Guest blog: Farm animal welfare: Should it be on your agenda?

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Guest blog by Jemima Jewell, Head of Food Business at Compassion in World Farming. 

As a sustainability issue, farm animal welfare is relatively immature – but it’s rapidly rising up the corporate agenda.  If you’re a food company with farm animals in your supply chain – or indeed an apparel company which uses animal products – read on.

Animal welfare is about ensuring that individual animals have what they want and need.  To ensure an animal has a high level of welfare, three separate but overlapping aspects are important: physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, and the ability to express natural behaviour – all of which can be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively, and all of which are achievable in farming systems at a commercial scale. As such, welfare is determined by many variables – including inputs such as housing, feed and breed – all underpinned by strong management. Compassion in World Farming’s corporate engagement team works with leading food companies to embed higher animal welfare practices at the heart of the corporate agenda, recognising and rewarding good practice.

pigs on strawThere’s no one ‘business case’ for companies to address farm animal welfare; rather there are a myriad of different drivers.  The ‘doing the right’ thing argument is simple: it’s the responsibility to ensure that animals have a ‘life worth living’ before they end up on our plates (or as our clothes). For many, particularly those businesses at the early stages of engaging with the issue, the potential risks posed by exposure of poor practice in the media are paramount.  For others, taking a long-term view makes clear that higher welfare systems – those with more space and environmental enrichment for animals – are a more future-proof investment than, for example, caged farming systems that legislation may well render obsolete within a few years.

Increasingly, investors are another key driver. They are considering the risks and opportunity posed by farm animal welfare, and in turn are asking the companies in which they invest to ensure robust management of this issue. The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare is a key tool for investors. Supported by Compassion in World Farming, World Animal Protection and investment firm Coller Capital, it publicly ranks 90 of the world’s largest food companies on their management, policy commitment and disclosure of farm animal welfare.  The most recent Business Benchmark was published in January 2016 and saw Noble Foods, Waitrose, Marks & Spencer and Coop Group (Switzerland) in the top tier ranking. In contrast, 40 companies languish in the bottom two tiers of the Benchmark, where the report states that animal welfare is ‘not on the business agenda’ or with ‘limited evidence of implementation’.  Performance in this Benchmark doesn’t go unnoticed – a group of institutional investors with assets under management of over one trillion pounds has committed to engage with those underperforming companies to question their shortcomings and encourage improvement.

eggsConsumers are of course another big part of the picture, and an important driver for farm animal welfare. Whilst stated concern (in the UK for example, 79% of consumers in a 2013 study said they are concerned about the welfare of the meat and dairy they buy) does not always translate into purchasing patterns, concerns are beginning to filter through at the till. Higher welfare eggs are leading the way here with the volume of cage-free eggs purchased by consumers growing from 12% in 1994 to 48% in 2014, with a peak in 2012 of 51% (DEFRA).

So, to answer the question posed in the title – unsurprisingly, it’s a resounding yes.  Farm animal welfare may once have been a ‘nice to have’ at best, and irrelevant at worst – but legislative, investor and consumer pressure is on the rise. Leading companies from all sectors – retailers, manufacturers, and food service companies – are paying increasing attention to this issue, viewing it both as a strategic necessity and an ethical imperative.

 

This guest blog by Jemima Jewell, Head of Food Business at Compassion in World Farming, highlights why companies are paying increasing attention to farm animal welfare as a business issue. The Food Business team at Compassion in World Farming works with retailers, food service companies and manufacturers to raise baseline standards of farm animal welfare in the food industry.  See more at: compassioninfoodbusiness.com

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