Nestlé, the single largest food maker on the planet, today announced sweeping new requirements aimed at bettering the lives of farm animals raised by its sprawling network of suppliers. The company has vowed, among other things, to rid its supply chain of a litany of cruelly confining crates and cages, such as gestation crates for sows, veal crates for calves, and cages for egg-laying chickens. It has also pledged to ban unnecessary and inhuman practices such as cutting the horns from cattle, particularly those that have traditionally been done without painkillers.
It’s not often that you get to report feel-good news about big food, but two sunny stories about some of the world’s biggest food processors in a single week? What rabbit hole have I fallen down?
Nestlé's move follows another major announcement last week by another major food maker, Kellogg’s, which launched an aggressive new initiative to cut global warming emissions up and down its own supply chain.
As I pointed out last week, the emphasis on the supply chain is key, because for big food companies, that’s where the vast bulk of their business lies. While historically they may have adopted certain socially responsible policies that covered their corporate operations, those facilities are really just the tip of the iceberg for companies that source ingredients from all around the globe.
For Nestlé, that means buying its milk, meat, and eggs from some 7,300 suppliers worldwide. Not that long ago, such companies often maintained that what their suppliers did was out of their control. But thanks to the advocacy of NGOs such as HSUS and Oxfam, with its “Behind the Brands” campaign, some food makers are increasingly taking responsibility for their supply chain as well.
Indeed, while Oxfam doesn’t include animal welfare as one of the main issues it tracks, Nestlé outranks all its big food competitors overall on the organization’s “Behind the Brands” scorecard, which rates companies based on things including land-use issues, treatment of workers, and commitment to addressing climate change.
Still, given the ability of any given megacorporation’s PR apparatus to spin one little positive change into supposedly headline-grabbing news—“BigOil Corp. Announces Shift to Single-Ply Toilet Paper in Company Washrooms, Saving 5,000 Trees!”—there’s always the sneaking suspicion in reporting these kinds of stories that you might be getting duped.
Nevertheless, the Humane Society seemed pretty happy with Nestlé’s new anticruelty rules, calling the action “the most comprehensive and ambitious animal welfare program by a global food retailer to date.”
Given that Kellogg’s unveiled its new climate initiative a mere two weeks after rival General Mills did the same, maybe we can hope (if not hold our breath) that Nestlé’s move might inspire the same spirit of competitiveness toward social responsibility in other food makers as well.