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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
In the U.S. however, only 27% of selected corporations reported progress on their commitments in both 2017 report and 2018 report. 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.
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
“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.
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 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.