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Bridging the gap between farmers and consumers

The gap between consumers’ expectations of how farm animals are raised and the realities of modern agriculture is not new. Modern competition between food companies and those same consumers’ desire for cheap food has brought incredible changes to farming. Our increasingly urban population isdisconnected from farms, and rarely sees farm animals.  Producers have moved animals into barns, cages and crates to improve productivity, efficiency and biosecurity.   At the same time, consumer expectations are more aligned with the traditional view of agriculture depicted on egg and milk cartons.

Canadian farmers are addressing this gap. Farmers are talking more about the lives of animals in their care.  They are engaging stakeholder groups through organizations like the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and the National Farm Animal Care Council. Where consumer sentiment and corporate commitments send a clear message as they did with sow stalls, they are responding by updating the Codes of Practice.

Transforming an industry like agriculture is a slow process and consumers are notoriously impatient.  Social media has changed the way people see farm animal welfare. Connected consumers are quick to share reports of animal abuse or the latest undercover video.  Increasingly consumers are looking to food companies, not agriculture, for action.

There is a global movement of food companies beginning to address the welfare of farm animals in their supply chains. Much of this has been driven by the risks that welfare represents; of higher costs from increased regulations, supply disruption and the impact on food companies’ reputations.  And while this has resulted in some important commitments from leading retailers, these commitments address a single crisis or event but not the ongoing and more substantive risks and opportunities.

Farm animal welfare represents an opportunity for those companies that align the welfare of the farm animals in their supply chain with the larger goals and values of their business and those of their customers. Those organizations that effectively manage this opportunity use a strategic planning approach that starts with the following –

1.         A statement of the importance of animal welfare to the ongoing health of the business.

2.         An understanding of the animal product supply chain and welfare risks associated with each species and region where they are sourced.

3.         A list of those welfare risks not consistent with company values and mission and the expectations of their customers.

4.         A commitment to make changes.

Companies often find that some of this work has already been done. They also find that their suppliers or other stakeholders can provide valuable insight and direction. For those requiring assistance, World Animal Protection can provide advice, tools and help.

To be truly effective, a strong farm animal welfare policy must be communicated to both suppliers and consumers.

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