Animal welfare improving – but not enough

Some foodservice companies are scoring better in their approach to animal welfare, but is boardroom engagement being matched by impact on farms? Nick Hughes reports.

The coronavirus pandemic has reinforced the link between the health of people and animals in the most devastating of ways.

Last summer, a UN report called for a transformation in food systems as one means of preventing future pandemics of zoonotic diseases like covid-19 that transmit between animals and humans. Among its recommendations was the adoption of animal welfare standards for the care, housing and transport of live animals along the entire global food supply chain.

It’s in this context that the 2020 Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW) report feels especially important. Indeed, Steve McIvor, CEO of World Animal Protection – which until this year has coordinated the programme along with Compassion in World Farming – warned in his foreword that food companies that fail to recognise the connection between intensive farming and infectious diseases “are taking a significant risk by ignoring their responsibilities to the animals at the hearts of their businesses, to their customers and the planet”.

So what does the latest benchmark data on businesses’ animal welfare performance show? And how do foodservice businesses compare against their retailer and manufacturer peers?

The 150 companies covered by the benchmark are split into six tiers based on their performance across a series of categories including governance and management, consumer engagement, as well as specific policies around, for instance, the proportion of laying hens free from cages.

The overall results show companies making incremental improvements over the past 12 months: 23 companies moved up at least one tier, while the overall average score increased marginally to 35% in 2020 (from 34% in 2019).

Around two-thirds (61%) of companies are now actively managing the business risks and opportunities associated with farm animal welfare, and 79% of companies have committed to improvement objectives and targets.

For the first time in the benchmark’s history, food producers and manufacturers are the highest scoring sub-sector on farm animal welfare with an overall average score of 38%, compared to 35% for retailers and wholesalers, and 31% for restaurants and bars. Significant is the improvement in performance of producers in Latin America – a major meat producing region – whose overall average score rose from 29% in 2019 to 40% in 2020.

Food producers and manufacturers are also the most represented in tiers one and two of the benchmark, with the four companies in tier one – Cranswick, Marks & Spencer, Noble Foods and Waitrose – judged to have taken a leadership position on farm animal welfare.

The foodservice sector has no representatives in tier one, however Greggs, Mitchells & Butlers, and Whitbread feature in tier two as businesses that have made farm animal welfare an integral part of their business strategy.

Further down in tier three – companies that have an established approach to farm animal welfare but more work to do to ensure it is effectively implemented – we find the likes of Compass Group, Elior, Sodexo, JD Wetherspoon, McDonald’s and Yum Brands.

Among the tier four companies making progress on implementing their policies and commitments are Aramark and Papa John’s Pizza, while high street giants Starbucks and Subway are languishing in tier five among companies that have identified farm animal welfare as a business issue but provided limited evidence that they are managing the issue effectively.

Although no foodservice operator with a major UK footprint is listed in the bottom tier six, Italian caterer Autogrill and US fast food giant CKE Restaurants join the ranks of companies that have provided limited if any evidence that they recognise farm animal welfare as a business issue.

Some encouragement can be found in a long-term trend towards stronger welfare performance by foodservice businesses which has seen companies like Elior, Greggs and Sodexo move up three tiers since 2012. Yet it’s clear that the sector as a whole has more work to do to reach parity with retailers and manufacturers.

Nicky Amos, executive director of the BBFAW, acknowledges the pandemic has been “deeply challenging” for businesses, particularly those in the hospitality sector. But at the same time it “has underlined the need for progressive change toward healthier, more resilient animal-welfare friendly food systems”.

Another factor that has kept more recent progress in check has been an increasing emphasis on welfare impact, rather than simply commitments, in the latest benchmark. For the first time in 2020, BBFAW used an impact rating to assess whether company efforts in managing farm animal welfare are actually translating into improved welfare impacts for animals. It says that poor performance in the baseline 2020 rating shows that welfare impact remains under-reported.

For example, while 61% of companies report on the proportion of laying hens free from cages, significantly fewer companies report on the proportion of laying hens free from routine beak trimming, or the proportion of pigs free from sow stalls or tail docking, or the proportion of dairy cattle free from tethering or routine tail docking.

This disconnect between business commitments and farm-level impact raises “important questions about the effectiveness of current approaches to managing the supply chain risks associated with farm animal welfare”, according to the BBFAW.

Previous benchmarks have also raised concerns that encouraging scores for management processes were not being matched by performance. So as the food industry confronts the challenge of transitioning to a healthier, more resilient and higher welfare food system, it is time for action on the ground to start mimicking good intentions in the boardroom.

1 Response

  1. Whilst reviewing the ‘performance’ of individual companies is worthwhile in terms of attitudinal change, it seems to be the wrong approach on various grounds. Firstly, the criteria for allocation to particular tiers is not made clear in the article. Secondly, who is it who is qualified to make these allocations. Thirdly, animal welfare conditions are surely defined by law and therefore it is primarily government, rather than individual food retailers, who should be addressed. Fourthly, there seems to be no attempt to assess the technical or financial impacts of imposing better quality conditions mainly presumably for livestock – all such enhanced conditions are likely to involve a trade-off in terms of cost and ultimately, more expensive food for the consumer. Fifthly, legislation is only of value to the extent that it is enforced – this requires a formal industryt-wide recognised inspection regime – this would not appear to be the case here but I remain open to correction on this point.

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