The Corporate Shift to Cage-Free Eggs Continues

Hellmann’s says its entire U.S. consumer portfolio of mayonnaise and mayonnaise dressings is now made with only cage-free eggs. Hellmann’s, owned by Unilever, reached its cage-free target three years ahead of schedule, the company announced on Monday. 

Hellmann’s set the goal in 2010, at a time when only 2 percent of egg-laying hens in the U.S. were cage-free. That figure rose to 7.8 percent as of September 2016.

Most egg-laying hens in the U.S. are confined in battery cages that provide only 67 inches of space. That is smaller than a sheet of letter-sized paper. The hens are unable to spread their wings or engage in normal chicken behavior such as nesting, perching and dustbathing.

“When Hellmann’s first made this commitment, there simply weren’t enough cage-free hens in America to supply the volume of eggs needed,” Russel Lilly, marketing director for Hellmann’s, said in a statement. “The sheer number of eggs that go into Hellmann’s products – 331 million a year – means we had to completely rebuild our supply chain in order to make our goal a reality.”

Hellmann’s is just one of a number of companies that have made commitments to phase out confinement systems such as battery cages. Seventy-seven percent of companies assessed in the Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare 2016 report have published policies concerning close confinement, as opposed to 72 percent in 2015. The Benchmark 2016 is the fifth annual report looked at the animal welfare policies of 99 companies, including Unilever.

The commitments companies make to phasing out confinement systems are important, as they send signals to producers.

Finding alternatives to close confinement systems is the big barrier to wiping out those cruel systems. When companies make commitments to phase out close confinement systems from their supply chains with a clear timeline, they “can provide suppliers with confidence that there will be a market for animals reared in more extensive systems,” according to the report. Innovation and scale are incentivized as a result and that helps reduce the cost of alternative systems.

Consumers and nonprofit organizations are putting increasing pressure on companies to eliminate close confinement systems, particularly cages for hens and sow gestation crates.

A number of companies have made commitments to phase out caged hens from their supply chains, including McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Taco Bell, Starbucks, Tesco and Walmart. Smithfield Foods is among the food producers phasing out sow gestation crates. The commitments by global companies will have “significant influence in the industry,” the report states.

The increasing importance of farm animal welfare as a business issue

More and more companies are aware that farm animal welfare is an important issue. The Benchmark report found that 87 percent of companies assessed acknowledge farm animal welfare as a business issue. However, only 73 percent have formalized their commitments in “overarching policies or equivalent documents.”

But there’s more good news: 65 percent have set farm animal welfare-related targets, and 45 percent described their management responsibilities for farm animal welfare.

Companies are increasing the attention they pay to farm animal welfare. The overall score across the companies surveyed increased year-on-year by about 5 percent from 2012 to 2013, by 2 percent from 2013 to 2014, and by 3 percent from 2014 to 2015. The average score for companies increased by another 5 percent last year.

Companies are also increasingly publishing objectives and targets for farm animal welfare: 65 percent of those studied published such targets last year. 

Although the average score in the Benchmark 2016 is low, some companies have made significant improvements in their farm animal welfare management and reporting over the last year. This year, 26 companies moved up at least one tier in the Benchmark, out of a possible six tiers. Two companies, Cargill and Mondelēz International, moved up two tiers.

Ten of the companies that ranked in the bottom two tiers in 2015 have moved up at least one tier in 2016. In May 2016, those companies received a letter co-signed by 18 institutional investors asking them to account for their poor performance in the Benchmark, which may account for their increased efforts. 

Image credit: Animal Freedom

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Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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