The Golden Arches Earn High Marks on New Animal-Welfare Report
The new Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare, a food-industry report card of sorts, opens with an introduction that matches the tone and tenor of many such documents.
“People today want to know that the animals used to produce their food are raised and handled humanely,” the report, released on Tuesday, reads. “It’s a shared responsibility among farmers and food companies to provide the transparency, candor, continuous improvement and clear measurement needed at every stage of the value chain—from farm to table.”
What’s different here—and what suggests plenty not only about the benchmark itself but also the state of animal welfare issues in the food industry on the whole—is that Donnie Smith, president and CEO of Tyson Foods, penned the intro. Yes, that’s the same Tyson Food that as recently as last August was implicated in an undercover video investigation that showed employees of a farm it bought chicken from brutally abusing birds. McDonald’s, which also bought meat from the farm, is the highest-ranked American firm among the 80 businesses rated. (Both quickly dropped the supplier.)
But this isn’t a report for consumers or activists, and the high marks for such companies don’t necessarily undermine its credibility either. Rather, the fourth edition of the benchmark is designed for investors and the industry itself. With the help of Compassion in World Farming, an international animal-welfare group, the researchers behind the benchmark analyzed the public animal-welfare protocols, promises, and plans for leading international food companies, from Nestlé to Chipotle. Firms were graded on everything from management to transparency and grouped into tiers based on their scores.
The Leadership tier is for companies that scored over 80 percent—no U.S.-based company made the cut. McDonald’s, the leading American firm, is on the second-level Integral to Business Strategy tier, along with Unilever, which owns a host of brands, including Hellman’s and Ben and Jerry’s. Chipotle, new to the benchmark this year, is way down on the fourth tier—Making Progress on Implementation—along with General Mills, Aramark, Cargill, and others. Burger King, Mondelēz, and Domino’s Pizza Group are a few of the companies relegated to tier six, reserved for firms for which there is “no evidence” that animal welfare factors into corporate agenda. Forty percent of the 90 companies in the rankings are on tier five and six.
That may seem like dour news for animal lovers, but the authors point to a multiyear trend, which the benchmark has tracked, showing that animal welfare is becoming a concern for both corporations and investors. After all, just last year McDonald’s announced that it would phase out battery cages from its egg supply, and many others in the industry are making similar changes.
“For the first time we are seeing global investors actively engage with companies to encourage them to improve their practices and reporting on farm animal welfare,” Rory Sullivan, an expert adviser to the benchmark, said in a press release. “The annual benchmark provides a strong incentive for companies to improve their disclosure and to account for their performance. As we build investor awareness and understanding of systemic risks and opportunities posed by farm animal welfare, we expect to see investor interest and, critically, action, increase over time.”
The benchmark found that 69 percent of the companies it looked at have public animal-welfare policies, up from 46 percent in 2012. While a policy alone doesn’t necessarily mean a better life for livestock, it’s at least a start.