Food industry put on notice over animal care

By Peter Huck

Dismal welfare policies sobering for consumers and investors alike.

Animal welfare has been identified as a business issue but companies do not always have policies that reflect that. Photo / Greg Bowker
Animal welfare has been identified as a business issue but companies do not always have policies that reflect that. Photo / Greg Bowker

If nothing else, the European horsemeat scandal graphically demonstrates the byzantine complexities of the supply lines used by the global food industry to get products to consumers.

Besides raising questions about criminal fraud and food safety, the scandal lifts the veil on an often ugly trade where animals, destined as human food, are abused. Traditionally, animal rights campaigners reach out by shaming malefactors, with mixed results as battles over battery hens and pig crates testify.

That approach may shift with a study by the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare, a British advocacy group, focusing on animal welfare as a business risk or opportunity.

It implies neglecting farm animals can have costly consequences.

Designed as a tool for investors, NGOs and others, the benchmark seeks to improve animal welfare by emphasising care is good business practice.

Allied with the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and Compassion in World Farming, the BBFAW uses company reports, webpages, press releases and other published material to examine 68 major firms in the UK, US and Europe that supply meat, game, eggs and dairy products. They include Nestle, Tesco, Heinz, Wal-Mart, Sainsbury's, Burger King and McDonald's.

The report makes sobering reading. Although more than 70 per cent of companies agreed animal welfare was a business issue, only 46 per cent had published a formal policy, and only 41 per cent revealed how their management oversaw such policies. The BBFAW created a six-tier methodology, with tier one indicating best practice. The results were dismal: 62 per cent landed in tier five, some evidence welfare featured in policy, or tier six, no evidence. And 23 companies did not acknowledge animal welfare was a business issue.

"Many companies have yet to recognise the business importance of farm animal welfare," notes the BBFAW, "and more have yet to report on the issue in a structured, coherent manner."

While the lack of universal standards meant strong drivers did not always exist, not having an animal care policy was a recipe for marketplace disaster.

The BBFAW hopes the benchmark will be a starting point to improve practices like animal confinement and transport. The core standard is the Five Freedoms: freedom from thirst and hunger; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom from fear and distress; and freedom to express normal behaviour. Ultimately, says Nicky Amos, the BBFAW's programme director, getting farm animal welfare right is about risk management, critical to investors.

"If you park the ethical debate, if you park the moral issue about the rights of animals, and you look at this issue simply from the point of view of business exposure to risk, then it's very hard for businesses to argue that this isn't something that applies to them."

The message is clear: raise your game or run the risk of losing investment and falling behind competitors in a tough marketplace.

Certainly, sacrificing animal care as part of cost cutting risks backfiring. As food scares and boycotts show, the strongest driver for any business in a global online world may be public perception.

Food companies are acknowledging climate change, sustainability and food safety. The study found "adopting higher farm animal welfare standards is likely to be a core driver of business value over the next decade". More than 70 per cent of consumers in Britain, the United States and Australia cite concerns about farm animal welfare. Yet many companies court disaster by regarding this as a low priority. Some benchmarked companies have begun to improve. But much remains to be done along supply chains that cross different jurisdictions and cultures. Only 10 companies covered animal welfare in contracts with firms along the supply chain. One-third audited the process.

This should trigger alarm bells. Last month the Ecologist found the horsemeat scandal was a tiny part of a global livestock trade often contemptuous of the Five Freedoms. Conditions on farms, in markets, at slaughterhouses and during transport, the magazine said, "are just as bad - if not worse - than those endured by horses."

"For companies with very complex supply chains it's not always going to be possible to maintain the same standard across every market they sell in, or every market that they supply from," says Amos. "Our benchmark will score companies on having partial commitment."

A new benchmark is expected in November, the next step towards a global measure as the BBFAW builds its US profile and eyes Australasia.

"The benchmark's focus is on opportunity," says Anne Lieberman, executive director of the WSPA's New York office. "Yes, there's always risk. But I think there's a huge amount of opportunity here for US businesses. That's the conversation we want to have."

She says there is a huge focus on food in the US, from food security to the environmental impacts of farming. Research shows 40 per cent of US consumers would pay up to a 5 per cent premium to support "socially responsible" restaurants.

The critical question is if there will ever be a level playing field for farm animal care. A broad standard is more cost effective and boosts the brand, as US car manufacturers have discovered. "Detroit has found that to meet the needs of the global marketplace they must create those standards," says Lieberman. "I'm optimistic the food industry will see it that way. But we have a long way to go."

As companies adopt farm animal welfare policies they can also expect to be judged on performance in the field. Fonterra's website says the dairy company is committed to the Five Freedoms, and its sustainability policy manager, Sasha Maher, says it takes animal welfare very seriously.

The company was "continually working with the Ministry of Primary Industry, other industry bodies and our farmer shareholders to ensure we are maintaining best practice."

Bridget Vercoe, the WSPA's New Zealand representative said: "I think New Zealanders will increasingly start demanding information on animal welfare. How people spend their money can have a flow-on effect on animal care."

Indeed, how animals are treated is increasingly key to a company's brand, critical in an inter-connected world where bad news travels fast.

- NZ Herald

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