New scientific research is beginning to confirm consumers’ instincts that farm animals have feelings, and that their welfare and humane treatment not only ensures higher quality food but is worth paying a premium for on moral grounds.
While sales of free range eggs and other pro-animal welfare products are on the rise, a recent international conference on animal sentience held in London produced a raft of evidence of farm animal intelligence and the ability of chickens, cows and pigs to feel a range of emotions, from contentment to jealousy and stress. Supermarkets and other food producers and retailers are aware of a growing concern for animal welfare among their customers through their product choices, and an increasing number are taking significant steps to demonstrate their animal welfare credentials not only to their customers, but to their shareholders too.
“Every day we learn more about the unique ways in which animals think, feel and make intelligent decisions – it is abundantly clear that animals are sentient,” said Francoise Wemelsfelder, senior research scientist at the Scottish Agricultural College. She was speaking at the conference ‘From Darwin to Dawkins: the science and implications of animal sentience’ held in London recently, organised by the animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). While the agenda featured papers from many of the leading international animal sentience researchers, it also included speakers from McDonald’s and the International Finance Corporation, the private investment arm of the World Bank.
“Animal welfare is a key priority for a number of our customers, expressed through purchasing decisions, such as our free-range and organic ranges,” said a Tesco spokesman explaining the company’s support for the conference. “We believe that our customers and increasingly shareholders expect us to have standards in place and to be seeking improvements in those areas where developments can be made.”
Keith Kenny, head of food strategy at McDonald’s Restaurants UK, said: “McDonald’s recognises that its responsibilities as a purchaser of food products includes ensuring good animal handling practices.” While the company faces a barrage of criticism of its meals on health grounds, it is trying to be a step ahead of its critics on animal welfare issues. It has appointed an animal welfare council of leading experts, including several scientists who spoke at the conference, such as professors Temple Grandin and Edmond Pajor, to advise it on animal welfare issues, and has introduced a number of pro-animal welfare policies – for example, all its restaurants in the UK, Germany, Austria and Scandinavia now use only free range eggs in their meals, and it has forced slaughterhouses across the US to upgrade their facilities.
While Tesco nailed its flag firmly to the mast by sponsoring the conference, other supermarkets and food producers are equally keen to be seen as pro animal welfare. The Co-op Group and Marks and Spencer were among the food companies that sent delegates to the conference, while Waitrose has been using its Compassionate Supermarket of the Year 2003-2004 award from CIWF in recent prime-time television advertising.
Andrew Nicholson, quality assurance manager for the Co-op Group, who attended the conference, said: “With a growing acknowledgement of animal sentience within the general public, pressure will inevitably grow on the business community to redevelop their future business strategies with animal welfare firmly on the agenda. Consumer attitudes are hardening. People are now prepared to use their purchase power to support products that meet their expected standards, and are equally prepared to veto those that don’t.”
Sales figures for free range eggs at least bear out Nicholson’s assertions – 50% of eggs sold in UK supermarkets are now free range, even though best quality organic eggs can cost nearly three times as much as lowest price battery hen eggs in some stores. Speakers and delegates at the conference suggested that animal welfare concern was reaching a critical mass, with consumer choice, scientific evidence and new and proposed UK, European and international legislation all converging to put pressure on food producers. Companies that did not respond could find themselves suffering economic consequences.
“Sentience of animals and its implications for our behaviour is an issue whose time has come,” said Joyce D’Silva, chief executive officer of CIWF. “There is no doubt that animal welfare will soon be rising up the agenda of corporate governance and socially responsible investing.”