Smithfield Foods fired three employees after an investigation found inhumane treatment of pigs

Smithfield Foods fired three employees after an investigation found inhumane treatment of pigs

Animal welfare is becoming an increasingly important issue for consumers both in the UK and the US. However, Ben Cooper writes, while progress in the UK has been underpinned by collaboration between industry and NGOs, the same spirit of cooperation has so far been largely lacking on the other side of the Atlantic.

Late last year, US pork producer Smithfield Foods had to mount a comprehensive damage limitation exercise after the Humane Society of the US (HSUS) published secretly filmed incidences of poor animal welfare at one of its units.

The company set up a special website dedicated to its response, issued an update on the phasing out of gestation crates – the prime bone of contention with HSUS – and fired three employees in accordance with a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on such lapses. That Smithfield felt compelled to take such steps underlines the rising public sensitivity over animal welfare and the impact it is having on the market and on how companies do business.

The level of concern is still nowhere near as high in the US as it is in the UK, but Dennis Treacy, senior vice president of corporate affairs and chief sustainability officer at Smithfield Foods, believes the company would not have had to respond in this way five years ago. "Animal welfare issues are getting a lot more attention from our customers," he says. 

Indeed, in March Smithfield released a series of videos on Youtube representing what it believes is an accurate depiction of its animal care practices. This, Treacy stresses, was not in response to the HSUS film but was already planned as part of the upgrading of its social media programme and a more transparent policy towards animal welfare. 

The US is certainly some years behind the UK, where the Freedom Food humane certification scheme, launched and backed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) has made considerable headway. 

Launched 17 years ago, Freedom Food now has its stamp on more than 1,000 products. All major UK retailers carry Freedom Food lines, it accounts for some 60% of Scottish-produced farmed salmon, and last year logged a 16% rise in the number of participating farmers, its biggest increase to date.

Freedom Food CEO Leigh Grant says more farmers are signing up because "there is a market for the products", adding that animal welfare is becoming "more and more important to consumers" according to Freedom Food’s continuing research.

Freedom Food is an appealing model. Campaigning creates demand for higher-welfare products and a commercial rationale for companies to invest in such products, and in this instance the NGO, through its standards and certification, actually helps foster the marketing of those products, for which a premium price can often be charged.

The closest thing to Freedom Food in the US is the Certified Humane programme operated by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) which has closely modelled its programme on Freedom Food. Adele Douglass, executive director of HFAC, agrees that the US is some way behind but says its programme is expanding as consumer awareness grows. 

According to Douglass, products bearing the mark can now be found in 4,300 supermarkets in the US and the number of animals covered by the scheme has risen from 143,000 when it was launched in 2003 to 26.5m today. "This programme gives consumers a way to vote with their pocketbooks, to make a statement and support farmers," Douglass says.

The success of Freedom Food not only speaks to a growing awareness of animal welfare issues. It has also been underpinned by the deliberately pragmatic view taken by the RSPCA from the outset towards working with industry. 

"When the RSPCA launched Freedom Food there was a discussion as to whether you want to bring a vast improvement to a few animals or a sizeable improvement to a lot of animals," Grant explains. "And we decided there was no point in having a scheme with standards set so high that only a few niche farmers would be able to achieve them."

Instead, Freedom Food represents standards that are at the "stretching end of achievable". The scheme includes indoor-reared and aims to include companies which operate at what might be characterised as industrial volumes. 

Also, it assesses on a product-by-product basis. A company can gain certification for a higher-welfare product regardless of whether it operates to lower standards for other products, the hope being that involvement in higher-welfare is likely to result in a general raising of standards across the board. It is a similar rationale to that espoused by advocates of Fairtrade and Grant believes it works.

The same pragmatic approach has been taken by the UK-based animal welfare charity, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). Rather than certification, CIWF runs an awards programme, including the Good Egg Awards, which recognises higher-welfare products. Meanwhile, CIWF’s Food Business Team works collaboratively with food companies on improving standards.

Katy Read, who heads up Food Business Team, says it was set up specifically with "positive engagement" with industry as a core principle. "It’s a new step for companies to be working at this level with NGOs."

As with Freedom Food, the CIWF’s objective was to achieve widespread improvement. "What we’re trying to do is make welfare improvements for the largest number of animals, so our remit is to go directly to the people who have huge amounts of animals in their supply chains." CIWF has also looked to expand this work into France, Italy and Germany.

While Douglass says HFAC aims to adopt the same pragmatic view as Freedom Food in dealing with highly commercialised operations, in general there is a far more adversarial relationship between the animal agriculture industry and the campaign community in the US. 

For instance, Smithfield says it has had no contact with HSUS since it published its response. It matters little which party is being standoffish, or whether both are guilty, but the kind of collaborative work seen in the UK is far less likely to be seen on any appreciable scale in the US if such an atmosphere prevails. 

Relations will not be helped by industry backing proposed state legislation, notably in Iowa, which would make covert filming of the kind undertaken by HSUS illegal. Campaigners characterise this as an industry seeking to neutralise a threat that could surely only exist if it has something to hide. 

Sarah Hubbart of the Animal Agriculture Alliance (AAA), a Washington-based industry-sponsored organisation, which supports the Iowa bill, believes the issue to be more nuanced. AAA says it aims to help people understand the realities of large-scale meat production in a largely urbanised society far more removed from agriculture than it was a couple of generations ago.

Hubbart says campaigners capitalise on this "disconnect" by representing the issue in simplistic and over-sentimentalised terms. This lack of realism threatens the livelihoods of farmers and in turn the viability of large-scale animal agriculture and the US food supply.

Interestingly, this disconnect arguably informs the approaches on both sides of the Atlantic but in differing ways. 

Freedom Food and CIWF also aim to restore some form of link between consumers and animal agriculture. But they recognise that the real disconnect exists between mainstream production and mainstream consumers, rather than those buying niche, high-welfare products who in many cases will have that heightened awareness. The UK NGOs also believe that this is more likely to be achieved by cooperation between industry and campaigners than through conflict, and their results appear to be bearing that out.