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Special Feature: Spreading compassion throughout the food industry

It all started around a kitchen table in 1967. Peter Roberts, an ex-dairy farmer, had become concerned about the growing intensification of agriculture and set about becoming the champion of animal welfare not only in the UK, but also globally. Fast forward almost 50 years...

It all started around a kitchen table in 1967. Peter Roberts, an ex-dairy farmer, had become concerned about the growing intensification of agriculture and set about becoming the champion of animal welfare not only in the UK, but also globally. Fast forward almost 50 years, and the charity that he and his wife founded, Compassion in World Farming, now has offices in France, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, the US and, most recently, China. It employs around 65 full-time staff.

The head of Compassion’s business team is Dr. Tracey Jones whose PhD focused on improving handling systems for pigs at slaughter. During her research she says she gained significant insight into the subject from her visits to Denmark to consult with Patricia Barton Gade and Leif Christensen from the Danish Meat Research Institute. 

Pig Industry Matters’ visit to Compassion’s head office in Godalming, Surrey, was prompted by the Good Sow Commendation awarded to Danish Crown’s Antonius pig at the end of October. Antonius producers have pledged to be farrowing crate free by 2017 and are committed to creating the optimum free farrowing pen.

“I’m very impressed by the investment that Denmark commits to research into pig welfare,” says Dr. Jones. “It’s a phenomenal amount, five times more than the UK. We’re impressed with their farrowing work, and believe that this is a great example of where industry – not legislation – can lead the way in raising the bar. Although we think that some units still have some work to do on the provision of bedding, we welcome the Danes’ initiative whereby newly built units are committed to install at least partially slatted floors. With new builds, pig producers have the opportunity to tackle any negative issues afresh. In other words, the same problems aren’t perpetuated.”

A Good Pig

There are few pig production systems that qualify for Compassion’s Good Pig award. This is because the award encompasses both sows and finishers.  With regard to sows, producers must be committed to group housing throughout the gestation period (which includes the four week period in early pregnancy), freedom farrowing and the provision of bedding and manipulable materials throughout the lifetime of the sow. 

“Three simple criteria, which have huge implications throughout the supply chain, and with enormous benefit to the sow,” says Tracey Jones.

With regard to the “meat pig”, to qualify for the Good Pig award, there must be no tail docking, no teeth clipping or grinding, no castration and there must be provision of bedding and manipulable material throughout the pig’s lifetime. “We don’t get too many overall “Good Pig” award winners”, comments Dr. Jones.

There are few pig production systems that qualify for Compassion’s Good Pig award. This is because the award encompasses both sows and finishers.  With regard to sows, producers must be committed to group housing throughout the gestation period (which includes the four week period in early pregnancy), freedom farrowing and the provision of bedding and manipulable materials throughout the lifetime of the sow.  “Three simple criteria, which have huge implications throughout the supply chain, and with enormous benefit to the sow,” says Tracey Jones.

With regard to the “meat pig”, to qualify for the Good Pig award, there must be no tail docking, no teeth clipping or grinding, no castration and there must be provision of bedding and manipulable material throughout the pig’s lifetime. “We don’t get too many overall “Good Pig” award winners”, comments Dr. Jones.

The awards programme, which also includes the Good Egg Award, Good Dairy Award and Good Chicken Award, is only one of several ways in which Compassion engages with the food industry.

Dialogue

“We have come to realise that dialogue with the food industry is the key to progress,” says Tracey Jones whose aim on behalf of the charity is to improve the welfare standards of 1 billion farm animals a year by 2017 across the dairy and meat industries. “Our supermarket survey is one way of building up relationships. We have an awards scheme for the best performer, best retailer etc., but we can also – if invited – conduct a confidential in-depth survey into a supermarket’s animal welfare policy and standards. It’s similar to a Gap analysis in that the survey allows us to make recommendations as to what aspects of animal welfare the supermarket should be addressing, and it also gives us a platform for establishing a working partnership. This year, all the UK’s leading supermarkets completed our market survey and we engaged with three European supermarkets as well.”

The other component in Compassion’s business toolkit is its Business Benchmark for Farm Animal Welfare, the latest edition of which was published on 8 December. This includes 70 food companies spread across food retailers and wholesalers, restaurants and bars and food producers in the UK, Europe, the US (1) and Brazil (1).  The overriding conclusion from this year’s report is that “while over 70% of the companies covered by the 2013 Benchmark acknowledge farm animal welfare as a business issue, many have yet to formalise their commitment in overarching policies or equivalent documents, and fewer have set out the specific commitments that underpin this area.” 

What is the biggest challenge facing Compassion currently?

“At a general level, it is trying to stop the second wave of intensification of agriculture.  We’re told that meat production will need to double in order to feed 9 million people across the globe. This would have a huge impact on animal welfare as producers intensify their production to meet demand. Compassion can’t address this issue alone: it needs a multi-faceted approach with government intervention. Doing more of the same is not going to achieve a socially equitable food system,” says Tracey Jones.