More major food corporations are adopting farm animal welfare as part of their business culture.
The fifth Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare reviewed 99 companies and found that more of them have formally adopted animal welfare policies, which include specific requirements from suppliers.
The ratings are based on public information from the companies and their statements on welfare and adoption of new practices.
“Beyond policy and management commitments, we are looking for evidence the companies are implementing those commitments on a day-to-day basis,” said Nicky Amos of the Benchmark group.
The Benchmark group comprises organizations such as the investment firm Coller Capital, Compassion in World Farming and World Animal Protection, formerly the World Society for the Protection of Animals.
The companies represent food retailers and wholesalers, restaurants and bars, including food service providers, food producers and manufacturers. The list includes private companies, partnerships and co-operatives.
The 2016 benchmark study found that 48 companies had improved their scores for management commitment since the last report in 2015. The most improved were food producing companies.
“It is interesting to see how producers, maybe in response to customer pressure, as well as producers wanting to demonstrate their leadership in this area, improved the overall impact on their scoring,” said Amos.
More companies have published farm animal welfare policies since the first report was issued in 2012, and many of them relate to specific changes they want to make.
The most recent report said that 77 percent of companies published policies on animal confinement and the use of prophylactic antibiotics.
The Benchmark group acknowledged that people eat meat, eggs and dairy, but it is biased toward non-intensive agriculture.
“The starting point is that animals are produced for food,” said Rory Sullivan, expert adviser to the group.
“We understand for some organizations they don’t agree with that premise, but ours is interested in companies that produce animals for food,” he said.
“Our interest is in how do we improve the well-being of those animals that are farmed or used for that purpose.”
The Global Round Table on Beef Sustainability was not considered in the rankings because they are species specific.
There has been an attitude shift among those included in the Benchmark group since its first report in 2012. Companies have been proactive and want to compare their year-on-year performance and learn what they can do to improve.
“It takes two or three benchmark cycles for companies to understand and then embrace the benchmark,” Amos said.
Many of the companies can use their standing as a competitive advantage and can encourage others through peer pressure to change. Activist groups may continue to pressure companies, but that may not be as effective.
“This gives them a way to think about welfare and plan what they want to accomplish,” Sullivan said. “This gives them good data about what other folks are doing globally.”
He believes the Benchmark study has helped the non-governmental organization community to take a more reasonable approach to encourage companies to make changes toward higher animal welfare standards.
Investors are also encouraged to use the benchmark system as a reference in making decisions on how food companies are running their businesses.
Some of this is related to ethical investments, but this covers the broader range of investors seeking well-run companies with specific welfare policies, said Sullivan.
The benchmarking system is something corporations use and understand, said Ed Pajor, animal welfare chair at the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine.
The Benchmark group is a large international organization that interacts with numerous companies and producer groups around the world.
“They do have an agenda in that they are very much interested in promoting non-intensive agriculture. They are very much about limiting the use of cages and stalls and getting animals outside,” he said.
“They are not necessarily anti-agriculture, but they are anti-intensive agriculture.”
It is hard to say how much influence the group has, but changes have occurred within food companies. Large corporations have hired animal welfare specialists and have moved away from certain livestock practices. Companies such as meat processors have employed people to monitor animal care and treatment throughout the process.
“They have timelines in place in order to make those changes within their supply chain,” he said.
Influencing investors is also on their agenda. This tends to be more common in Europe, where an investment group might consider animal welfare policies as important.
This work also shows more sophistication when protests against producer groups were common.
“Now we can go to corporate headquarters and talk to them about how important animal welfare is in terms of their supply chain and how consumers hold them responsible,” he said.
No company wants to be known as the entity that does not care about animal welfare or the environment.
“All you need is a couple undercover videos and your whole world changes,” he said.
Scientists have been invited to the table in recent years.
“Animal welfare scientists have been very much involved with various organizations, retailer groups both here and in the United States,” he said.
Loblaws, Tim Hortons, McDonald’s and other retailers have had animal welfare scientists involved in formulating their policies and company direction.
“They want to know the policies they form are science based,” he said.
The report may be seen at www.bbfaw.com.