Animal welfare boss targets food manufacturers

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Animal welfare Food

Jones says the whole economics of food production is skewed and unsustainable
Jones says the whole economics of food production is skewed and unsustainable
Compassion in World Farming’s Dr Tracey Jones is taking a softly, softly approach to getting major food firms to improve animal welfare standards, reports Gary Scattergood

Key points

Compassion in World Farming’s head of food business Dr Tracey Jones faces an almighty challenge.

She is striving to hit the charity’s target of improving the welfare standards of 1bn farm animals a year by 2017 across the dairy and meat industries.

What’s more, she is trying to do this with a team of just nine people across an organisation that employs around 65 full-time staff.

So how on earth is she going to achieve this? “It’s no secret,”​ she tells me at the organisation’s Surrey headquarters, “we are targeting the UK’s major food manufacturers.”

But for an organisation known for its vocal campaigning, she is not going down the path of publicising what someone in her position could view as poor animal welfare practices.

Instead, through a dedicated food business programme, she is seeking to reward companies that go the extra mile and to work quietly with them behind the scenes to improve their animal welfare credentials, often over several years.

Food business programme (Return to top)

“Our food business programme is a relatively new initiative and there was nothing else really like it out there,” ​she explains.

“It’s a big mindset for an organisation that previously wanted to campaign against ​[some businesses] because of various welfare issues, to deciding we might make some more progress if we sit in a room with them and talk.

“This is a positive engagement campaign.”

While it was hoped that this change in tactics would find major manufacturers more amenable to the charity’s ambition of driving up animal welfare standards, Jones says it was also clear that they had to provide those firms willing to commit with tangible business benefits.

This led, in suitably business-esque jargon, to the development of a “toolkit”​ of benefits and supports available to manufacturers.

“One of the main components of this is our awards scheme,” ​she adds, “which includes the Good Egg Award, Good Dairy Award, Good Chicken Award and Good Pig Award. These are open to companies that are doing good things already and meet our welfare criteria or they commit to meet those standards within a five year timeframe.”

Jones is pragmatic about why people begin to work towards the charity’s standards, stating it might be because they have a genuine commitment to animal welfare, or they are seeking to fulfil corporate social responsibility targets or even to enhance sales. Either way, if they are engaged, then half the battle is won.

Tangible business benefits (Return to top)

“Some people are engaged purely because of the business benefits, and that is fine,” ​she says. “These awards allow businesses to differentiate themselves in the market, build a competitive advantage and we do see clear sales uplift from award winners.”

So for the egg award, the criteria is simple: a firm needs to use cage-free eggs across its entire brand or own-label products.

And it is in this category that the charity has chalked up its biggest success story, especially by working with Unilever.

The company originally received a Good Egg Award in 2008 for its cage-free policy for Hellmann’s mayonnaise. But what is pleasing for Jones is that Unilever then adopted the same measure across several of its European dressings before also implementing the cage-free measure in Hellmann's mayonnaise in the US a country traditionally seen as lagging behind Europe when it comes to welfare standards.

“This shows how together we can gradually build on an initial measure and have an absolutely huge impact in terms of numbers,”​ adds Jones, who before joining the charity three years ago, spent 18 years conducting animal welfare and behaviour research with Cambac Research and the University of Oxford.

“What’s more, the Hellmann’s measures caused a ripple effect, with other manufacturers and retailers following suit. We could not have reached all of them on our own, so it was great to see the market taking the initiative.”

In addition to the awards regime, Jones is keen on expanding the partnership programmes the organisation has with several manufacturers. This can range from providing advice, helping them work towards an award, or working with multinational firms to set global welfare standards through bespoke programmes.

The final “route into firms”​ is via the charity’s Business Benchmark for Animal Welfare, which rates companies about what they say about animal welfare and what policies they have in place, based on publicly available documents.

“This is where we publicly rate companies according to their approach,”​ she adds.

Top end of the spectrum companies (Return to top)

According to its 2012 report, companies at the top end of the spectrum include Unilever, Nobel Food and the Co-op. Smithfield Foods, Sainsbury, Morrisons and Marks & Spencer are classed as one rung below with “established”​ practices in place, while a host of manufacturers, such as Arla, Cranswick, Dairy Crest and Vion are said to be “making progress”​. Nestlé, 2 Sisters Food Group and Premier Foods are ranked as having animal welfare issues “on the business agenda​” while Heinz, Mars and Müller are propping up the table with the charity ruling these issues are “not on the business agenda”.

From Jones’s perspective, there is clearly plenty of room for improvement, but for a relatively small outfit, she has to be savvy about who she seeks to work with.

So while she is always on the lookout for the “low hanging fruit” ​those businesses which only need a nudge in the right direction to meet enhanced animal welfare standards, the majority of her focus is on “the big boys”.

“Our remit is to raise baseline standards in animal welfare and you can only really do that if you work with the big guys because they impact on the widest number of animals.

“It is great to work with the organic, free-range and smaller companies but ultimately our aim is to impact on the big companies. Food businesses are the route to faster change. They have the ability to really make a difference.

“These aren’t quick fixes though. The awards are often at the end of several years’ of dialogue and engagement.”

Other major players to be recognised by the charity include Moy Park, for its range in conjunction with Jamie Oliver, Premier Foods for its Mr Kipling cakes and Unilever again for its Ben and Jerry’s ice cream range.

Cost implications (Return to top)

While these companies have successfully exploited the on-pack marketing opportunities afforded by receiving the charity’s seal of approve, Jones is well aware of the elephant in the room; the cost implications.

For many, higher welfare standards mean higher costs. And cost, which many manufacturers would rightly fear would not be absorbed by the retailers or consumers.

“When consumers are asked about animal welfare it is usually the third on their list after price and food safety,”​ she concedes.

“However, manufacturers will always say ‘we will produce whatever you want if we are paid a fair price for that product’.

“The problem we have is that the whole economics of food production is skewed and unsustainable. We have driven margins down so low that any rise in, say wheat prices, means that they are lost.”

While many may be sympathetic to that view, and even her belief that over consumption and the need for consumers to pay the ‘real cost’ of their food, it doesn't sit well in austere times.

Jones, however, is resolute. “It is a really rotten time to be talking about food prices increasing when people are hit hard, but in reality we spend less on our food than we ever have.”

For Jones, higher prices equal higher margins, some of which can be offset to improve animal welfare standards. What retailers and consumers would make of that is ripe for debate, but she believes the system is about to reach a crucial pinch point.

“In terms of animal welfare we have hit a situation where we cannot carry on. We can’t take another wave of intensification. If we are to feed the world sustainably and equitably then we need to change, and we need to work with the masses and the big food manufacturers to raise the bar.”

Listen to our exclusive podcast​ to hear Jones' view on how UK manufacturers are fearing when it comes to animal welfare.

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