September 9, 2015 marked a significant day for the food industry. Early that morning, McDonald’s made the announcement that they would be shifting to an entirely cage-free egg supply chain for all of their U.S. and Canadian restaurants by 2025.

While McDonald’s was certainly not the first to make this commitment, it undoubtedly signaled a tipping point for the industry. Dozens of other companies followed suit. In the past couple of weeks alone we have seen three of the top ten U.S. grocers, Kroger, Albertson’s and Delhaize, also turn their backs on cages for laying hens. The debate is essentially over: Consumers and food businesses are overwhelmingly unified in their disavowment of cages.

Public commitments are of the upmost importance. A clear statement of a company’s direction of travel is essential to ensuring that a company’s stakeholders, inclusive of their supply chain, know precisely what they stand for, and what practices they will not continue to support. Timelines give commitments backbone and signal a level of seriousness.

Most companies have set goals to completely rid their supply chains of cages by the year 2025. This nearly ten-year transition period is not necessarily unreasonably long. Prompting major shifts in complex supply chains cannot be done responsibly overnight.

Be transparent and report progress

On one hand, a lot can be achieved in ten years with proper organizational commitment to the change. However, there is also a danger of these longer-term goals slipping from the priority list once the media attention and NGO pressure has subsided. The question then becomes, how does a food company generate confidence in its ability to actually deliver on a commitment years after the initial announcement was made and the excitement around it has faded, against the ever evolving and changing landscape?

The answer lies in public reporting and accountability. It is both the company’s responsibility to transparently report on progress, and it is the responsibility of the public, the media and NGOs to hold companies to account. If we all wish to feel good about the direction that hen welfare is heading in, we won’t drop the subject just yet. In fact, we should be talking about it now more than ever.

An integral part of Compassion in World Farming’s collaborative approach to working with food businesses involves making those clear public commitments to higher levels of animal welfare. But this is just one aspect of our partnership with a business. Once a company makes a commitment, we don’t pack up and move on. On the contrary, in many cases the bulk of the work lies within the actual execution of the commitments.

More and more, companies are utilizing reports like the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare (BBFAW) as a guide to ensure that the proper framework and management structure is in place to be able to deliver on the their commitments. The BBFAW is a global report which ranks the top food companies on how well they are managing the risk associated with having animals in their supply chain. Companies who score well on the report have robust management structures and systems in place for those less-than-press-worthy aspects of this work, such as employee training, policy implementation, non-compliance measures, and performance reporting.

The next iteration of the farm animal welfare movement is undoubtedly right around the corner but, simultaneously, focus must remain on organizational commitment to the removal of cages. Staying mum on progress may leave some wondering if, come 2025, they are poised to meet their commitment. The good news is that the commitment period presents an opportunity for companies to further strengthen trust and credibility with various stakeholders via robust reporting and public accountability. Aligning with customer’s values and expectations is incredibly important to a business, but being trustworthy is essential. 

This guest commentary was written by Rachel Dreskin, Compassion in World Farming's U.S. food business manager.