In the United States, an estimated 9 billion chickens, pigs and cattle are consumed each year, with a vast majority raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs).This form of food production typically emphasizes profit over farm animal treatment and sustainability. However, consumer demand for higher welfare animal proteins is increasing, likely due to heightened consumer awareness.
Americans are prioritizing animal welfare and consciously-raised foods over price and variety, according to the 2014 Cone Communications Food Issues Trend Tracker. A staggering 69 percent of respondents said they prioritize animal welfare when buying animal proteins.
“Consumers are demanding transparency in animal protein sourcing as the viral impact of social media greatly increases visible risk of poor conditions being seen by consumers,” says Janice Neitzel, Principal of Sustainable Solutions Group, a firm that guides companies in responsible sourcing and traceability of animal proteins. Neitzel sees humane sourcing of animal products as an opportunity for food companies and restaurants to improve their brands, especially private label brands, boost food safety, as well as to minimize liabilities.
Intense livestock confinement has been under scrutiny in recent years, with prominent issues including veal crates for calves, gestation crates for pregnant pigs, and battery cages for egg-laying hens. The European Union has outlawed these types of extreme animal confinement. Many U.S. food companies and restaurants are requiring animal welfare improvements in their supply chains, often after NGOs have brought visibility to the conditions and food companies and restaurants receive pressure from consumers.
Gestation crates for pregnant pigs
Throughout their entire pregnancy, 70 percent of U.S. breeding pigs are confined to crates that aren’t large enough for the pig to turn around, explains Neitzel. Consumer demand for humanely-raised animal proteins has fueled action, including 60 food companies that have created policies to eliminate the use of gestation crates for pigs moving forward.
Chipotle has been sourcing crate-free pork since opening its first store and requires pigs to be raised on pasture or in deeply-bedded pens. All levels in Whole Foods’ 5-Step Animal Welfare program ban gestation crates. Tyson Foods is undertaking system-wide shift towards a system that allows pigs to turn around, McDonald’s created a 10-year plan with input from suppliers, and Wendy’s is calling for complete removal of gestation crates from its supply chain in the U.S. and Canada.
Consumer demand for higher welfare animal products has led the way for changes in supply chain. Canadian pork producer, Olymel made the following statement on its new policy: “Our company believes that the entire pork production sector will have to respond positively to the demands of an increasing number of domestic and international clients who favor pork products originating from facilities which do not use crates to house pregnant sows.”
Companies that have created new policies to ensure humane handling have received praise from NGOs. “We appreciate that Wendy’s and other food companies are walking the walk when it comes to their commitments to eliminate a cruel system that’s simply out of step with how people think animals ought to be treated,” said Josh Balk, director of food policy for the Humane Society of the United States. “There’s clearly no future for gestation crates in pork production.”
Battery cages for egg-laying hens
Egg-laying hens are among the most confined animals in agribusiness, with a mere 67 square inches of cage space, which causes the hens’ muscles and bones deteriorate. Several U.S. states have outlawed battery cages for egg-laying hens, but no national restriction exists. Numerous restaurants and food companies have made a commitment to sourcing a percentage of cage-free eggs in their supply chains.
Neitzel explains that cage-free hens can spread their wings and lay eggs in nests or in nest boxes. Comfort Coop eggs sold in California are American Humane Certified laid by hens living in enriched cages with room to flap their wings and bob their heads. In full transparency, egg producer JS West provides a 24/7 live video cam for consumers to see how the hens are raised.
Major food companies have made announcements about sourcing cage-free eggs, including Starbucks, Unilever, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Subway, McDonald’s and Kraft. Although many fast food restaurants have been responding to consumer demand for humanely raised eggs, there are still an estimated 250 million hens in battery cages across the U.S.
Third-party audits and standards
Despite numerous improvements in the humane raising and handling of animals for food, there are many opportunities for improvement, driven by greater understanding of the issues by consumers. “Retailers and food service companies are in a tough position when it comes to animal welfare in the supply chain because consumers assume that there is already high animal welfare,” explains Neitzel.
“As consumers are learning more about the various conditions in which livestock are raised, they are looking for credible indicators of high animal welfare in foods they buy and consume. Retailers and food service companies need a third party benchmark to understand levels of animal welfare in their supply chain and third-party assessment of animal welfare audits, especially for private label products.”
Image credit compliments of JS West