability, particularly where different businesses are sourcing from different suppliers.”

“There is currently a massive duplication of effort” agreed McVeigh, “for example, we talk informally to Jamie’s Italian all the time, and there is so much work that we both do in the area of animal welfare.” Tools like Blockchain could therefore be game changing, streamlining effort, and potentially, cost.

Big businesses must use their clout to drive best practice across industry. Work with your supply base and take a long-term approach that works in partnership with suppliers, advocated panelist Clare Hill, agriculture strategy manager, FAI. Don’t dictate, but make your standards explicit, then ask your suppliers to find examples of good practice which you can work towards together.

Dr Tracey Jones, director of food business, Compassion in World Farming, gave an example of how market shifts among market leaders can really drive change. She noted how McDonald’s US commitment to going cage free by 2025 for laying hens was an “absolutely massive trigger for industry in the US. The US suddenly woke up to animal welfare. McDonald’s made a big decision, and there was a united NGO push as well and other pushes, and that led to over 200 companies making pledges for cage free hens.”

Businesses therefore have an enormous responsibility and fantastic opportunity to identify those best practices that exist across the farming industry, and then to use their scale and influence to make a difference.

Welfare standards must be fit for purpose. The key thing, argued Dr Jones, is that welfare standards are designed with the animals’ characteristics in mind. They must be given functional space, have things to do to express their natural behaviours and have holistic sustainability in mind with a good environmental footprint. It must be one that will enable the systems and the food chain to be “fit for the future. And that means adopting an eat less meat, dairy and eggs policy, whilst producing what we do eat in higher welfare systems and incorporating innovations such as plant based alternatives.”

Use a sustainable nutrition framework. We need to reframe the way we produce, consume and value food in an increasingly resource-constrained world, argued Driscoll. A lot of dietary changes have been driven by increased meat production, with this leading to some countries pushing towards more industrial production, which has impacts on animal welfare but also on the environment. Driscoll’s conclusion? A holistic view that incorporates both animal welfare considerations as well as the environmental impacts of meat production is the only way to tackle the issues effectively.

Think veggie. One way to mitigate the price of high quality meat, argued panelist Daniel Nowland, head of technical, Jamie Oliver Group, is by putting energy into creating really delicious vegetarian focused dishes. Nowland admitted that at times, justifying the extra spend on higher welfare meat can be hard, but it is worth it. Meat alternatives are advancing at a pace, and meat substitutes made with plant based alternatives, such as the meat-free impossible burger, or even meat grown in a lab, could be a way to provide the meat experience for that part of the market that isn’t prepared to pay more for higher welfare, agreed Dr Jones, and Hill.

Don’t underestimate new tech. Food companies must keep abreast of new developments in biotechnology such as genomic sequencing, noted Driscoll. For example, the world’s biggest cloning factory is under construction in China and it is due to produce 1m cloned cattle by 2020. This means cloned food could be hitting the shelves in three short years. With the UK importing 40% of food from other parts of the world, this means that whilst UK government assurance schemes are important, it’s vital to ensure standards, transparency and ethics are strong in the international supply chain too.

And finally, don’t forget fish. 50% of all fish consumed globally now comes from farmed fish: aquaculture is on the rise in significance and conditions do not often prioritise welfare. It important to be ahead on the issue because the topic is ripe for becoming a major consumer issue.

We would like to take the opportunity to thank McDonald’s for their support in furthering the debate in Animal Welfare.

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