With many major retailers announcing plans to move to cage-free eggs, some have considered this past month to be the “tipping point” on the issue of laying hen housing. As an industry, this should push us to look at what the “next big thing” pushed by animal rights activist groups will be, and make sure we are proactively sharing information with our supply channel partners and consumers to help them make informed decisions.
With so many animal care issues simmering in the background and others currently sharing the stage (such as antibiotic use) it can be difficult to get a handle on which practice might be coming under fire next.
However, the message was heard loud and clear last month when both Bon Appétit Management Company and Whole Foods Market announced plans to switch to sourcing chicken from breeds that grow to market size about 25% more slowly than conventional birds. The announcements were made alongside Global Animal Partnership and received accolades from HSUS on Wayne Pacelle’s blog.
Before dismissing these companies as outliers, it’s important to note that they began offering only cage-free eggs in 2004 (Whole Foods) and 2005 (Bon Appétit)– years before laying hen housing came to the forefront of debates about animal welfare and animal rights, and a solid decade before more “mainstream” retailers and restaurants began announcing plans to change their supplier policies.
If you’re involved in the meat and poultry business, whether directly with chickens or not, I would encourage you to prepare to start hearing more from the media, consumers and your customers about growth rates. The National Chicken Council has some excellent resources on its consumer-facing Chicken Check In website that explain why today’s chickens grow faster and what steps farmers take to keep an equal focus on size and health.
As meat and poultry producers, it is our responsibility to proactively connect with our customers about emerging issues. Consumer-facing restaurant and retail brands are in the tough position of facing pressure campaigns and reputation threats from activist groups, and we can help them navigate those challenges by reaching out and offering resources before issues hit the headlines.