Source: Getty

Waitrose sources some products like Prosciutto ham from Europe where welfare standards can be lower than the UK

Waitrose is “very close” to ensuring its Italian pork supply chain is “confinement free” by the end of this year, as it progresses with efforts to bring animal standards across its European meat supply chain in line with those in the UK.

The supermarket has strict animal welfare requirements across the majority of its meat and dairy supply chain, nearly all of which comes from the British Isles.

However, it still sources some charcuterie lines and products with protected designation of origin – like Prosciutto ham – from Europe, where welfare standards can be lower than the UK. It said it had been working with suppliers and farmers in Europe to raise the standards.

“We’re very close to announcing that we’ll be confinement free within our Italian supply chain,” Jake Pickering, senior manager for agriculture at Waitrose, told The Grocer. He added that the supermarket was on track to ensure that all its continental pork supply chain was higher welfare by 2025.

There is no standard definition of higher welfare within UK regulation, but Waitrose generally aims to better the industry standard when it comes to the environment in which animals are kept, their health, and proximity to others of their own breed.

For example, Waitrose maintains all its UK pigs are ‘outdoor bred’, which means they’re born outside and have access to outdoor space while weaning. All its UK pork suppliers must also never use confinement stalls or farrowing crates.

Under Red Tractor’s pig standards, in comparison, sows can be kept in farrowing crates for up to five weeks after giving birth. 

Jake Pickering, Senior Agriculture Manager at Waitrose

Source: Waitrose

Jake Pickering, senior agriculture manager at Waitrose

“It’s safe to say that our international pork supply chain is not quite where our British one is for our continental and cured meat, but we’ve got a firm plan endorsed by the Compassion In World Farming of where we need to get to and we will be there by 2025,” Pickering said. 

While Waitrose is close to achieving higher standards, the changes could take a little longer to “trickle through” to shelves as the products can be processed for quite a long time, Pickering added. 

Current labelling guideline frustration

Waitrose executives see the quality of the supermarket’s sourcing and supply chain ethics as its key point of difference and have sought to emphasis this during the cost of living crisis.

The strapline ‘Food to Feel Good About’ was the focus of a major brand refresh in September 2022. Animal welfare was again at the forefront of a new advertising campaign launched in July this year.

James Bailey, Waitrose executive director, again played up what he called the supermarket’s “unshakable belief” in higher welfare in a scathing op-ed for the Telegraph in July, published in response to Defra’s decision to abandon a consultation into proposals to extend animal welfare labelling across pork and chicken products.

The consultation included looking into the viability of introducing a tiered labelling system similar to that used for eggs for other meat products. The proposal was first put forward in the government’s food strategy last year. However, Defra officials shelved plans, saying they did not consider it the right time to consult on reforms, the Times reported in July.

Pickering told The Grocer that Waitrose had “communicated our frustration” to Defra directly. He echoed Bailey’s calls for supermarkets to work towards improving information about welfare standards.

“We know customers are taking an increasing interest in animal welfare and how the food they’re consuming is produced,” he said.

“So we think it’s only fair that they have a better understanding of the supply chains they’re supporting and that it’s clearer when they purchase products how they were produced.”

Pickering explained that Waitrose was very clear with how it labelled its products, for example emphasising that its milk is ‘free range’ and its pork is bred outdoors, but that other retailers could get away with labelling milk as simply milk, or pork as pork, without reference to the differing standards that went into rearing the animal produced that product.

“We think it should be legislated because it’s not fair and reasonable for every retailer to have a different scheme,” he said. “That means that customers can’t compare across the market.”