The results of the first Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare show that many large food companies have yet to recognise the business importance of farm animal welfare

When we embarked on the heroic project of benchmarking how global food companies manage farm animal welfare, our expectation was that we would find that many companies are reasonably advanced in their management of farm animal welfare.

What we found was the opposite. While we identified some clear leaders and pockets of best practice, we found that most companies have yet to recognise the business importance of farm animal welfare. For example, less than half of the 68 companies covered by the benchmark have even published a farm animal welfare policy and the majority do not provide any information on the welfare standards to which their animals are reared, transported or slaughtered. 

These findings are of particular concern when we look at the market drivers in the food sector:

  • consumer surveys, notwithstanding the recession, consistently rate farm animal welfare above food health and safety concerns as the single most important sustainability related food issue;
  • globally, regulatory requirements on farm animal welfare are tightening; and
  • investors (particularly following “horsegate”) are starting to pay greater attention to the manner in which food companies manage the risks in their supply chains.

Management controls

So how should companies respond? Perhaps self-evidently, the first step is that they should conduct a proper assessment of the risks and opportunities that farm animal welfare presents for their business, alongside a gap analysis of their farm animal welfare management systems and processes. This should enable them to identify areas of strength and weakness, and provide the basis for implementing appropriate and effective management systems and controls.

The second is that they should develop an explicit farm animal welfare policy that sets out their core principles on farm animal welfare, and that explains how these beliefs will be addressed and implemented throughout the business.

This policy should be supplemented by specific policies on (as relevant) issues such as the close confinement of livestock, the use of genetically modified or cloned animals, routine mutilations (eg teeth clipping, tail docking, beak trimming), the use of growth promoting substances, pre-slaughter stunning and the long-distance transport of live animals.

The third is that they should assign senior management and operational responsibilities for farm animal welfare issues.

The fourth is that they should develop and implement effective processes for managing farm animal welfare, both within their own operations and, critically, within their supply chains. This should include the incorporation of farm animal welfare in supplier contracts, the provision of incentives to suppliers to achieve defined standards of farm animal welfare performance, and the auditing of suppliers’ performance on farm animal welfare.

Finally, companies should report coherently on their approach to farm animal welfare. Reporting is a major weakness for many companies, even those that have well developed farm animal welfare management systems and processes. Most companies do not consolidate information on their approach to farm animal welfare in a single location. In most cases, this information was scattered around their websites with important information often only to be found in FAQs or press releases.

We also found that information was incomplete and inconsistent. For example, some companies included farm animal welfare in their annual corporate responsibility report in one year but then did not cover the issue again in subsequent years.

Looking forward

We acknowledge that our findings have captured corporate practice at a particular point in time. Since we conducted our research, a number of the companies have significantly improved their reporting on farm animal welfare, and others have signalled their intention to review and improve their management systems and processes.

Investors, too, have indicated that they intend engaging with companies to encourage improvements.

We will repeat the benchmark in August 2013 and again in mid-2014. We are optimistic that these future benchmarks will signal significant improvements in farm animal welfare management and reporting across the board. We also expect that the results will clearly delineate between those companies that are taking a proactive approach to farm animal welfare and those who do not see it as a relevant business issue.

Dr Rory Sullivan is an expert adviser to the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare.  He is an internationally recognised expert on corporate responsibility, climate change and investment-related issues. He is strategic adviser, Ethix SRI Advisers, a senior research fellow at the University of Leeds and a member of the Ethical Corporation advisory board.

Nicky Amos is the programme director of the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare. She has over 20 years’ experience in managing and directing corporate responsibility in global companies, including the Body Shop International. 

The Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare: 2012 Report can be found here.

An accompanying disclosure framework on farm animal welfare has been produced for companies seeking to improve their reporting approach.

We expect that the 2013 and 2014 benchmarks will continue to focus on management systems and processes but that, over time, the benchmark will start to look more closely at farm animal welfare performance and outcomes. Later in 2013, we will be seeking input from companies, investors and other stakeholders on how farm animal welfare performance and outcomes can be incorporated into the benchmark. If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please register on the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare website.

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