By Kristie Middleton
When we think about corporate social responsibility, we might think of waste and emissions reductions, recycling programs, or maybe fair wages. In recent years though, animal welfare has become a prominent CSR issue for food companies—and for good reasons. So, why should food companies include farm animal welfare in their CSR plans?
- Consumers care about farm animal welfare. Animal welfare consistently ranks as a leading concern for consumers. Technomic, a Chicago-based food industry research firm, found that animal welfare is the third-most important social issue to American restaurant patrons, outranking the environment, buying organic and buying fair trade. A 2010 study by Context Marketing determined that animal welfare is a major consideration for shoppers, finding that “69 percent of consumers report they will pay more for food brands they see as ‘ethical’” and 91 percent include good animal welfare in their definition of ethical.
- Images of animal cruelty damage brand reputation. More than 80 percent of breeding pigs in the pork industry are confined in gestation crates: two foot wide cages that are barely larger than the animals’ own bodies, preventing them from even turning around. Confining animals in these cramped cages is antithetical to the way most Americans believe animals ought to be treated. In a 2008 food industry report, Citigroup warned of “…a number of potential headline risks that could tarnish the image of restaurant companies, including concerns over animal cruelty…”
- Current systems are unsustainable. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, have replaced the vast majority of traditional small farms in America. These facilities can contain tens of thousands of animals at any given moment, and warehousing vast numbers of animals like this wreaks environmental havoc. CAFOs are resource intensive and their waste pollutes nearby air and water, making life miserable for neighbors. Moving toward higher animal welfare products means moving to systems that house animals in less concentrated numbers and reduce pollution.
As these issues gain more prominence, a number of large companies are including animal welfare as part of their CSR commitments. Recently, the country’s largest grocery chain, Kroger, called on its suppliers to accelerate their movement away from gestation crates for pigs. McDonald’s also recently announced a timetable to phase out all pork produced with gestation crates. Wendy’s, Denny’s, Sonic, and Safeway have made similar commitments. And Burger King took its commitment one step further, pledging to also switch to exclusively cage-free eggs. Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, told the Columbus Dispatch
that Wendy’s announcement is part of an ongoing movement, "not just in animal welfare but in corporate responsibility." He continued, "Many major chains are re-evaluating the way animals are treated in the food-service supply chain."
And as Chipotle has demonstrated, a corporate culture based on responsible stewardship of animals and the environment pays off. NPR’s The Salt reports that when Chipotle started selling Niman Ranch pork, which comes from pigs raised without gestation crates, sales improved. Chris Arnold, communications director of Chipotle, told The Salt, "We started selling twice as many carnitas as we had been before.”
Some companies have yet to make progress, presenting a threat to shareholders and their public image. Rebuking those laggards, Pork Magazine editorialized in March, “on the issue of gestation-sow stalls, at least, it’s increasingly apparent that you will lose the battle.” Meat industry trade journal, Meatingplace, editorialized in March, “Game over. For any pork producer still on the fence [about gestation crates], the McDonald's announcement makes the move inevitable, whether or not they are a McD's supplier.”
As Rory Sullivan, a researcher and ethical investment consultant, told Food Navigator, animal welfare is reaching a tipping point. “The end point for investors is that they will see animal welfare as a risk issue and then use their influence with companies to encourage them to manage the issue better.”
Kristie Middleton is the Manager of Corporate Outreach for Farm Animal Protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow her on Twitter.