Trust and Verify

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Trust and Verify

By Bridget Goldschmidt, EnsembleIQ - 09/03/2015

In common with many grocers, among them upscale supernaturals such as Whole Foods Market and conventional powerhouses like Kroger, Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets has certain standards in place regarding the treatment of the animals that provide many of the products sold in its stores.

According to Trudy Bialic, PCC’s director of public affairs, “The foundation of these standards incorporates three beliefs: that the way humans treat farm animals is integral to our own general well-being and the health of our planet; that we have a responsibility to see that livestock are raised humanely, free of pain and fear and psychological stress, and that they are able to express their natural behaviors; and that animals are capable of experiencing happiness and enjoyment of life.”

To live up to these core beliefs, the cooperative grocer, which operates 10 stores in Washington state (an 11th is slated to open next year) “work[s] directly with suppliers to ensure our standards are being met,” notes Bialic. “PCC merchandisers maintain personal relationships with their suppliers, visiting and inspecting farms in person.”

On the other end of the food retail spectrum, BJ’s Wholesale Club Inc., with more than 200 locations in 15 states, is also mindful of animal welfare. “As a large-volume buyer of proteins and animal products, it is BJ’s responsibility to ensure animals are treated humanely and without cruelty,” says Scott Williams, the Westborough, Mass.-based company’s assistant VP quality assurance and environmental stewardship.

To that end, the chain’s practices include submitting its own-brand dairy products to the Validus Dairy Animal Welfare Review. “Under this program, an audit of the farmer’s animal welfare practices is conducted,” observes Williams, who notes that such “certifications are … important [because] the treatment of animals used as sources of proteins and animal products is a concern for many of our members.”

Meanwhile, despite its own strict standards, which cover farm and ranch animals and address such issues as outdoor access and humane slaughter, PCC doesn’t require third-party certifications of its suppliers, although some have acquired them through various programs. Bialic explains the chain’s stance: “Organic certification is perceived as the gold standard and, generally, organic rules ensure the fundamentals for animal welfare are addressed. But additional certifications, such as Certified Humane, are viewed as a significant plus. They’re not a substitute, however, for seeing a farm and how it operates firsthand. We have evaluated third-party animal welfare certifications — and welcome them — but they can be costly to ranchers hit hard by drought and rising fuel and feed costs. We believe our process of direct verification serves PCC and our customers well.”

When it comes to animal welfare, however, Kathi Brock, senior advisor to American Humane Association’s Humane Heartland program, observes that retailers “are more apt to require a third-party farm animal welfare audit of companies in the food supply chain, rather than write or implement their own standards,” making it all the more important that such programs hold participating companies to the highest certification requirements. For its part, in 2000, the Washington, D.C.-based association created the United States’ first independent, third-party farm animal welfare program, American Humane Certified, which currently monitors the welfare of more than 1.25 billion animals, or around one in eight animals in U.S. agriculture.

Other program providers are of the opinion that retailers’ own standards don’t register nearly as strongly with shoppers. When asked about such an approach, Adele Douglass, executive director of Herndon, Va.-based Humane Farm Animal Care, replies, “I don’t think the public will buy it,” instead recommending “that retailers require their suppliers meet the standards of programs such as ours, since they were written by a scientific committee of international animal welfare scientists with great knowledge in this field, and [we] have a legitimate program to implement the inspections to ensure these standards are met.”

Everybody Wins

For many retailers and suppliers, their own or others’ certification programs can offer reassurance to consumers that companies’ products are just what they say they are with regard to animal welfare, while at the same time enabling these companies “to differentiate their products in the marketplace,” as Douglass puts it.

“The certifications provide our members with third-party validation that the high-quality protein and animal products found in-club are from animals raised under strict welfare guidelines,” affirms BJ’s Williams. As PCC does with its comprehensive standards, BJ’s touts its commitment to providing organic products through such vehicles as in-store signage and the company’s website.

One supplier, Alameda, Calif.-based Niman Ranch, described by Chief Marketing Officer/EVP Sales Jeff “Trip” Tripician as being “built on [animal welfare] standards” created by celebrated livestock-handling expert Temple Grandin, provides specific protocols that leave no “wiggle room,” ensuring humane, all-natural pasture-raised beef, lamb and pork, as well as all-natural cage-free eggs. According to Tripician, certification “builds confidence and trust in consumers and the trade.” In line with PCC’s concerns about the expense incurred by smaller producers, Niman Ranch covers the costs of the certification process for the 726 family farms and ranchers with which it works.

The company’s stringent standards, Tripician asserts, result in a better-tasting product, a perception echoed by American Humane Association’s Brock, who points out that many consumers “look for humanely raised foods because of their … strong belief that … a properly raised animal is healthier and less stressed, and therefore more delicious and nutritious.”

Citing a 2014 survey conducted by the association, Brock says: “Clearly, Americans who already enjoy a safe, affordable and abundant food supply are now rightly demanding that it also be a humane one. Increasing numbers of enlightened farmers, producers and retailers realize that raising animals humanely is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do as informed consumers seek out ethical choices that are in line with their values.

“For consumers, choosing a humane certification label from a trusted organization with a strong program, independent third-party verification, transparent standards available for all to see, and a long track record assures them that the animals in that program were provided with good welfare throughout their lives,” she adds. “For producers, humane certification is verification of their good raising of animals and provides a marketing differentiation and a predisposed market for their products. For grocers and retailers, offering humanely certified foods demonstrates their willingness to meet their customers’ demands, as well as their corporate responsibility and dedication to ethical principles.”

After all, as Brock points out, grocers “want to appeal to their customers, who have strong ethical opinions about how animals and all food products are raised. Some retailers focus on ethical and sustainably raised foods, but almost all retailers are now offering at least one such choice to appeal to [a] younger segment of buyers. Shoppers, particularly younger buyers, are keenly interested in where food comes from and how it was raised.”

“Customers want our certification because they want … to know that animals are treated humanely throughout their lives, and go to their ends swiftly and peacefully,” observes Humane Farm Animal Care’s Douglass. “They want to be sure that unnecessary antibiotics are not given to farm animals, and when they are raised to our standards, for example, they are not. They also understand that when there are [fewer] animals raised in more space, it improves the quality of the environment.”

Not coincidentally, interest in more humane food production methods grew alongside the rise of the World Wide Web. “With the development of the internet, social media and smartphones, the world has become very educated,” asserts George Hazard, lead auditor-animal welfare, supply chain food safety at Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International, which offers several food quality certification programs. “This started in the mid-1990s. Shortly after that, retailers started to hear concerns from their shoppers about all sorts of priorities, including humane handling guidelines. The internet also allowed producers to research and communicate better, which exposed them to better methods of production.”

Engaging Consumers

How is this heightened awareness of the humane treatment of animals playing out in grocery store aisles? “Safeway demanded their cage-free and organic egg producers become Certified Humane,” notes Douglass. “Sobeys supermarkets in Canada require their proteins be Certified Humane for their Eating Well program. That includes beef, chicken, turkey [and] pork.”

“More than 60 major food companies [currently] have aggressive animal welfare policies,” points out Matthew Prescott, senior food policy director at the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States, which doesn’t have its own certification program, but supports initiatives such as the one run by Global Animal Partnership (GAP) whose partners include Whole Foods and Niman Ranch. “They’re eliminating gestation crates for pigs and shifting to cage-free eggs, for example. The issue now has a prominent place in corporate responsibility reports and annual shareholder meetings.”

Such pronouncements must be backed up by action, however. “In today’s economy, consumers want meaningful standards with teeth,” affirms Prescott. “Costco, for example, has been in the national spotlight recently for continuing to sell eggs from caged hens despite it having indicated almost a decade ago that it would switch to cage-free eggs. Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling have written widely publicized letters to the company. [Comedian] Bill Maher published an article in The New York Times on the topic, titled ‘Free the Hens, Costco!’ And top-rated television shows, like ‘The Tonight Show’ and ABC’s ‘Nightline,’ have covered the issue. Retailers can avoid situations like this by setting timelines for eliminating cruel practices like chicken cages, and being transparent with their customers about what those timelines look like.”

Further, grocers “need to continue to educate their shoppers on all aspects of farming, animal production and food processing,” advises NSF’s Hazard. “This will assist with their name recognition and marketing. Less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population is involved with farming and agriculture. This industry has made huge advancements in animal production and animal welfare. However, like many things, only the challenges get the attention of the press. Retailers need to educate the public themselves through their industry partners and organizations.”

“We feel the best way to engage with consumers is to offer them a variety of ways to engage — social media, websites, in-store demos and pictures are great ways to talk to consumers about how farm animals are raised,” recommends Anne Malleau, director of standards and certification at Alexandria, Va.-based GAP, whose multitiered 5-Step program requires that the requirements of each phase of the initiative — Steps 1 through 5+ — be met before a farm can be certified. “It’s equally as important to train the team members in the stores, as they are the people who interact every day with consumers.” According to Malleau, GAP’s “animal-centered” program “offers grocers a way to engage both the customer and their supply chain in a positive, transparent way.”

For her part, Brock advises food retailers, “Make it easy for those who are seeking ethically produced food to know you are a champion of these products through select media, and use in-store displays featuring humane choices with information and videos about the products, producers and the certifier.”

Certification Evolution

As consumer, retailer and manufacturer awareness of animal welfare continues to evolve, so do third-party certification requirements, both here and abroad. “Right now … I see many programs expanding into more livestock industries,” says Hazard. “NSF is working on an Animal Welfare ‘Readiness’ Audit to assist manufacturers and producers who are starting to develop their humane-handling policies and procedures. This would be the first step in achieving a more in-depth certification. I see the dairy industry pushing humane-handling guidelines to the next level. The pork industry is moving to do an on-farm audit that I think will be very beneficial. I [also] see expansions of many existing certifications into South America and other areas of the world, which is very exciting.”

While acknowledging that “[m]ost of the emerging certification labels have to do with consumer perceptions of health and/or quality issues, such as antibiotic-free, non-GMO, organic, gluten-free, grass-fed, Fair Trade, etc.,” Brock asserts that animal welfare is still a big concern for consumers, as illustrated by 2013 and 2014 surveys conducted by American Humane Association, which found that “the humane label was still ranked as highest in importance, over ‘antibiotic-free,’ ‘organic’ or ‘natural.’”

Accordingly, Brock believes that the Enriched Colony Housing designation, which she says the association was the first to endorse, “will be a new label for eggs as smaller, conventional cage layer hen housing is phased out — battery cages are outlawed in several states now.” Further, she notes, “Producers that raise pigs in open pens may choose to create labels to differentiate from pork that uses gestation crates.”

Given the many certifications now available and still to come, Brock suggests, “It might be useful for retailers/grocery chains to offer paper and electronic lists showing every ‘ethical’ label in the store, what the label verifies to consumers and how to contact the certifying organizations.”

Notes BJ’s Williams: “We want to use the knowledge and technology of all our partners to make sure that we procure items that have been treated with the highest standards, and continue to raise those standards as science and technology offer new insights and solutions.”

“The treatment of animals used as sources of proteins and animal products is a concern for many of our members.”
—Scott Williams, BJ’s Wholesale Club

“Increasing numbers of enlightened farmers, producers and retailers realize that raising animals humanely is not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do as informed consumers seek out ethical choices that are in line with their values.”
—Kathi Brock, American Humane Association

“Social media, websites, in-store demos and pictures are great ways to talk to consumers about how farm animals are raised.
—Anne Malleau, Global Animal Partnership