Is Animal Welfare Becoming a Commercial Issue?

ANALYSIS - Large multinational processing companies, retailers and foodservice organisations are starting to define the way that producers view animal welfare and ethical, sustainable production.
calendar icon 19 June 2015
clock icon 7 minute read

More and more large and wealthy organisations are laying down the minimum standards they expect from their farmer producers.

And they are dictating farming practices, often ahead of legislation, not only in the advanced farming communities but also in developing and emerging nations.

One of the latest high profile organisations to join the campaign to improve welfare conditions and sustainable practices on the farms that produce the food it sells is the US retail giant, Walmart.

Ten years ago, Walmart’s UK division, Asda, launched its sustainability programme, Sustainability 360, which started a total sustainability programme that has developed over the years.

Now, Walmart has announced it will be embracing a welfare policy in its procurement policy that is based on the five freedoms – the basis for animal welfare championed by World Animal Protection and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

Those freedoms are:

  1. Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  4. Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind
  5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

Kathleen McLaughlin, president of the Walmart Foundation and senior vice president of Walmart sustainability said: “Walmart is committed to selling products that sustain people and the environment.

“We have listened to our customers, and are asking our suppliers to engage in improved reporting standards and transparency measures regarding the treatment of farm animals.”

As part of its animal welfare position statement, Walmart said it will not tolerate animal abuse, it supports the globally recognised Five Freedoms of animal welfare, and is committed to working with supply chain partners to implement practices consistent with the Five Freedoms.

It said it will report and take disciplinary and corrective action in cases of animal abuse and find and implement solutions to address animal welfare concerns in housing systems, painful procedures and euthanasia or slaughter.

The retailer added that it will promote transparency by providing progress reports to Walmart and publicly reporting against their own corporate animal welfare position on annual basis.

Walmart also turned to the specific issue of the use of antibiotics in animal production and said it believes that antibiotics should be used responsibly in farm animals, and with that in mind, the company is asking suppliers to adopt and implement the Judicious Use Principles of Antimicrobial Use from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

These principles include accurate record-keeping, veterinary oversight, and limiting antimicrobial treatment to animals that are ill or at risk.

Walmart said it will be calling on its suppliers to also adopt and implement Voluntary Guidance for Industry #209 from the Food and Drug Administration in their own operations and their industry producer programs, including eliminating growth promotion uses of medically important antibiotics.

And it has called on the suppliers to promote transparency by providing a report on antibiotics management to Walmart and publicly report antibiotic use on an annual basis.

Shortly after Walmart announced the launch of its new welfare policy, the Brazilian meat processing giant and owner of SEARA, Brazil’s second largest pork producer, JBS announced that it will be phasing out the use of sow gestation stalls on all its producer pig farms by 2016 – more quickly than some of the producers and processors in the US have said they will be ending the use of the stalls.

How much the moves by companies such as Walmart and JBS are driven by a true desire for good animal welfare practices and sustainable production and how much they are driven by a commercial necessity are debatable.

Certainly, Walmart’s Kathleen McLaughlin was quite open in admitting that the company has “listened to its customers”, so it is obvious that this adoption of prescribed good welfare practices has a commercial end.

It is also notable that more and more global companies are adopting similar programmes that are global companies are adopting similar programmes that are stipulating to their suppliers that products have to be produced sustainably and with good welfare at the heart.

The move by JBS to phase out gestation stalls follows just six months after the other Brazilian meat processing giant, BRF, announced it was phasing out gestation stalls and the Brazilian agriculture ministry signed an agreement with the Brazilian Association of Pig Farmers to encourage the country’s pork producers to end the use of crates.

Last year, Arcos Dorados, the largest McDonald’s franchisee in Latin America and the Caribbean, announced that all of its pork suppliers must present documented plans to limit the use of gestation crates and adopt group housing systems, including in Brazil.

In the past year, several countries and global companies have announced moves away from sow stalls.

The European Union’s ban on the continuous use of gestation crates came into effect in 2013.

Australia’s phase-out ends in 2017, New Zealand’s ends next year, and Canada’s in 2024.

The South African pork industry is looking to phase out sow stalls by 2020.

In August last year, Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, committed to a phase-out of crates throughout its global supply chain, including in Brazil.

More than 60 multinational food companies – including McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Sodexo, and Compass Group – have pledged to eliminate gestation crates from their supply chains.

In the US, nine states have banned, or are phasing out stalls and top US producers, including Smithfield and Cargill, have committed to getting out of the gestation crate business entirely.

The welfare initiatives by the big companies not only includes the use of sow stalls, as companies such as Nestlé and Unilever last year included this move in a much larger welfare programme similar to the commitment made by Walmart.

The change in attitude of the big companies to welfare and sustainability is captured in the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare – a league table of companies ranked according to the efficiency and effectiveness of their animal welfare policies.

The annual report has been developed by World Animal Protection and Compassion in World Farming.

In the last report for 2014, 10 companies were added to the core list of companies, increasing the total number of companies covered by the 2014 Benchmark to 80.

The new companies are: BRF, Costco Wholesale, Darden Restaurants, Domino’s Pizza, Edeka Zentrale, Ferrero, General Mills, JBS, The Kroger Company, and The Wendy’s Company.

Inclusion on the list is regarded as an approbation of an ethical company, by the companies themselves and is a major marketing factor, so that welfare is becoming more and more a commercial issue.

Everton Andrade, coordinator of Welfare JBS Animal said: "The JBS policy is the assurance and satisfaction of legal and customer requirements, from farm to slaughter, preserving the animal welfare and ensuring products that meet the standards of quality and food safety.

“We invest in this area and we will continue focusing our efforts so that the products are increasingly recognised by our partners and consumers."

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