Will companies meet their animal welfare commitments?


Mul­ti­ple an­i­mal or­gani­sa­tions are now fo­cus­ing on se­cur­ing cor­po­rate com­mit­ments to im­prove an­i­mal welfare. And they have been very suc­cess­ful: Chicken Watch lists 1672 such com­mit­ments, 1007 of which are set to be fulfilled be­tween 2020 and 2026. How­ever, there is some rea­son to worry that some of these com­mit­ments may be bro­ken:

  • Some in­dus­try sources doubt whether U.S. cage-free com­mit­ments will be fully met. In­suffi­cient con­sumer de­mand and lack of funds led to pro­duc­ers slow­ing down or even shut­ting down their cage-free con­ver­sion plans. What is more, only 27% of U.S. com­pa­nies in­cluded in CIWF’s Eg­gTrack re­port dis­closed their progress to­wards cage-free com­mit­ments.

  • So far, most an­i­mal welfare com­mit­ments were met. How­ever:

    • Sains­bury’s broke their broiler com­mit­ment.

    • Mar­riott, Burger King, Smith­field Foods and Wool­worths pushed back the date of their com­mit­ments.

    • Ben­net, Duss­man, Au Bon Pain, Hil­ton Ho­tels & Re­sorts, and The Walt Dis­ney Com­pany did not re­port progress to CIWF for cage-free com­mit­ments that have already passed their due date.

  • In the past, some com­pa­nies gave them­selves some wig­gle room in the phras­ing of their com­mit­ments, which they could later use to get out of their com­mit­ments with less dam­age to their rep­u­ta­tion.

Based on this, I sug­gest that it would be valuable to put more effort in en­sur­ing that com­pa­nies keep their promises, and I list some ways in which it could be done.

Bro­ken and post­poned commitments


In 2010, fol­low­ing a cor­po­rate cam­paign, UK su­per­mar­ket chain Sains­bury’s com­mit­ted to in­tro­duce higher welfare stan­dards for all of their own brand fresh chicken, within five years. They pub­li­cized their high welfare cre­den­tials widely in the UK press and re­ceived an award from Com­pas­sion in World Farm­ing (CIWF). Eight years later, less than 20% of the chicken sold by Sains­bury’s is higher welfare, and now they have de­cided to aban­don their welfare promise (source).

There was a sham­ing cam­paign against Sains­bury’s, and they did re­ceive some nega­tive pub­lic­ity. How­ever, it seems that the sham­ing cam­paign died down with­out any new promise re­ceived from Sains­bury’s. I’m afraid that this sets a bad prece­dent. If the an­i­mal welfare move­ment does not re­act to bro­ken promises with more re­sis­tance, all the cor­po­rate com­mit­ments that we achieved may not mean much. I think that we should cam­paign against Sains­bury’s un­til they agree to a new broiler com­mit­ment. It would be best to all do this as a united front, to make it clear that a demise of any one or­gani­sa­tion would not mean that com­mit­ments achieved by that or­gani­sa­tion are no longer im­por­tant. Then all an­i­mal or­gani­sa­tions could use this situ­a­tion as an ex­am­ple of what hap­pens when cor­po­ra­tions break their promises.

I also be­lieve that now is the best time to act on this. If many com­mit­ments fail at the same time in 2020 or 2025 (which are the re­spec­tive dead­lines for many of the com­mit­ments), each in­di­vi­d­ual brand will prob­a­bly re­ceive less bad pub­lic­ity due to sat­u­ra­tion of similar sto­ries. It may be seen as a failure of the cor­po­rate world as a whole, or even as a failure of the an­i­mal welfare move­ment.

Smith­field Foods

In 2007, Smith­field Foods (the world’s largest pork pro­ducer) an­nounced that “it is be­gin­ning the pro­cess of phas­ing out in­di­vi­d­ual ges­ta­tion stalls at all of its com­pany-owned sow farms and re­plac­ing them with pens—or group hous­ing—over the next 10 years.” In 2009, Smith­field de­layed their plans blam­ing the re­ces­sion. Ac­cord­ing to HSUS ar­ti­cle, “Such backpedal­ling led to a se­ri­ous HSUS cam­paign, in­clud­ing an un­der­cover in­ves­ti­ga­tion at one of its fac­tory farms, com­plaints about false ad­ver­tis­ing, sig­nifi­cant nega­tive me­dia cov­er­age, and more”. In 2011, the com­pany recom­mit­ted to stop us­ing the stalls for preg­nant sows by 2017. In Jan­uary 2018, Smith­field proudly an­nounced that they kept their promise. HSUS’s cov­er­age of the an­nounce­ment was con­fus­ing. It partly ap­plauded Smith­field’s progress of not us­ing ges­ta­tion stalls dur­ing the lat­ter part of ges­ta­tion, but it also said that Smith­field still uses ges­ta­tion stalls for the first five to six weeks of pig’s ges­ta­tion, even though Smith­field now calls them in­di­vi­d­ual stalls. The ini­tial an­nounce­ment sim­ply said that it would phase out ges­ta­tion stalls. As I un­der­stand it, there is some am­bi­guity re­gard­ing the defi­ni­tion of the term ges­ta­tion stall but it’s pos­si­ble that it is Smith­field that in­tro­duced this am­bi­guity to re­duce the ex­tent of their pledge. This shows how im­por­tant it is to de­mand pre­cise lan­guage in com­mit­ments.

In an ex­ten­sive Vox ar­ti­cle on the is­sue, Direct Ac­tion Every­where alleged that Smith­field is break­ing even this pos­si­bly mod­ified promise, but it’s un­clear whether that is re­ally hap­pen­ing.

Other ges­ta­tion stalls commitments

In a 2016 Vox ar­ti­cle, economist Jayson Lusk ex­presses doubt whether all com­pa­nies will re­al­ise their cage-free com­mit­ments and points to what has hap­pened in the past when some food com­pa­nies pledged to buy pork only from pro­duc­ers who didn’t house preg­nant fe­male pigs in ges­ta­tion stalls. Ac­cord­ing to Lusk, food com­pa­nies some­times had to back­track their promises when they couldn’t find a suffi­cient sup­ply of pork at a price that they were will­ing to pay. I wasn’t able to find any other ev­i­dence of this hap­pen­ing. How­ever, as I’ll ex­plain later, there is a risk that a similar sce­nario will hap­pen with U.S. cage-free com­mit­ments.

Other post­poned commitments

There is some more prece­dent for push­ing back the date of com­mit­ments:

  • In 2012, Burger King pledged to go cage-free and ges­ta­tion-stall-free by 2017. Cur­rently, they are com­mit­ted to go cage-free by 2025 and aim to source pork only from ven­dors that do not use ges­ta­tion stalls in North Amer­ica by 2022.

  • In 2013, Mar­riott pledged to go cage-free by 2015. They missed their tar­get with­out much com­ment. In 2018 they com­mit­ted to go cage-free by 2025 af­ter just one day of cam­paign­ing.

  • In 2013, Wool­worths promised to go cage-free by 2018. In 2016 they quietly ex­tended the dead­line to 2025.

I am con­cerned that such tac­tics en­able com­pa­nies to post­pone the com­mit­ment in­definitely. There is noth­ing con­crete to cam­paign for once a com­mit­ment is in place. I think we should try to en­sure that com­pa­nies re­ceive some nega­tive press when they post­pone the im­ple­men­ta­tion of their com­mit­ment, es­pe­cially if there is a suffi­cient sup­ply of higher-welfare prod­ucts. How­ever, there is also a risk that too much nega­tive press would cause com­pa­nies to set less am­bi­tious dead­lines for fu­ture com­mit­ments.

Un­clear commitments

CIWF is con­cerned about a lack of clar­ity in many cage-free com­mit­ments. For ex­am­ple, it’s some­times un­clear which forms of eggs, prod­ucts, brands, and ge­ogra­phies com­mit­ments ap­ply to. What is more, some com­pa­nies re­lease state­ments that sound like com­mit­ments but don’t promise any­thing spe­cific. For ex­am­ple:

  • Chilli’s broiler welfare com­mit­ment claims they are work­ing on re­duc­ing max­i­mum stock­ing den­sity and “re­spon­si­ble broiler breed­ing for higher welfare out­comes”. How­ever, it does not spec­ify what their max­i­mum stock­ing den­sity will be, or what broiler breeds they will use. Com­pare it with the amount of de­tail in the Euro­pean Chicken Com­mit­ment.

  • Wal­l­mart’s cor­po­rate policy is: “By 2025, our goal is to tran­si­tion to a 100% cage-free egg sup­ply chain, sub­ject to reg­u­la­tory changes and based on available sup­ply, af­ford­abil­ity and cus­tomer de­mand.” As I ex­plain in the next sec­tion, con­sumer de­mand is cur­rently in­suffi­cient, so there is a rea­son to doubt whether Wal­mart will keep their pledge.

It could be that some of such com­mit­ments are weakly worded or un­der­speci­fied on pur­pose. Ac­cord­ing to Lusk, “if you read the fine print of a lot of the press re­leases by com­pa­nies that pledge to go cage-free on eggs or crate-free on pork, they of­ten leave them­selves some wig­gle room in case there isn’t suffi­cient de­mand.”

Hope­fully, this won’t be an is­sue with fu­ture com­mit­ments. Mercy For An­i­mals cam­paigns man­ager Abra­ham Rowe told me that “we’ve got­ten a lot bet­ter at not con­sid­er­ing these com­mit­ments for broilers. Gen­er­ally, we only pro­mote or al­low com­mit­ments that meet the com­plete ask. Lower qual­ity com­mit­ments aren’t ac­cepted /​ won’t end cam­paigns.”

Uncer­tainty about U.S. cage-free commitments

Since early 2015, in the U.S., cam­paigns have se­cured pledges from over 200 com­pa­nies to go cage-free. As a re­sult, the U.S. cage-free flock has in­creased from just un­der 17 mil­lion (5.7% of all U.S. lay­ers) at the be­gin­ning of 2016 to more than 57 mil­lion (~18%) hens in 2019. To meet all the com­mit­ments, the num­ber of cage-free hens still has to in­crease to around 223 mil­lion (~72%) by 2025 (which is a dead­line for many com­mit­ments).

There is un­cer­tainty as to whether this mas­sive change will re­ally take place. A cou­ple of years ago generic egg prices were very high due to avian flu, and as the gap be­tween generic and spe­cial­ity cage-free eggs prices closed dra­mat­i­cally, more con­sumers were buy­ing cage-free eggs. Re­tailers saw a big spike in their cage-free egg sales at the same time as an­i­mal welfare groups were pres­sur­ing them to make com­mit­ments to go cage-free, mak­ing those com­mit­ments seem to make sense at the time. But when prices of generic eggs de­creased, many con­sumers shifted back to buy­ing eggs from caged hens be­cause they were much cheaper. This caused an over­sup­ply of cage-free eggs, which made pro­duc­ers scale back (or even shut down) their cage-free con­ver­sion plans (see Food Nav­i­ga­tor, 2017; CoBank, 2017; Singh, 2017; Amer­i­can Farm Bureau Fed­er­a­tion, 2018).

It is un­clear what will hap­pen next. Pro­duc­ers can’t sim­ply snap their fingers be­fore the 2025 dead­line and switch most of their fa­cil­ities to cage-free. Tran­si­tion­ing to cage-free fa­cil­ities takes time, so a grad­ual in­vest­ment is needed. If the level of in­vest­ment re­mains in­suffi­cient, there will be no way for all com­pa­nies to meet their dead­lines.

Fur­ther­more, some of the same ar­ti­cles also doubt whether pro­duc­ers will have enough money to com­plete the needed tran­si­tion. It would cost U.S. pro­duc­ers more than $4 billion, or, ac­cord­ing to an­other source, more than $10 billion.

Im­pli­ca­tions for cost-effec­tive­ness estimates

OpenPhil used the suc­cess of U.S. cage-free cam­paigns as one of the rea­sons to fund cage-free cam­paigns el­se­where. But in their anal­y­sis of why these cam­paigns were so suc­cess­ful at se­cur­ing pledges, they didn’t take into ac­count that a tem­porar­ily smaller price gap be­tween generic and cage-free eggs could have been a fac­tor. If this un­usual cir­cum­stance was im­por­tant, OpenPhil’s cost-effec­tive­ness es­ti­mate is less use­ful for pre­dict­ing the suc­cess of fu­ture cam­paigns.

The same can be partly said about a re­cent Founders Pledge cost-effec­tive­ness es­ti­mate of The Hu­mane League’s work. Over 75% of the es­ti­mated THL im­pact came from cage-free cam­paigns, many of which have been in the U.S. How­ever, I think that the re­sults of these es­ti­mates are still in­for­ma­tive.

The Founders Pledge re­port does ac­count for the fact that com­mit­ments may be bro­ken. They es­ti­mate that “there is a 60% prob­a­bil­ity that com­pa­nies will fol­low through with cage-free com­mit­ments, a 30% prob­a­bil­ity they will fol­low through with broiler com­mit­ments and a 30% prob­a­bil­ity they will fol­low through with com­mit­ments to stop chick cul­ling.” All of these prob­a­bil­ities are sub­jec­tive. See their re­port for their full rea­son­ing. It con­tains im­por­tant con­sid­er­a­tions about broiler com­mit­ments that I do not sum­marise here.

Similarly, An­i­mal Char­ity Eval­u­a­tors uses a 31–86% sub­jec­tive con­fi­dence in­ter­val (mean ~53%) that com­pa­nies will hon­our their welfare com­mit­ments (of any type) in their cost-effec­tive­ness mod­els. In both cases, cor­po­rate cam­paigns are es­ti­mated to be very cost-effec­tive even de­spite con­cerns about com­pli­ance.[1]


The only ini­ti­a­tive that I know of to ver­ify whether cor­po­ra­tions are on track to meet their com­mit­ments is CIWF’s Eg­gTrack that shows the progress com­pa­nies are mak­ing to­wards end­ing the use of cages for lay­ing hens. CIWF also launched a similar ini­ti­a­tive to track progress to­wards broiler com­mit­ments called Chick­enTrack.[2] How­ever, they haven’t yet asked com­pa­nies to re­port their progress.

How Eg­gTrack works

Com­pa­nies with a time-bound cage-free egg com­mit­ment are se­lected based on com­pany size by rev­enue, egg foot­print (for both, shel­led and liquid eggs), and mar­ket in­fluence. They are asked to pub­li­cly dis­close their cage-free egg per­centages. For progress to be in­cluded in the tracker, it must be pub­li­cly available on a com­pany’s web­site or an­other doc­u­ment.

Eg­gTrack results


In the 2018 Euro­pean Eg­gTrack re­port, 75% of the 83 com­pa­nies in­cluded have re­ported progress against their com­mit­ments for at least part of their sup­ply chain, and 43% of com­pa­nies have re­ported fully against their com­mit­ments for all parts of their sup­ply chain. There are also 76 com­mit­ments with due dates in the past, and only two of them do not have re­ported progress: Ben­net and Duss­man. I think we should put some pres­sure on these com­pa­nies to re­port their progress. The other 74 com­pa­nies have re­ported suc­cess­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion of their cage-free com­mit­ments.

The U.S.

In the U.S. how­ever, only 27% of se­lected cor­po­ra­tions re­ported progress on their com­mit­ments in both 2017 re­port and 2018 re­port.[3] This is con­cern­ing. There are also three U.S. cor­po­ra­tions—Au Bon Pain (pledge due in 2017), Hil­ton Ho­tels & Re­sorts (2017), The Walt Dis­ney Com­pany (2016) -- that did not re­port progress for com­mit­ments that have already passed their due date.

Un­tracked cor­po­ra­tions could be mak­ing progress

I think that com­pa­nies that haven’t re­ported their progress are more likely not to have hit their goals. But it’s im­por­tant to keep in mind that if a cor­po­ra­tion was not in­cluded in the Eg­gTrack re­port, that only means that it did not make their cage-free egg per­centages pub­li­cly available by a given due date, de­spite CIWF ask­ing them to do so.

Some in­for­ma­tion about un­tracked com­pa­nies can be found in two Bloomberg ar­ti­cles. Bloomberg asked some com­pa­nies for more in­for­ma­tion. Here is what they found:

  • The Walt Dis­ney Com­pany, which com­mit­ted to go cage-free by 2016, told Bloomberg that they already use cage-free eggs in their parks, re­sorts and cruise line.

  • The Hil­ton ho­tel chain, which promised to go cage-free by 2017, told Bloomberg that its Wal­dorf As­to­ria Ho­tels & Re­sorts, Con­rad Ho­tels & Re­sorts, Canopy by Hil­ton and Dou­bleTree by Hil­ton U.S. ho­tels are now 100% cage-free and that it’s at­tempt­ing to make the change globally. Note that their pro­vided list of com­pli­ant brands does not in­clude Hil­ton Ho­tels & Re­sorts, de­spite the fact that this brand is in­cluded in their com­mit­ment.

  • Mars Inc. told Bloomberg that they are more than 40% cage-free and still ex­pect to meet their com­mit­ment by 2020.

  • Wal­mart de­clined to com­ment.

I don’t un­der­stand why some com­pa­nies didn’t an­swer CIWF but an­swered Bloomberg. It’s pos­si­ble that Dis­ney and Hil­ton used a care­ful word­ing in their an­swers to Bloomberg to hide the fact they are not fully cage-free. CIWF asks for ex­act per­centages for the en­tire sup­ply chain, which could be the rea­son why these com­pa­nies may have cho­sen not to an­swer. In any case, Bloomberg ar­ti­cles show that in some cases more in­for­ma­tion can be gained by sim­ply ask­ing com­pa­nies for more in­for­ma­tion, at least if pub­lic­ity is in­volved.

Some un­tracked com­mit­ments have due dates that are far away

In gen­eral, I would sus­pect those com­pa­nies that haven’t re­ported their progress to be dis­pro­por­tionately likely not to have hit their goals. But some com­pa­nies have com­mit­ments that are set far into the fu­ture, so it’s un­der­stand­able that they haven’t yet be­gun re­port­ing. For ex­am­ple, McDon­ald’s told Bloomberg it had noth­ing new to re­port other than the same 2025 dead­line, set in 2015. 2018 Euro­pean Eg­gTrack re­port claims that com­mit­ments with im­mi­nent end-dates are more likely to have been re­ported against and shows this graph to illus­trate that:

Les­sons from other movements

An­i­mal ac­tivists are not alone in get­ting com­pa­nies to make promises and then strug­gling to track their progress. The prob­lem of busi­nesses mak­ing promises and failing to keep them is com­mon. For ex­am­ple, com­pa­nies like Ap­ple, Wal­mart, and Uniqlo failed to live up to their promises to en­sure ac­cept­able con­di­tions for fac­tory work­ers.

Another ex­am­ple is cor­po­ra­tions’ com­mit­ments to use a de­foresta­tion-free sup­ply chain. A re­port by For­est Trends defines com­mit­ments as dor­mant if no progress has been re­ported even though the tar­get date has passed (or the com­mit­ment was an­nounced in 2015 or ear­lier and never had a tar­get date). Ac­cord­ing to this defi­ni­tion, 151 out of 760 com­mit­ments were dor­mant. As I un­der­stand, many of the re­main­ing com­mit­ments can also be­come dor­mant af­ter some more time passes. This is an­other ex­am­ple of how com­pa­nies’ promises can’t always be trusted. For­est Trends also ar­gued that it’s im­por­tant for com­pa­nies not only to pledge to make a change, but also to pledge to re­port progress on it. It seems that the an­i­mal welfare move­ment came to the same con­clu­sion: broiler welfare asks now in­clude a re­quire­ment to demon­strate com­pli­ance via third-party au­dit­ing.

What could be done

In 2016, Lewis Bol­lard made this com­ment on the is­sue:

“I think en­force­ment of the cage-free pledges is a se­ri­ous con­cern. We’re talk­ing a lot with the groups about this, and they plan a cou­ple of mechanisms to en­sure the pledges are en­forced. I don’t want to get deeply into their tac­tics here with­out their per­mis­sion, but this will prob­a­bly re­quire some com­bi­na­tion of con­stant en­gage­ment with com­pa­nies and cam­paigns against those that drag their feet.”

I am not ask­ing an­i­mal char­i­ties to dis­cuss or defend their tac­tics. I am not a spe­cial­ist in cor­po­rate cam­paigns, and I do trust that peo­ple in charge of them know what they are do­ing, es­pe­cially when there has been this much suc­cess. How­ever, af­ter writ­ing this ar­ti­cle, it seems to me that an­i­mal or­gani­sa­tions should prob­a­bly make en­sur­ing com­pli­ance more of a pri­or­ity, and con­sider do­ing some of the fol­low­ing:

  • Put­ting more pres­sure on cor­po­ra­tions that broke their com­mit­ments to im­ple­ment the changes they ini­tially promised. For ex­am­ple, maybe com­pa­nies that re­ceived a lot of pos­i­tive pub­lic­ity when com­mit­ting (like Sains­bury’s) could be sued for false ad­ver­tis­ing. Even if it doesn’t lead to them mak­ing new com­mit­ments, such ac­tions could make other com­pa­nies less will­ing to break their promises.[4]

  • Put­ting pres­sure on cor­po­ra­tions that don’t re­port progress. Maybe be­gin by send­ing some emails that sim­ply ask about their progress. If they don’t re­spond, grad­u­ally in­crease the pres­sure un­til they re­veal what­ever in­for­ma­tion (or lack thereof) they have.

  • Con­tinue ex­pand­ing Eg­gTrack and Chick­enTrack re­ports.

  • Con­tinue in­clud­ing the re­quire­ment to demon­strate com­pli­ance in asks, and not re­lent­ing un­til com­pa­nies agree to the full asks with­out us­ing am­bigu­ous word­ing.

  • Do­ing out­reach to pro­duc­ers to make sure that re­tailers and restau­rants would have sources of higher welfare an­i­mal prod­ucts, to avoid the situ­a­tion that allegedly hap­pened with some of the ges­ta­tion stall promises. Cur­rently, Chicken Watch lists 34 pro­ducer com­mit­ments.

  • Us­ing un­der­cover in­ves­ti­ga­tions to check whether com­pa­nies have ac­tu­ally im­ple­mented the changes they an­nounced. If they have, con­sider pub­li­cly prais­ing them. Another op­tion is to en­courage pro­duc­ers to con­duct an in­de­pen­dent au­dit to cer­tify that they com­ply, or to offer such au­dit for free (which could re­quire a new or­gani­sa­tion).

  • Con­tinue or­ganis­ing bal­lot ini­ti­a­tives that make it ille­gal to use some of the cruel prac­tices. Per­haps this is the best way to en­sure com­pli­ance. After more than a decade of cam­paign­ing, there are now laws that pro­hibit veal crates, bar­ren bat­tery cages and ges­ta­tion stalls in the EU and some U.S. states. Ac­cord­ing to Josh Balk, cor­po­rate and le­gal bans feed off each other in a pos­i­tive way, and that it was the com­bi­na­tion of pass­ing laws and work­ing with cor­po­rate en­tities that has driven the is­sue for­ward.


[1] Note that it’s also pos­si­ble that some com­mit­ments will be par­tially im­ple­mented or will be im­ple­mented only if more pres­sure is put on com­pa­nies.

[2] Note that Chick­enTrack is not the same as Chicken Watch. Chicken Watch lists broiler and cage-free com­mit­ments from around the world. Chicken Track will track the progress of se­lected U.S. broiler welfare com­mit­ments.

[3] Note that the num­ber of re­port­ing com­pa­nies in the U.S. Eg­gTrack re­port did in­crease from 20 in 2017 to 27 in 2018. How­ever, the per­centage of re­port­ing com­pa­nies re­mained at 27% be­cause the num­ber of in­cluded com­pa­nies in­creased from 73 in the 2017 to 100 in the 2018 re­port.

[4] On the other hand, su­ing com­pa­nies that broke their promises may make other cor­po­ra­tions more hes­i­tant to make new com­mit­ments. But maybe it would only af­fect cor­po­ra­tions that wouldn’t have taken their com­mit­ments very se­ri­ously. Over­all, I think that putting more pres­sure on com­pa­nies that broke their com­mit­ments is worth this risk.

This es­say is a pro­ject of Re­think Pri­ori­ties. It was writ­ten by Saulius Šimčikas. Thanks to Abra­ham Rowe, Daniela R. Wald­horn, David Moss, Ida Sprengers, John Maxwell, Katya Simkhovich, Mar­cus A. Davis, and Peter Hur­ford for re­view­ing drafts of this post and mak­ing valuable com­ments.

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