Good animal welfare is good for business. That’s the main message from two industry representatives who spoke at the recent RSPCA Animal Welfare Seminar 2015. Jackie Healing is General Manager, Coles Brand and Quality, Coles. Terry Nolan of Nolan Meats was Chair of the Australian Meat Industry Council until 2011.
Coles supermarkets sell a lot of animal flesh and other animal products. Each week, trading involves:
5 million chickens
7 million litres of milk
7 million eggs
Why does animal welfare matter to business?
Jackie Healing argued that it’s not possible to trade this amount of animal products out of small scale operations. Large scale farming is needed to produce the volume of animal-based food that is currently sold at Coles. I can’t argue with her on that point. She added that Coles is closely involved with the producers of its animal-based products and can – and does – exert influence on farmers’ animal welfare practices. This influence is very much driven by consumer demand.
So really, it’s all about what our customers tell us they want us to do.
Healing goes on to observe that good animal welfare also makes financial sense for other reasons. For example, chicken litter needs to be in good condition so that the animals’ feet do not burn. Why? Because chicken feet are sold to Asia.
So there is very good reason why you would want to manage your chicken litter in a way that doesn’t allow that to happen. Because whilst the feet don’t find their way into the supermarket in this country, they certainly have a very strong market overseas.
Another example is “dark cutting beef”. When cattle are stressed glycogen, the muscle energy source, is depleted and the colour of the animals’ flesh will be darker than normal. Healing noted that of all beef, dark cutting beef is around 5%, and because Coles has a responsibility to feed the population, “waste in the food chain is a terrible thing to be involved with”.
Other reasons for good animal welfare are brand reputation and keeping up with global competitors.
A single bad practice from a single worker for some reason can be devastating for your business.
Terry Nolan’s motivation to treat his animals well is similar. One of his slides reads:
Nolan Meats. Respecting livestock makes good economic sense. My customers expect it. My brands depend on it. The quality of my products only perform when my cattle are looked after. My business is successful because of it
Terry Nolan commented that he grew up with dogs and horses and that he treats animals with respect.
We treat our animals with respect. We know that they will be processed into beef at some stage. It doesn’t mean we can’t process them respectfully.
One of the definitions of respect is “Have due regard for (someone’s feelings, wishes, or rights)”. I wonder how one can respect sentient beings when the ultimate purpose of the relationship with these beings is one of profiting from their death. Are we sure these animals wish to die for our convenience and pleasure?
Indeed, Nolan Meat’s vision statement expresses quite clearly that the animals’ purpose is to provide pleasurable meat moments for humans. To me, respect for animals and pleasurable meat moments are incompatible concepts. But Terry Nolan appeared sincere when he spoke about the vision for his business.
It’s about the good meat on the plate, it’s about the well treated animal, it’s about the safe work place, it’s about all those sorts of things.
So who determines what good animal welfare entails?
The industry is mostly self-regulated, taking into account broad State, Territory and Commonwealth animal welfare legislation. Nolan has been involved in the development of the meat processing industry’s set of national standards. He estimates that compliance with these standards is currently around 70%.
What does this mean for the consumer?
Eating meat is based on a meat eating culture. And culture can be changed. As consumers, we can – to some extent – influence animal welfare practices through our purchasing decisions by demanding humanely produced products, or by not buying animal products at all.
But consumers can only exercise informed choice when they have the requisite information. For example, consumers want to know where the product comes from, what different types of production systems involve (e.g. free range, barn laid and conventional egg production), what different types of animal welfare accreditation mean. Currently that’s not possible because product labelling is inadequate, suppliers may not provide vital information, or the extent of required information to make informed decisions may just be too overwhelming for many consumers. To express one’s personal values through buying behaviour is not straightforward.
And yet, a proportion of the population care enough about animals and their welfare that businesses have to take notice. As Jackie Healing and Terry Nolan have told us, good animal welfare aligns with their business interests. If consumers demand good welfare for farm animals, business will comply. So there is hope for cultural change.
And stronger animal welfare regulation and implementation will have to follow. But that’s an argument for another post.
Disclosure: My self-managed superannuation fund owns shares in Wesfarmers, the owner of Coles supermarkets.