Report: British firms leading animal welfare practices, but laggards remain

Some of the UK's largest food firms, including Marks & Spencer (M&S) and Cranswick, have been named as the corporate leaders on animal welfare issues in a new report which names the likes of Mars, Subway and Starbucks as laggards in this space.

Report: British firms leading animal welfare practices, but laggards remain

The latest iteration of the annual report ranks 150 global companies across four key animal ethics areas. Image: Sam Frost/WSPA

Published today (26 February) by World Animal Protection and Compassion in World Farming, the business benchmark on animal welfare report ranks 150 of the world’s largest food and drink companies on the actions they have taken to safeguard animal welfare in their supply chains.

The benchmark ranks companies across four areas – management-level commitment, governance and management frameworks, leadership and innovation and reporting performance – before giving them an overall score. This overall score is then used to rank each company on a scale from one to six, with one being the “leadership” tier and six meaning that there is “no evidence that animal welfare is on the business agenda”.

Companies listed in the “leadership” tier of the report include UK supermarkets Waitrose & Partners and M&S, major food supplier Cranswick and Noble Foods, which owns Gu desserts and The Happy Egg. To receive this ranking, firms were required to score more than 80% across all four of the benchmark’s categories.

Several other UK-based firms, such as Unilever, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Whitbread and Greggs, were also given favourable scores. The report notes that these firms have succeeded in making animal welfare an “integral” part of their respective business strategies.

At the other end of the table, the report accuses multinational food and drink giant Mars of “persistently” failing to provide evidence that it recognises animal welfare as a business issue. This is the second consecutive year that the firm, which owns brands such as Uncle Ben’s, Dolmio and Oxo, has been ranked as a “tier six” company in the report.

The likes of Starbucks, Papa John’s and Subway have also been given low rankings by World Animal Protection, which claims that animal welfare actions are on their respective business agendas – but are yet to be implemented beyond “limited” schemes.

World Animal Protection’s chief executive Steve McIvor argued that, amid growing consumer concerns around the sustainability of food supply chains, big-name businesses should be positioning animal welfare as a business-critical issue.

“Food producers, supermarkets and restaurant chains can no longer afford to ignore animal welfare as consumers now have more information at their fingertips and are showing they increasingly care about the welfare of animals when they are deciding where to shop and eat,” McIvor said.

“Giants like Amazon, Burger King and Mars must take animal welfare much more seriously.”

Industry response

Responding to the report, a spokesperson for Mars told edie that the company is “committed to animal welfare at all levels” and “understands that there is more to be done.”

“We seek to positively influence animal welfare issues where we can play a direct role,” the spokesperson said.

“One example is through our commitment to sourcing 100% cage-free eggs for our confectionery and food segments in the US, Canada and Australia by 2020, a commitment we’ve already delivered in Europe. Our work to achieve this also includes looking for commercially viable solutions in other regions and working with third parties and suppliers to encourage ethical treatment of farm animals throughout the supply chain.”

Similarly, a Subway spokesperson denied the report’s accusations, arguing that the company “works closely with suppliers to ensure that animals are treated well in accordance with Subway’s global animal welfare policy”. The policy follows the Farm Animal Welfare Council’s (FAWC) Five Freedoms framework, which is recognised worldwide as a best-practice method for safeguarding and improving animal welfare, the spokesperson said.

“All UK and Ireland chicken suppliers and their producers must, as a minimum, comply with EU animal welfare legislation,” the spokesperson added. “We are committed to improving chicken welfare standards across our supply chain and are working with Compassion In World Farming in Europe and the USA.”

edie has reached out to Amazon, Starbucks, Burger King, Subway and Papa John’s for their responses to the report but is yet to receive responses.

Global progress

The report notes that while 33 firms are classed as “tier six” companies, up from 21 in last year’s rankings, the majority of companies included in the report have shown “consistent year-on-year improvement” since the scheme was launched in 2012.

Of the 150 companies listed in the report, 71% have published formal improvement objectives for farm animal welfare, for example, while more than half (53%) have made animal ethics a board-level focus.

However, the report states that progress in some areas has been faster than others. While half of the listed companies disclose the proportion of animals in their supply chains which are confined, only 20% were able to report on the proportion of animals stunned prior to slaughter.

The global meat sector is widely classed as a key contributor to climate change – and one of the worst-prepared industries for climate challenges in the world. Away from emissions, large-scale deforestation, fires, and human rights abuses in Argentina and Paraguay’s Gran Chaco region have been linked to meat producers across the globe.

It is unsurprising, then, that the report comes at a time when the animal products sector is facing increasing pressure from investors and consumers alike to interrogate supply chains and bolster its environmental, social and ethical practices.

A report commissioned Cranswick last year, for example, found that public trust in food and drink companies has eroded to an “all-time low”. It attributed this issue to the sector’s failings in disclosing information regarding its food hygiene, ethics and sustainability standards.

More recently, a coalition of investment firms with more than $6.5trn in assets under management began lobbying for the world’s largest fast-food companies to address environmental and ethical challenges within their supply chains “as a matter of urgency”.

Sarah George

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