We’re living in an increasingly transparent world, where Americans purchasing food are more concerned than ever about everything from product origin to genetic modification in their quest to feel good about what they consume. Whether an animal-based product comes from a responsibly raised and harvested source is high among these concerns.
According to a recent study from the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), roughly three-quarters (74 percent) more consumers are paying a greater amount of attention to labels that describe how an animal was raised, compared with five years ago. Issues today range from hormone use in food-producing animals to cramped cages and filthy living conditions.
Many major grocery chains have been progressive in establishing animal welfare policies for their supply chains, with retailers like Kroger, Albertsons-Safeway, H-E-B, Hy-Vee and Walmart adopting strict guidelines for procuring meat, poultry, seafood and eggs.
But what about tomorrow? Some issues will continue to be relevant, while other, new ones likely will arise. So what should grocers and their supplier partners prepare for?
The Great Antibiotic Debate
One of the bigger issues likely to concern grocers and suppliers in the coming years already exists: the use of antibiotics on animals. A growing number of consumers, some concerned about a rise in more resistant strains of bacteria, are seeking products from animals raised without antibiotics, and retailers are catching on to this demand, according to Brian Roelofs, VP of sales at GNP Co., a St. Cloud, Minn.-based poultry processor. To meet this demand in the future, grocers and their supplier partners need to start working either to stop using all antibiotics or to limit use to those not used to treat humans.
However, an issue here is that a supplier committed to humane care may have to care for an animal or flock with antibiotics in the event of illness, Roelofs notes.
“If that occurs at GNP Co., we humanely treat those birds with antibiotics, and then consequently, they will not be processed under the Gold’n Plump brand,” he says. “We’ve found that typically, the retailer or restaurant will work with the processor or supplier that aligns with their customer’s wishes or values.”
For those grocers and suppliers still processing and selling meat made from animals treated with antibiotics (by law, all meat must be free of antibiotics when slaughtered), another concern could arise: How much? To date, no standardized unit of measurement actually exists for antibiotic treatment, says Steward Leeth, VP of regulatory affairs and chief sustainability officer at Smithfield Foods, a Smithfield, Va.-based pork processor. This reality, he believes, needs to change.
“This standardization would inform a more meaningful discussion of antibiotics that is understandable to the general public,” he asserts.
Some of the other issues likely to grow in importance down the road vary by animal type.
With fish, concern over harvest method, or “kill technology,” could be of stronger concern in the coming years. To prepare here, grocers in the United States should look to their European counterparts, as the latter are “much farther ahead” when it comes to animal welfare, contends Jacqueline Claudia, CEO of LoveTheWild, a Boulder, Colo.-based supplier of convenience-minded frozen fish dishes.
For instance, U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer goes as far as to dictate harvest method for its farmed fish, a level of transparency unseen domestically. If U.S. grocers begin making similar demands, the domestic seafood industry would have to make substantial investments in new technology, since “you can’t just easily load live fish on a truck and take them to a different processing plant like you can with cows,” Claudia points out.
“If the average consumer thought about what it’s like to struggle and die at the end of a long line like a tuna, or get crushed in a trawl like a cod and slowly suffocate, wild seafood would lose some of its cachet,” she says. “These animals don’t have the brain structure to feel pain as we know it, but they certainly feel stress, and their plasma cortisol levels reflect that. That’s one of the many reasons we are pro-aquaculture: Farmed fish don’t feel the same stress at harvest as wild species, because they are killed quickly and humanely.”
Grocers should start asking questions about kill method and generating that transparency now, Claudia recommends. And they need to think about this from species to species, as a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.
“The most appropriate kill method for a big tuna isn’t the same thing that works for anchovies,” she says. “Poor fish welfare in the last few minutes of life can significantly degrade the quality of the fish, erasing efforts made over years of careful farming to raise healthy and high-quality animals. Make sure your suppliers are considering the science and research, and making informed decisions for their operation.”
Claudia also believes that activists will attempt to “humanize” fish in the coming years without understanding their physiology or natural behavior. To combat this issue, suppliers and grocers need to educate consumers about the harvesting and retailing of farmed fish.
“We hear people saying that fish in farms are ‘crowded’ and ‘stressed,’” she says. “In the wild, most farmed species school tightly together — that is how they prefer to swim. … Careful attention is paid to oxygen levels in the water, stocking densities and performance of the fish. If fish are stressed, they don’t eat, they don’t grow and they get sick, which means losing most of your crop, or [it] costs money to treat. So there is no incentive for a fish farmer to make his fish stressed.”
Turning to chicken — the most-consumed meat in the country, with broiler birds representing more than 90 percent of all animals raised for food in the United States — retailers and suppliers are seeing awareness rise regarding birds’ suffering from extreme overcrowding, barren environments and unnatural lighting programs to keep them eating around the clock with little rest, according to Nancy Roulston, ASPCA’s director of corporate engagement, farm animal welfare.
Further, through selective breeding, these birds now grow four times faster than they did 50 years ago, resulting in a variety of physical problems, including leg injuries and cardiovascular ailments. This is expected to remain a concern in the coming years that grocers and their suppliers will need to address.
“The stress and illness caused by such unhealthy conditions have resulted in reliance on antibiotics in the chicken industry,” Roulston says. “With awareness of these problems on the rise, brands and retailers should look to welfare certifications which address the effects of fast growth, if not requiring slower-growing breeds, and mandate more space, enrichment and a healthier lighting program. A move to adopt welfare certifications will address not only the welfare concerns, but also the inevitable calls for transparency.”
As for laying birds and eggs, recent times have seen all major supermarket chains (Publix was the last to jump on the bandwagon, in July) and many minor U.S. grocers promising to go cage-free within the next decade.
While all farmers and grocers offered cage-free eggs many decades ago, far fewer continued to do so as a growing population drove strong demand, explains Kevin Burkum, SVP at the Park Ridge, Ill.-based American Egg Board. (Recent studies also suggest a higher hen mortality rate in cage-free environments.)
Luckily, technology has improved, since using 1960 technology to produce the 2010 egg supply would have required 78 million more hens, 1.3 million more acres of corn and 1.8 million more acres of soybeans. Today’s technology, which serves a U.S. population 72 percent larger than it was 50 years ago, has enabled farmers to meet egg demands with just 18 percent more hens, while also leaving a smaller environmental footprint, and providing safe, nutritious feed while maintaining the best care for their hens.
In the coming years, however, farmers will have to keep up with technological advancements to meet even stronger cage-free-egg demand down the line as the hen population continues to rise.
Taking the First Steps
Of course, these issues are just a sampling of the many expected to exist in the near future, and grocers and suppliers alike will need to ramp up their efforts in support of more humane treatment of meat-, egg- and dairy-producing animals.
It’s surprising, however, that many today still don’t have strong animal welfare policies, even though consumers increasingly are seeking meat from more responsibly raised sources, says Jeff Tripician, general manager at Oakland, Calif.-based meat processor Niman Ranch. Typically, the reason for this issue is supply limitations.
To combat the supply issue going forward, grocers should start planning ahead via long-term, broad relationships with suppliers, securing supply and providing them with a market for humanely raised meat.
According to Tripician, these retailers are seeking to partner particularly with suppliers boasting a long history of animal welfare — ones who can prove it through such methods as adhering to animal-raising protocols developed by Dr. Temple Grandin, a leading animal welfare expert; obtaining a letter of support from the Humane Society of the United States; and earning third-party certification through Certified Humane.
Additionally, he says, it’s critical for grocers to review their own policies, ensuring that they have a robust animal welfare policy dictating that the products they sell come from animals that were allowed the widely accepted Five Freedoms, a core concept in animal welfare that originated in a U.K. government report in 1965 and was refined by the Farm Animal Welfare Council: freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behavior; and freedom from fear and distress.
Grocers keen on adhering to these standards should compare their supply chain practices with each freedom, asking themselves such questions as: How many suppliers are still using cages for egg-laying hens or crating gestating and mother sows? How many are engaging in tail docking of dairy cattle, or allowing intense crowding of animals? What suppliers have public animal welfare policies and standards, and third-party audits?
Asking these questions and taking the appropriate steps toward better animal treatment ultimately can lead to increased sales.
“Seventy-five percent of surveyed consumers want their stores to carry a greater variety of welfare-certified meat, eggs and dairy products,” ASPCA’s Roulston affirms. “Sixty-seven percent of consumers would purchase these products even when it means a modest increase in price. Taking steps to protect farm animals from suffering doesn’t just make ethical sense — it also makes business sense.”
“Make sure your suppliers are considering the science and research, and making informed decisions for their operation.”
—Jacqueline Claudia, LoveTheWild
“A move to adopt welfare certifications will address not only the welfare concerns, but also the inevitable calls for transparency.”
—Nancy Roulston, ASPCA