Egg producer Noble Foods is the first food-producing company to gain the highest ranking in the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW), while McDonald’s has been recognized for bringing about a “seismic shift” in animal welfare.

The BBFAW provides an annual review of how 90 of the world’s leading food companies – retailers and wholesalers, restaurants and bars, and producers – manage and report their farm animal welfare policies and practices, ranking them from Tier 1 to Tier 6. The latest edition sees the UK’s Noble Foods reach Tier 1, the first food-producing company to do so.

Speaking at the launch of this year’s report, Tom Willings, agricultural director, Noble Foods, commented: “Measurement and reporting of animal welfare is the right thing to do. Any food producer should be in complete control of this sort of information.”

He continued: “It was an honor to contribute, but when you put your head above the parapet, you’re asking to be shot. There are bigger, more complex business here than ours, we are fortunate to have only one commodity. Our business is simple compared to theirs. So why are there not more single-species businesses listed in the report?”

How Noble reached Tier 1

The BBFAW assessors noted that various factors helped Noble Foods reach Tier 1, but several of its practices were deemed particularly important.

Noble’s farm animal welfare policy is clearly stated and applies to all geographies, relevant species and brands. The policy details the company’s requirements for training, auditing, effective system management, reporting on animal welfare outcome measures and performance indicators and management oversight, as well as specific issues such as antibiotics, growth promoters and live transportation.

Critically, the assessors note that the same performance criteria, which are regarded as minimum requirements, are applied to company operations and to those of its contract producers for whom it has a team of field personnel to assist with welfare. In the event of non-compliance, consultation, veterinary supervision and stakeholder communication are used to rectify the situation.

McDonald’s seismic change

Philip Lymbery, Compassion in World Farming CEO, noted that 2015 had been a landmark year for the BBFAW and animal welfare, noting that McDonald’s had made a “seismic” change in the U.S. by stating that all its eggs were to come from cage-free birds, and that this was followed by numerous other companies committing to do the same.

Ignacio Blanco-Traba, senior director global sustainable sourcing, McDonald’s Corp., explained: “Our customers want to know more than ever where their food comes from, and how those animals are reared. Our scale is a way of helping and influencing the industry to improve animal welfare.

“Animal welfare is a path, not a destination,” he continued, adding: “It has been a few years since McDonalds became involved in the Benchmark. We are still Tier 2, but hope to get to Tier 1.”

While McDonald’s may have taken a firm stance on policy and implementation, difficulties remain for the company.

“The scale of McDonald's has sometimes been a challenge, as not all regions have been clear in publishing what the company actually does,” Blanco-Traba continued.

Despite the growing number of U.S. companies participating in the Benchmark, McDonald’s U.S. remains the only U.S. company to score within the top two leadership tiers of the benchmark.

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According to Noble’s agriculture director Tom Willings (left), measuring and reporting animal welfare is the right thing to do, and any food producer should be in complete control of this information. McDonald’s senior director of global sustainable sourcing Ignacio Blanco-Traba (right) added that McDonald’s scale was a way of influencing the industry to improve welfare.

Poultry, egg companies improving performance

Of the 90 companies ranked this year, 33 were food manufacturers.

In addition to Noble entering the top tier, 2 Sisters Food Group moved from Tier 6 to Tier 4. This was mainly due to its policy on antibiotics and a strategy document on Campylobacter.

Those companies already in Tier 2 were joined by Marfrig, moving up from Tier 3. In Tier 3, JBS and Tyson retained their positions, while they were joined by BRF and Sodexo.

How companies are ranked

Now in its fourth year, BBFAW is the first global measure of farm animal welfare management, policy commitment and disclosure for food companies. It is managed by independent secretariat, following initial development by Compassion in World Farming and World Animal Protection.

Companies are measured on their approach to managing farm animal welfare in three areas:

  • Management commitment and policy
  • Governance and policy implementation
  • Disclosure on animal welfare performance

Assessments are based on information published by the companies.

The Benchmark was designed not only to raise farm animal welfare standards, but to provide investors with the information needed to understand the business implications of farm animal welfare for the companies in which they are invested.

It aims to provide stakeholders with an independent, impartial assessment of individual company efforts, while producing guidance to companies interested in improving their management and reporting of farm animal welfare issues.

Welfare reporting still developing

Since the BBFAW launch in 2012, there has been a consistent improvement in corporate performance on farm animal welfare, the assessors note, with improvements in the number of companies publishing formal polices and, more recently, a strengthening of internal processes for the implementation of policies.

The practice of reporting, relative to other corporate responsibility issues, however, remains in its infancy.

While 84 percent of the companies covered by the assessment acknowledge farm animal welfare as a key business issue, only 60 percent have formalized their commitment in overarching policies or equivalent documents.

Fifty-four percent have published farm animal welfare-related objectives and targets, and 51 percent have described their management responsibilities for farm animal welfare. This would suggest that many companies are yet to establish robust systems and processes for managing, measuring and reporting.

Yet companies are paying more attention to welfare. Since the Benchmark was launched, the overall score has increased, despite the addition of new criteria and new companies.

Ninety companies were included in the 2015 assessment, 10 more than in 2014.

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The number of companies taking part in the BBRAW has grown each year since its launch, and interest is emerging in a growing number of countries.