Over the last decade we have seen a transformation as animal welfare has moved from a relatively niche consumer concern to a hallmark brands use to signal quality and provenance to all customers. As business realised the tide in consumer expectations was turning, we have seen free range eggs become the norm and welfare certification schemes ubiquitous. Thanks to the bold actions of progressive companies like M&S and campaign work by NGOs, we’ve seen a ‘rising tides lift all boats’ effect and standards have improved slowly but surely pretty much across the board.
We’re proud of the progress we have made since 2004, when we first introduced a formalised set of welfare standards in the UK. Contrary to popular belief, all our chickens are free to roam in large airy barns, are fed a healthy, natural diet and are given unrestricted access to water, as well as being provided with a comfortable place to live. We’ve also taken steps to encourage natural behaviour through providing perches, natural light, straw bales and pecking objects in barns – in fact 100% of the farms we buy from in the UK have environmental enrichment of this kind. Beak trimming, growth promotors or genetic modification are not permitted and only medicines and antibiotics licensed in the EU are allowed to be given to KFC chickens, and only if they are ill, never as a pre-emptive measure. We’re happy with the progress we’ve made but we know it’s not enough, and there is more we can do to improve the welfare of our chickens.
That is why this year we are focused on further improving our efforts, introducing a state-of-the art auditing system which will give us an even greater understanding of how every single farm is doing, on any given day, against a raft of welfare KPIs that were designed with the help of welfare experts and leading independent NGOs.
Alongside this we are committing to publishing this data; where we’re doing well and where we still need to improve. By publicly showing where we are at with things like average stocking density or where things have gone wrong, we will be more proactive in managing issues. This will not only introduce a greater accountability for ourselves and our suppliers, but will also help drive progress and raise standards further.
While I know that there is much we, our suppliers and others can still do, I think we’re all aware that the truly bold unilateral announcements of 10 years ago are beginning to dry up, especially when it comes to poultry. The ‘easy yards’ have been made up and the real work lies ahead to make meaningful change.
In the poultry industry, the European Broiler Ask embodies this challenge. Since its launch in 2017, retailers and restaurants have been urged to sign up to new cross-European guidelines by NGOs, including the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming and World Animal Protection. I’m sure, like us, many businesses have been in discussion with the NGOs behind it to see if and how they can sign up. While brands like Knorr must be praised for taking that step, we haven’t yet seen the same level of commitments from organisations that accompanied the Assured Food Standards Red Tractor standard when it launched back in 2000.
The European Broiler Ask challenges businesses like ours to implement a maximum stocking density of 30kg/m2, and adopt new higher welfare breeds, environmental enrichment standards and controlled atmospheric stunning. These are quite rightly ambitious targets and as a business we’ve been working hard to assess the feasibility of working our way toward them. But as the authors of the Ask know, these requirements will require cross industry support if they are to be met.
Higher welfare, at least for now, means higher costs for farmers, and customers recognise this – they know buying meat and poultry at lower prices means compromising on welfare standards. It is this conundrum that lies at the centre of the challenge facing us – it is only if the industry moves as one that we can make the changes necessary to make a real difference to welfare at a price that customers are willing to accept.
While we continue to push further for higher welfare standards and ways in which we can implement the aspirational standards of the European Broiler Ask, it will be interesting to see how we can work with other businesses to unlock a new generation of chicken welfare standards that meet heightened consumer anxiety around animal welfare.
David Moran is the Supply Chain Director for KFC Western Europe