The shift to kinder (but more costly) animal products

As shoppers become savvier about animal welfare, grocers and suppliers are responding with humane practices and products.

Shoppers browsing the meat or dairy aisle these days are encountering products emblazoned with idyllic images of cows grazing in open pastures and kids frolicking about the family farm.

This is the fantasy of modern farming. But thanks to increased exposure from both citizen- led and industry groups, more people are waking up to the reality that today’s farms are a far cry from Old MacDonald.

Documentary films such as Food Inc., as well as undercover videos taken at factory farms, have thrown the barn doors wide open. In 2012, Mercy for Animals Canada released a video showing pregnant sows in gestation crates unable to turn around, their gums bleeding from gnawing on metal bars.

Other videos followed: one depicted employees beating on cows at a B.C. dairy farm; another showed the mistreatment of calves at a Quebec veal producer. This past March, Brampton, Ont.-based Maple Lodge Farms was in the hot seat over allegations of chickens being inhumanely treated before slaughter.

READ: Walmart’s new animal welfare policy seen as game-changing

“Because we’ve had a series of farm-based scandals over the last few years, more and more people are aware of things happening on farms and are becoming increasingly concerned about farming practices,” says Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at the University of Guelph, in Ontario.

Certainly, some of what’s shown in the Mercy for Animals videos constitutes abuse. But other scenes–unsettling as they may be, such as the castration of piglets without the use of painkillers–depict standard industry practices.

Nevertheless, Charlebois says the issue is not necessarily about the “good” or “bad” behaviour of farm workers. “People are questioning whether or not the industrialization of farming is acceptable for modern society.”

The growing awareness and concern over farm practices isn’t just about animal welfare. It’s also tied into the sustainable food movement, which aims to bring people closer to their food sources.

READ: Cargill hires animal welfare expert

“There’s been a sea change,” says Jamie Waldron, a Dundas, Ont.- based butcher and author of the Home Butchering Handbook. “A dramatic shift has happened in the past eight to 10 years, where people really started to care about where and how the animal was raised and what it was fed.”

Worldwide, the food industry is responding. Faced with growing pressure from consumers, academics and advocacy groups, grocery retailers and suppliers are making big commitments toward improving animal welfare.

And with them, producers and farmers.

Last August, global food giant Nestlé announced a pledge to improve the
lives of farm animals in its supply chain, in partnership with non-profit group World Animal Protection. The improvements include: space requirements that ensure animals are not cramped; adequate veterinarian care; and the assurance that the animals will live a “normal” life.

The move affects about 7,300 suppliers that Nestlé buys animal-derived products from directly, including yogurt, meat and ice cream. Since each of these suppliers buys from others, the new guidelines apply to literally hundreds of thousands of farms around the world.

“It’s almost impossible to figure out the number of animals will impact,” says Darren Vanstone, corporate engagement manager at Toronto-based World Animal Protection Canada. “Nestlé is the largest food company in the world, so I think these are huge steps.”

READ: Animal rights group files complaint against Maple Lodge Farms

BOTH CANADA AND THE U.S. HAVE MADE significant moves to ban sow gestation crates, considered by some as one of the most inhumane practices in modern farming. What’s so bad?

As animal scientist Temple Grandin said in a recent interview with Stanford Medicine, sow gestation stalls are like “living in an airline seat and never being allowed to walk in the aisle.”

In April 2013, the Retail Council of Canada and eight of its member grocers–including Walmart, Loblaw, Costco, Metro and Sobeys–committed to phasing out gestation stalls and sourcing fresh pork products from “alternative housing practices” by the end of 2022.

A year later, the Canadian Pork Council and the National Farm Animal Care Council released its new “Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs.”

The voluntary code bans the use of gestation crates on new construction or replacement stalls, and producers will have to replace existing gestation crates with group housing by 2024.

“The Retail Council of Canada’s commitment to phase out gestation crates was incredibly impressive,” says Vanstone. “It will impact millions of sows every year–that’s huge. I don’t think anybody thought there would be a phase-out of gestation crates in the code of practice for pork last year. The direction of travel is pretty obvious now and there is some really good work being done.”

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In the U.S., gestation crates are banned in nine states, and many U.S. pork producers have recently announced phase- outs. But Wichita, Kansas-based Cargill is ahead of the pack: its pork operation has maintained 50% group housing for company-owned sows over the past several years. Company-owned facilities will be entirely group housing by end of this year and the phase-out will be completed at its suppliers’ facilities by the end of 2017.

“It was a decision we made a long time ago; we felt it was the right thing to do,” says Mike Siemens, Cargill’s global head of animal welfare.

Aside from large-scale operations making changes to improve animal welfare, the last decade has also seen a surge in small farms that specialize in organic and pasture-raised meat and dairy products.

When GreenSpace Brands founder Matthew von Teichman got started in the natural meat business a decade ago, “natural” meant no antibiotics or hormones.

“Today, it’s a more of a holistic view toward the animals. People are not only concerned about antibiotic use and hormone use and the feed; they’re concerned that the animal is treated properly,” says von Teichman, whose company produces Life Choices, a line of natural meat products; and Rolling Meadow grass-fed dairy products.

READ: Time to pay attention to animal welfare

Pasture-raised meat (meaning the animals are outdoors most of the time, and live a natural life) is a growing trend.

“Our Life Choices brand is a grass-fed brand and one of the largest retailers in the country recently asked us if that means pasture-raised,” says von Teichman. (It does.) “So they asked us to put it on the label.”

When Sobeys decided to carry fresh humane meat products, it went to a third-party certification program before launching its line of certified-humane beef, pork and poultry, in 2013. The products are sourced from small Canadian farms including Blue Goose Poultry and DuBreton Pork, which raise animals without antibiotics or hormones.

The animals are also provided resting areas and sufficient space. In a launch video, Sobeys brand ambassador and celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, said the products “taste great and it’s just the right thing to do.”

Indeed, the opportunity for retailers is not just to alleviate the shopper’s guilty conscience. Humanely raised meat is thought to taste better. With outdoor exercise, for instance, “the animals get oxygen to the muscles, which produces more fat and more muscle tissue, which means a more flavourful animal,” explains Waldron. “From a business perspective, you’re selling a better product. And from the consumer’s point of view, you’re getting a better taste.”

BETTER TASTE, MORE HUMANE FARMING–it all sounds great. So, what’s the problem? One of the big challenges for major grocery retailers is supply.

“They can’t really take a niche product and stock it in the stores because there’s too many stores and there’s too much volume,” von Teichman points out.

Price is also a barrier to more mainstream adoption. Shoppers are used to buying inexpensive meat, eggs and dairy products, and those organic, cage-free, pasture-raised options come at a premium price.

In California, which recently banned the use of battery cages for egg-laying hens, egg prices have reportedly gone up by at least 35%. Likewise, the European Union banned battery cages in 2012, which resulted in price increases and supply issues.

“It is higher , there’s no doubt about it,” says Stephanie Brown, director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals. “But it’s like so many things: if they’re done well in terms of the environment, it can cost more. You can pollute the lakes and it’s cheap to do. But in the long term, it’s not the way to do things.”

Though a ban on battery cages isn’t on the horizon in Canada, at least one major retailer is boosting its commitment to cage-free eggs.

READ: At Maple Leaf, the animal doctor is in

To date, all of Loblaw’s PC and PC Organics eggs are labelled “free run,” which means the hens live in indoor open environments where they can roam, feed, perch and nest (though most “free-run” hens are still densely packed into barns).

Loblaw’s began offering PC Blue Menu omega-3 free-run brown eggs in select Ontario stores last year, and will expand to other regions in 2015. The company is also partnering with egg suppliers to transition the PC Blue Menu line of eggs to “free run.”

The University of Guelph’s Charlebois points out that with Canada’s restrictive supply management system, changes related to eggs, poultry and milk will be especially challenging.

“It’s highly complicated to change anything, but expectations are changing,” he says.

The momentum will only increase. Looking ahead, industry experts agree that grocery retailers will get more involved in the supply side of their businesses, effectively making their suppliers adhere to higher animal welfare standards or risk losing the business.

“They can push far better than the individual consumer can,” says von Teichman. “The major retailers know the power they have and they’re the ones that have to affect to change.”

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