ANALYSIS - The Five Freedoms represent the foundation on which farm animal welfare stands but how can we encourage constant improvement as a guiding principle for all those involved in the meat, dairy and egg sectors? Taking a look at recent headlines, Jackie Linden examines how certification, monitoring and awards can all help.
A recent report from the European Commission (EC) highlighted that environmental management programmes - such as ISO 14000 and the EU’s EMAS1 - have brought genuine progress in terms of sustainability.
It found that agri-food companies are not simply adopting these programmes purely as a marketing tool, hoping to win over consumers and other players in the market without having to invest in underlying green practices.
The study involved a survey of more than 600 companies in North America and the European Union, asking for information on how far the company had gone towards implementing ISO 14000 and how much investment there was in ‘environmental supply chain management’ (ESCM) - for example, in pollution reduction, recycling and waste reduction measures.
Results showed that companies that had made more effort to implement the ISO 14000 did invest more in ESCM.
Although the report’s authors state that although their results do not mean that environmental management systems are never used as ‘greenwash’ – simply a marketing tool – it appears that, overall, ISO 14000 leads to genuine environmentally-friendly investment.
Do similar accusations – that companies use similar schemes to win over consumers and the market without addressing the real issue – also apply to animal welfare?
A recent article in The Guardian newspaper in the UK entitled ‘Farm animal welfare consistently ignored in sustainability reports’ suggests that the situation might be different for this aspect of sustainability.
Authors Rory Sullivan and Nicky Amos of Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW) call on companies to report on all issues stakeholders care about, not just those considered most material. Failure to do so suggests there is something to hide, they say.
They report that they reviewed the web sites, sustainability reports and annual reports of some 70 major retailers, food producers and food service companies, noting that there has been an increase over the last year in the number of companies producing integrated reports or focusing sustainability reporting on issues considered most material to their business. The word ‘material’ is significant, the authors say.
Sullivan and Amos write: “Farm animal welfare provides a good illustration of this. Because it is not seen as a material issue, most food companies either do not report on farm animal welfare at all or, if they do, they provide at best a cursory description of their approach.”
Unlike for social and environmental issues relevant to the business, they say, farm animal welfare appears to be a more selective reporting issue and is often not reported year-on-year. The quality of reporting on farm animal welfare tends to be limited, with most companies favouring a qualitative approach typically describing processes or programmes, rather than reporting on tangible performance measures and outcomes.
They add that the information is not easily found elsewhere, leading BBFAW to call for companies to:
- widen their discussion beyond the current materiality assessments
- recognise the need to report on issues important to all stakeholders and
- make better use of their web sites for communication to all stakeholders.
On the last point, Sullivan and Amos single out Marks & Spencer and Co-op Switzerland as good examples of companies that provide all information on farm animal welfare in a single, clearly signposted location on their web site.
Commenting on the article, Øistein Thorsen, Principal Consultant for trie.co, wrote: “There is a pretty strong link between sustainability and animal welfare: if you are the business of producing animal protein, the backbone of your business is the animals you farm. So you could argue the health and sustainability of your business ultimately starts with the health and welfare of those animals.
“In our work at trie.co, we operate with a very simple and straightforward definition of animal welfare developed by animal scientist, Marian Dawkins, that if applied right we find is well placed for implementation in our food chain: is the animal healthy and does it have what it wants?”
For some years, Compassion in World Farming has been selecting companies in various categories for awards for high standards of animal welfare.
Last month, that organisation celebrated its European Good Farm Animal Welfare Awards in Paris.
SPA Food became the very first Polish company to be awarded a Good Chicken Award, a particularly commendable achievement in the Food Service sector. Monoprix was the first major French retailer to receive a Good Egg Commendation, while Globus was the first German retailer to receive a Good Chicken Award.
Among the companies keeping the flag flying for Britain was Jamie Oliver who achieved a hat-trick, earning a Good Chicken Award, a Good Egg Award and a Good Pig Award.
One point not made in all these reports, articles and awards is that what really matters in terms of farm animal welfare is the level of care and attention to detail – the welfare and behavioural outcomes and standard of husbandry rather than the system in which the animal is kept.
This aspect did emerge from a discussion on the radio this week of research from the UK’s University of Bristol.
The researcher expressed surprise when her work revealed that, on some measures, hens kept in enriched cages often achieved higher scores for welfare than those kept on free-range.
Good management and attention to detail are the crucial factors for good welfare outcomes, it emerged from the discussion. And while free-range systems offer more obvious opportunities for the birds to perform their natural behaviour, the design of modern enriched cages at least makes some provision for these needs.
Top image via Shutterstock