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Time to pay attention to animal welfare

How farm animals are treated isn't a big deal right now for consumers or grocery chains.

Last December, animal welfare was thrust into the limelight when CTV broadcast undercover footage of how pigs become pork.

The video, shot at a Puratone-owned hog farm in Manitoba and released by activist group Mercy for Animals Canada, was not easy viewing. It showed pregnant sows with open sores writhing around in their small metal crates, and staff euthanizing piglets by slamming them on a concrete floor.

Predictably, the undercover investigation bruised Puratone’s reputation. But rather than simply target pork suppliers, MFAC looked further along the supply chain, to Canada’s major food retailers. The organization collected more than 38,000 signatures on a petition asking Sobeys, Loblaw, Metro and Walmart to prohibit gestation crates in their pork supply chains.

READ: Grocers make animal welfare pledge for pigs

With MFAC promising to release more disturbing videos, and consumers growing increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, experts agree the animal welfare issue can only get bigger.

“The same kind of trends we saw for organic food are going to appear in foods that reflect an enhanced animal welfare system,” says Dr. John Cranfield, an agricultural economist and professor at the University of Guelph.

As usual, retailers are uniquely positioned to drive change–if they want to. That’s why MFAC took aim at grocers, notes Stephane Perrais, the organization’s director of operations.

“If turned around and told their suppliers that they opposed such practices, and that they wanted to phase out gestation crates, their suppliers would have to heed that call," Perrais says.

Stewart Skinner, an Ontario hog farmer, says he was appalled by MFAC’s “sensationalized” investigation. Nonetheless, he agrees that if retailers demand farmers and producers change the way animals are treated, it’ll happen. Why? Suppliers are retailers’ customers. “If your customer asks you to do something... you are going to meet that need,” he says.

READ: Whole Foods launches animal welfare labelling program

But animal welfare is hardly a top priority among grocers. In a March 2012 National Farm Animal Care Council webinar, Sobeys’ David Smith described it as an “important” issue currently on the “back burner.”

It is an understandable attitude, at least from an economic standpoint. Dr. Jayson Lusk, a renowned agricultural economist in Oklahoma, says consumers often express a willingness to pay more for products from enhanced animal welfare systems (a term used to describe more humane systems of raising farm animals, such as giving sows the option to roam outdoors rather than confining them to crates).

But those surveys can be misleading. “They often don’t match up well with people’s actual purchase behaviour in the grocery store,” says Lusk. So Cranfield’s study, which found Canadians are willing to pay $1.71 extra for a dozen eggs from a free- run farm, may not hold true in stores.

In Canada, as in the U.S., the market for enhanced animal welfare products remains small. According to Margaret Hudson, president of Burnbrae Farms, the latest Nielsen data shows free-run, free-range and organic eggs make up just over four per cent of total egg sales.

Demand has increased somewhat: Last year, free-run egg sales grew 19 per cent, driven by free-run omega-3 products, says Hudson. But overall, growth from enhanced animal welfare systems is slow.

David Wilkes, head of the grocery division at the Retail Council of Canada, says the industry is currently “working with various producer organizations, like the pork industry and the chicken industry, on some of the best practices that they are developing.”

For MFAC, it’s not enough. Perrais believes retailers are “hiding” behind industry process. He would like to see decisive action by Canada’s major grocers.

It wouldn’t be unprecedented: Last year Costco, Kroger and Safeway said they would phase out gestation crates. And two years ago, Whole Foods rolled out its five-step animal welfare labelling program in Canada. It requires suppliers to be certified through the Global Animal Partnership. At minimum, animals must “live their lives with space to move around and stretch their legs.”

READ: Morrisons exec talks supply chain

Overseas, battery cages have been banned across the European Union since the beginning of 2012. The EU also banned gestation crates for pigs after the fourth week of pregnancy. And in the U.K., Sainsbury’s and other major grocers have made animal welfare a priority over the last decade.

Twice voted the Best Volume Supermarket by Compassion in World Farming, Sainsbury’s sold over £380 million worth of Freedom Food products last year across 310 lines. Freedom Food is a farm assurance and food labelling scheme recognized “as a mark of higher animal welfare” in both the U.K. and EU.

A Sainsbury’s rep said that despite shoppers’ recent price-sensitivity, about 20 per cent of the company’s fresh chicken sales are Freedom Food birds.

Here in Canada, animal welfare isn’t top of mind for shoppers. A recent Ipsos survey found that, unaided, Canadians didn’t identify the humane treatment of farm animals as an “important issue” they were “personally concerned with.”

But sentiment could change fast. One apparent reason Safeway, Kroger and Costco opted to phase out gestation crates was due to the well-oiled attack of animal welfare groups, who took aim at these top grocery chains while releasing graphic videos of animal mistreatment.

Loblaw, Sobeys, Metro and Walmart, many of whom make references to advancing animal welfare in their CSR policies, either did not respond to requests for interviews or deferred to the Retail Council of Canada.

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