Supermarkets grow into their role as leaders in animal welfare
THE RISE OF ANIMAL WELFARE as a purchase driver in the meat department has led to fundamental changes in the way animal proteins are marketed in the supermarket. Caught in the middle, mainstream operators have been prodded by increasingly vocal activist groups, and pulled along by progressive retailers like Whole Foods Market.
The industry is still in transition, and there continues to be resistance to change. Some chains find the costs associated with implementing new buying policies prohibitive, while others simply don't see the demand among customers.
Yet, retailers that have adopted humane treatment as a signature issue find themselves talked about, admired — and copied in due time by competitors.
New York-based D'Agostino Supermarkets was the first chain in the country to establish, in 2003, a formal in-store program involving livestock, poultry and eggs bearing the Certified Humane Raised & Handled label, a qualification developed by Humane Farm Animal Care. The group has perhaps the best-known certification programs focusing on animal welfare.
Cleveland-based Heinen's Fine Foods followed suit shortly after. And today, HFAC reports that Certified Humane items can be found in hundreds of supermarkets across the country.
Five years later, D'Agostino continues to push its commitment to animal welfare.
“Every time we have a special on any of our certified humane meats, we include the Certified Humane Raised & Handled logo in circulars so customers know about the value-added aspect of the products,” said Anderson Chung, the chain's director of marketing.
Murray's Chicken was the first Certified Humane line sold there. Other products soon followed, including Echo Farm Puddings, Applegate Farms bacon and duBreton pork.
According to Chung, D'Agostino invited HFAC to introduce Certified Humane at the retailer's quarterly meeting in 2003. The group was invited again later to help educate meat department managers about the concept.
“Early on, it was a little bit challenging to find producers that had this certification, but now everything from chicken and veal to cheese and yogurt is Certified Humane,” said Chung. “We still carry conventional meats and organic items that are not certified humane, too, but our Certified Humane products currently take up much more space in our stores than they did a few years ago, a sure sign that they are performing well.”
When D'Agostino opted to implement the program, regard for animals was a major motivator. But differentiation from competition and showing social responsibility were equally high priorities, said Chung.
“From a differentiation standpoint, having this type of product in our stores was important because it showed our customers that we were taking a stand against poor treatment of animals,” he said. “Other retailers had not done anything like this at that time.”
The retailer displays large “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” signs in its meat departments. Each one boasts a detailed description of what humane treatment of farm animals entails.
“It means that any meat product with the Certified Humane Raised & Handled label meets Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which include a nutritious diet without antibiotics or hormones,” said Adele Douglass, founder and executive director of HFAC. “Producers must also raise animals with adequate shelter, resting areas and sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors.”
Poultry producers, for instance, must maintain a healthy air quality for their birds. If an inspector can smell even a hint of ammonia — a by-product of animal waste — the levels are too high, noted Douglass. Dairy cows must spend a certain percentage of their day outdoors in a pasture. Laying hens have to have clean litter, and 20% of their floor space must be dedicated to perches. And the list goes on.
PM Beef, Windom, Minn., is one supplier that meets the group's guidelines. The company makes Certified Humane Nature's Pride Beef products for Heinen's, Tesco's Fresh & Easy stores, Food Lion, Hy-Vee, Knowlan's, Ukrop's Super Markets and Heartland Farms.
Other items currently on the market include Pederson's Natural Farms uncured hickory bacon, which is sold at Safeway, and White Oak Pastures beef, available at Publix. Murray's Chicken can still be found at D'Agostino as well as at Food Emporium and Gristedes stores in Manhattan, and at Foodies Urban Market and Good Health Natural Foods in Boston, to name a few.
“Heinen's in Cleveland also has a long list of Certified Humane meat and poultry products,” said Douglass. “Their program is very similar to D'Agostino's, with signage, shelf tags and other educational information that visibly promotes their humane-certified program.”
Few retailers would argue against humane practices, but some industry participants question whether it's something that should be promoted.
Grant Berry, meat manager of Orchard Market, Spring Lake, Mich., questions the logic of bringing animal welfare to shoppers' attention. Orchard Market, a two-store independent, carries Cargill beef products, Hormel pork, and poultry produced by Tyson and Miller. None of these brands is Certified Humane, but that doesn't worry Berry. He has never personally been asked about the day-to-day life of farm animals.
“Most people feel that if these companies were mishandling animals, they would be found out because of the strict policing in the industry,” he said. “As a rule of thumb, I don't feel that it's a good idea to bring up negative topics that could put ideas in shoppers' minds that weren't already there.”
Berry likened it to the strong aversion car companies had to discussing safety in years past. Many, he said, were afraid to talk about protective features added to their vehicles because the subject might instill fear rather than desire for a new car.
Orchard Market prefers to take a similar stance, and avoids delivering potentially unwanted messages that could disturb shoppers.
“Plus, consumers are pretty savvy about the way businesses work nowadays,” said Berry. “They have dealt with enough recalls and other bad events to know that negative publicity can hurt a supplier, so they tend to believe that [suppliers] are overly cautious about farm practices.”
Consultant Jim Wisner, president of Wisner Marketing Group, Libertyville, Ill., agrees. He believes chains should use caution when approaching such touchy topics.
“It is important for retailers to make sure that behind the scenes, the vendors they use are adhering to humane treatment practices that are appropriate for each category of protein,” he said. “But, hanging signs or handing out literature that asks people to make moral judgments about what they eat can pull them out of their comfort zones.”
Some retailers, like Whole Foods Market, can engage in such dialogue because their shoppers are already concerned with everything from avoiding unnatural additives to fair trade. So when it comes to the humane treatment of the animals they eat, speaking out makes sense, said Wisner.
Chung feels that D'Agostino is in a similar situation.
“Our customers are mostly well educated, have high incomes and have strong sensitivities toward issues like this,” he said. “They don't eat as much meat as they used to, but when they do, they want high-quality cuts, and they also want to know that the animals were taken care of during the short time they were alive.”
Shoppers at Highland Park Markets, Glastonbury, Conn., are well educated and have high incomes too, but Tim Cummiskey, grocery manager at the retailer's South Windsor store, feels that information about farm practices should be given on a need-to-know basis.
“We would be crossing a line if we brought up the topic of animals that are eventually slaughtered and how they are treated,” he said.
Since Humane Farm Animal Care was established in 2003, the organization has made a significant impact on the industry. More and more supermarkets carry humane-certified meat and poultry each year, and consumers seem more concerned about proper handling of farm animals. The movement has been supported by horrendous examples of mistreatment.
In one recent case, downer cattle were prodded using forklifts; in another, pigs were beaten with a club. The graphic images galvanized consumers' interest in their protein sources, said Ted Taft, managing director of Meridian Consulting, Westport, Conn.
“This is important to consumers not just because they're concerned with humane treatment, but also because retailers and suppliers focused on humane treatment also tend to be focused on product quality.”
In discussing the benefits of the HFAC program with retailers, Adele Douglass, founder and executive director of HFAC, often brings up another reason why the supermarket should encourage humane farms. Commonly, farms that enforce humane treatment of animals also treat their employees better, she said. As much as the food industry has progressed over the past several years, there are still more chains that need to participate, she added.
“When we started, at the end of 2003, there were 143,000 animals under our program, and by the end of last year there were nearly 20 million,” said Douglass. “This is a vast improvement, but there are more than 10 billion farm animals slaughtered in the U.S. each year for consumption, so this is nowhere near where it needs to be.”