It’s no yolk: grocery giants commit to animal welfare initiatives

A dramatic decrease in the availability of sow stall pork and caged eggs has been driven by consumer concern. AAP

Australia’s two largest grocery retailers, Coles and Woolworths, have vowed to dramatically decrease the availability of pork and egg products sourced from intensive farming systems.

The decision was made to cater for the growing number of consumers who are concerned about the animal welfare impacts of sow stalls and battery cages. The changes may not be comprehensive, or all that’s required, but they will certainly improve the welfare of Australian farm animals.

A step in the right direction

In 2010 Coles announced that it would no longer sell sow stall pork and caged eggs under the store brand by 2014. The supermarket giant had already met its commitment by January this year and launched an advertising campaign endorsed by celebrity chef and Coles ambassador, Curtis Stone.

Rival grocery chain Woolworths is not letting Coles have all the glory. It has decreased the number of caged egg brands available in stores, discontinued caged eggs from its Woolworths Select brand, and claims that 98% of its pork suppliers do not use sow stalls.

Both Coles and Woolworths have cited changing consumer attitudes as a reason for promoting high welfare egg and pork products. Recent studies have shown that consumers are concerned about the welfare implications of intensive farming systems.

Efforts by animal protection groups such as Animals Australia’s “Make It Possible” campaign, which encourages consumers to use the power of their dollar to support humane treatment of farm animals, have prompted retailers and producers to adapt.

It is important to recognise the work of members of the egg and pork industries as they work towards improving the welfare of farm animals. However, consumers should remain mindful that it is in producers’ best interests to maximise profits. A “free range” or “sow stall free” label does not necessarily guarantee that the system represents adequate animal welfare standards.

Coles and Woolworths have reassured customers that they will not pay more for high welfare products, as the retailers will absorb the costs involved in the transition. Yet the strong hold the duopoly has over the market puts producers in a vulnerable position.

Unsurprisingly, the RSPCA welcomes the move by retailers to limit intensively-sourced pork and eggs. The organisation recognises that the move signals a change in consumer attitudes while indicating to producers that high-welfare farming is set to become standard practice in Australia.

Following the EU

The European Union has led the way in livestock welfare initiatives.

Conventional battery cages were phased out in 2012, and sow stalls have been illegal in the UK and Sweden for over a decade.

Major attention towards animal welfare saw conventional battery cages phased out of the UK in 2012. Flickr/bookish in north park

The welfare implications of battery cages and sow stalls have received attention in the UK, with high profile chefs such as Jamie Oliver having pleaded with the public to examine animal welfare standards and labelling issues. As a result, UK supermarket chains Marks & Spencer and Sainbury’s no longer stock caged eggs.

Coles and Woolworths are still stocking caged egg products to cater for cost-conscious shoppers. However, the diminishing shelf-space dedicated to caged eggs and sow stall pork is a strong indicator of change.

A commitment to animal welfare

The long-term effect on farm animal welfare as the result of the phase-outs will be significant. While animals raised in cages tend to live longer and are protected from the weather and predators, sows and hens are denied the freedom to express natural behaviours such as turning around, stretching and self-grooming. Space limitations also deny the animals the right to live without discomfort, pain and injury – breaching several of the five freedoms that much animal welfare legislation is purportedly based on.

According to Coles, 350,000 hens will no longer be caged and 24,000 sows will no longer spend the majority of their pregnancy in a stall.

The move by Woolworths and Coles has prompted industry bodies to defend the consumer’s right to purchase low cost eggs and pork without interference from supermarkets or animal protection groups.

Free choice is important, but if retailers are providing support to help producers switch to high welfare systems, does the consumer have much to be upset about?

Farming systems that accommodate animals’ basic freedoms – to be free from discomfort, pain, and injury; to be free to express normal behaviours; and to be free from fear and distress – should be a minimum requirement.

Research has shown that consumers are concerned with animal welfare in intensive systems. Consumers also want groceries to be reasonably priced. Producers invested in high welfare farming must have the sustained financial support of retailers to keep these practises affordable.

There is still significant progress to be made for farm animal welfare and labelling standards in Australia. The commitment Coles and Woolworths have shown towards animal welfare and their delivery of proposed actions within a reasonable time demonstrates that it is likely that Australia is heading in the right direction and the general public’s consciousness is open to supporting high-welfare foods now and in the future.