Livestock welfare: a live issue that customers are dead set on

A new global initiative shows foodservice firms are taking the lead as buyers worry about chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-stuffed beef. By David Burrows.

When it comes to ethical claims made by food and drink companies, high animal welfare standards tend to be the top issue these days. In a 2015 poll by Mintel, the issue trumped responsible sourcing and decent worker welfare – and was far more important to people than reducing carbon footprints. Since then, there has been the Brexit vote, which has only intensified interest in how livestock is reared thanks to the threat of hormone-pumped beef and chlorine-washed chicken flooding the UK market in the event of a trade deal with the US.

Campaigners have been quick to ramp up their efforts, too, with a surge in activity in the last couple of years or so, while investors have started to ask difficult questions. But what have foodservice businesses done?

This month, seven global firms launched the first food-industry-led initiative to advance animal welfare. Aramark, Compass Group, Elior Group, IKEA Food Services, Nestlé, Sodexo and Unilever are the founding members of the Global Coalition for Animal Welfare (GCAW). In the next 12 months, they hope to come up with a plan for how to improve in five key areas: cage-free production; broiler chicken welfare; farmed fish welfare; antimicrobial resistance; and global standards for transport and slaughter.

The mixture of better-known issues, such as caged eggs, and those that are lower in the public consciousness, such as fish welfare, has been welcomed by the likes of the Food Ethics Council. This could include targets and commitments, but it’s too early to say what form these will take. NGOs and experts will also contribute to the process. Still, given their reach – the seven companies serve 3.7 billion customers every day – there are high expectations of what can be achieved.

The fact that foodservice companies have stolen a march on their retail cousins is also significant – but maybe not surprising. In this year’s Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare, foodservice closed the gap with retailers, manufacturers and producers. The improvement has been “dramatic”, according to Nicky Amos, the BBFAW executive director, with 11 of the 26 companies posting improved scores in the restaurant and bar sector.

Amos, who is also running the secretariat for GCAW, said that as a reporting topic, animal welfare remained “relatively immature” but the signs were encouraging. “Investors are looking at the relative performance of companies and what they are doing to improve animal welfare,” she told Footprint. They are asking questions about this issue like they have done in the past with carbon, Amos said, and this has obviously turned the heads of senior management. “Foodservice is really taking the lead.”

Indeed, the coalition marks a shift from animal welfare as a competitive issue to a pre-competitive one. Neil Barrett, the group senior vice-president for corporate responsibility at Sodexo, told Footprint “it wasn’t that difficult” to get the businesses on board with the initiative, and they appear open to others joining. Improving welfare standards on a global scale won’t be easy – there are competing regulations, as well as different cultures, systems and standards – but Barrett is confident. “These organisations do great things in their own right, but [together] we can focus on specific areas to bring about change,” he said.

However, in tackling animal welfare the coalition will inevitably be faced with even more uncomfortable questions. The press release noted that, by 2050, livestock production is expected to be double the level it was in 2000. “What we ultimately want is a situation where all farm animals have the opportunity to experience a good life, with everyone sharing the responsibility and being motivated to ensure this happens,” said Dan Crossley, the executive director of the Food Ethics Council. “But this work needs to be wrapped up in the bigger question about how much meat, dairy and fish we should consume in the future.”

 

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