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Poultry welfare coming to the fore – but not for all

By Simone Baroke, contributing analyst with Euromonitor , 25-Nov-2014

"There will always be a sizeable group of consumers for whom, due to economic reasons, animal-welfare issues are merely a secondary concern."

For grocery retailers in many markets, offering cage-free eggs and cruelty-free poultry meat has virtually become the new industry standard. The next point of public contention – namely the unpalatable fate of “wrong-sex” chicks – is already looming large on the horizon. However, there will always be a sizeable group of consumers for whom, due to economic reasons, animal-welfare issues are merely a secondary concern. Retailers are caught in the middle, and some may have to resort to making an uncomfortable choice.

Supermarkets heed consumer cry for cruelty-free poultry products

The animal-welfare agenda continues to gather momentum. Poultry meat is the most-consumed type of fresh meat in all regions, bar Asia-Pacific and Western Europe (where pork leads), and eggs are also universally popular. So, by sheer force of numbers, chickens are first in line when consumers start to be concerned about how their food animals are treated.

A survey published in September 2014 by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), revealed that more than 80% of respondents felt it important for their chicken meat to have come from birds that were humanely raised. Interestingly, less than one-third trusted the industry to have humane rearing practices in place. Furthermore, 75% of those questioned stated that they wanted to see a wider choice of humanely-raised chicken products to be made available by supermarkets.

A growing number of retailers have overhauled their supply chains accordingly. For example, in Australia, the country’s largest supermarkets are already firmly committed to cruelty-free meat. Coles, the country’s second-biggest grocery retailer with a 25% share of the Australian grocery market by value, sports a 100% Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA)-certified fresh chicken offering, and its private-label eggs are also “cage free”.

Cull the culling

Moreover, consumer concern is not going to stop at criticising how the animals are kept during their productive lives. The public has been bombarded for decades with pitiful images of cramped, featherless laying hens and flame broiler chickens, while less attention has so far been paid to what awaits those fluffy yellow chicks who happen to be of the “wrong” sex. Industrialised farming involves different breeds of poultry being used for meat vs egg production. This means that it is not economically viable to raise the male offspring descended from laying hens for meat, and nor are hens emanating from the broiler industry being used for egg or meat production.

At present, this state of affairs necessitates the culling of half of all hatchlings, and it is only a matter of time before this poultry industry practice moves into the spotlight. Although a number of culling methods are deemed “humane”, they are not going to sit easily with consumers. One example is “maceration”, which entails live chicks being put through a grinder. Even though this results in death within one brief second, and involves less suffering than carbon dioxide gassing (also regarded as a humane culling technique), this efficient process will leave most consumers with a mental image that is nothing short of a horror movie scenario.

Some industry quarters have already moved into action. In September 2014, packaged food and personal care products giant Unilever, a major buyer of eggs, an essential component of the company’s core brands such as Hellmann’s (mayonnaise), pledged to engage with the egg industry and animal-welfare organisations with the objective of ending the cull of day-old chicks.

In a drive to improve animal welfare in its supply chain, the company has committed to providing financial support to promote the industry-wide adoption of in-ovo gender identification, aka the sexing of eggs. The technology, which allows male-chick-containing eggs to be identified and destroyed before the onset of pain perception, already exists, but requires further development to achieve commercial viability.

Suppliers and retailers of chicken meat and eggs will need to take the entire poultry production chain into account – that is, from the very beginning even before the animals hatch – if they want to stand up to consumers’ increasingly critical gaze in the long term. Animal-welfare advocates’ stance is clear and simple: if suffering can be prevented, then it should be prevented.

Price – the spanner in the animal-welfare works

There is, however, a flip-side to the coin, and one of which the industry is only too aware: cost. The Queensland Chicken Meat Growers Association stated earlier this year that its members were only too happy to comply with Australian supermarkets’ demands to make their supply chains more animal-welfare friendly, as long as they were adequately compensated for the extra costs incurred by the operational changes required, and these amounted to between AU$0.10 and AU$0.20 per bird.

In the UK, another bastion of animal-welfare campaigners, the country’s fifth-ranked retailer, The Co-operative, was caught in spring this year doing a U-turn on the issue, when it permitted its private-label suppliers to increase broiler chicken stocking density from 30kg to 34kg per square metre. As a consequence, Compassion in World Farming (CiWF) promptly withdrew its Good Chicken Award from the supermarket, and not without publicly venting its disappointment.

Indeed, this is a surprising move by a company that has traditionally been at the very forefront of ethical grocery retailing. The Co-op has openly admitted that competitive pricing was the reason behind its controversial step. For the time being, rival (and also high-end) retailers Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer and Waitrose are clinging on to their CiWF approval.

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