Taking laying hens out of cages is the leading strategy in the drive to improve animal welfare worldwide, according to a new report. And UK companies are taking a leading role among major international food companies. 

These are among the key findings in the latest report from BBFAW (Business Benchmark for Animal Welfare), an initiative to improve the welfare of farmed animals, that brings together 150 global food giants and their major institutional investors managing a total of $2.3 trillion.

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The survey showed that of these 150 companies, 73% of the 110 companies that have laying hens as a relevant species have published cage-free egg commitments, said Nicky Amos, executive director of BBFAW, which is supported by the organisations Compassion in World Farming and Four Paws.

This is way ahead of any other welfare parameter. The report lists 20 key issues across six food categories: eggs, broilers, pigs, dairy, beef and farmed salmon. 

Among these, the issue that takes second place is pre-slaughter stunning across all species, with 33% of companies setting targets for this. 

Broilers

In a close third comes broiler welfare. 

“Of the 134 companies for which broiler chickens are a relevant species, 31% have set time-bound targets to achieve the requirements of the Better Chicken Commitment or the European Chicken Commitment,” said Mr Amos.

Whilst this was a lower figure than the cage-free commitments, he believed it was an encouraging sign of progress.

“However, these indicators relate only to the publishing of time-bound targets. Actual progress on improved broiler welfare is significantly lagging commitments,” said Mr Amos. 

For instance, in the 2023 benchmark, 28% of companies worldwide reported at least some progress on rearing broiler chickens with lower stocking densities (30kg/m2 or 6lbs/sq ft or less); and the same proportion claimed at least some progress on use of humane slaughter methods (i.e. controlled atmospheric stunning using inert gas or multi-phase systems, or effective electrical stunning without live inversion).

Also, 20% reported at least some progress on using approved breeds with improved welfare outcomes or with a slower growth potential. 

Mr Amos described BBFAW as an “engagement initiative” where the investors write to the 150 companies to discuss their results with them and to encourage improvement. 

It shows that these investors see poor animal welfare as a significant potential investment risk.”

Altogether, 95% of the companies surveyed now identified animal welfare as a relevant business issue, up from 79% in 2012.

However, actual progress was more limited. Companies were also ranked ‘A’ to ‘F’ on their welfare achievements to date, and only 11 out of 150 scored ‘C’ or ‘D’ (none were higher). The rest were ‘E’ or ‘F’.

Significantly, of those eleven top-ranked, nine were UK-based: Waitrose, M&S, Premier Foods, Cranswick, Noble Foods, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, the Co-op and Greggs. 

“A core trend in the BBFAW over the past 12 years is that UK companies have dominated the benchmark in terms of their comparative performance with other regions,” said Mr Amos.

“In the 2023 benchmark, UK companies achieved an overall average score of 39%, compared with just 17% for all companies covered by the benchmark. 

“There are various reasons for the relatively higher performance in the UK, but the main reason is that animal welfare is a more mature issue in the UK, with many food retailers, manufacturers and producers, and restaurants and bars responding to consumer concern about the welfare of animals in their operations and supply chains.”

Other factors included EU/UK animal welfare legislation, the established farm assurance schemes, and the Supermarket Survey by Compassion in Word Farming which has ranked supermarkets on their animal welfare commitments for over 20 years, he said.

There were 18 UK companies in the survey, while among the rest, 44 were US-based, 18 were French, and 12 based in China.