Many publications, information, stories, etc. cross my desk each morning. So many in fact, that it’s hard to go through all of them before the end of the day. After reading several hoopla stories about two global food service companies committing to a policy of sourcing slower growing breeds of chickens by 2024 induced my “need to know” exactly what it all meant.
I’ve often talked about the genetic mixing of breeds of chickens to achieve a product that performs to company desires. With chickens, which I’m overly familiar, I’ve seen what the genetic blending produces. Animal welfare concerns are the furthest desire on the company list of traits to achieve.
The two global food service companies, Compass Group USA, based in Charlotte, NC, and Aramark based on Philadelphia, PA, are the latest to lay claim to animal welfare policy. Both companies have agreed to adhere to the Global Animal Partnership (GAP) standards, a non-profit, 5-step animal welfare certification program.
I was elated to read that, finally, genetics and the relationship to animal welfare would be a goal for buyers of industrial related chicken production. Often, genetics mixing is designed with rapid growth, larger breast, and improved rates of feed conversion (feed cost versus pounds of meat raised) in mind. How fast can we grow a chicken at the lowest cost is the industry mantra.
Witnessing rapid growth, first hand, that often resulted in heart attacks because internal organs couldn’t keep up with the growth of the chicken and skeletal structure not keeping pace with growth, resulting in broken bones, mostly legs, was one of the main reasons I became disenchanted with industrial contract farming. Thus, my elation over genetics being addressed in the massive production of chickens.
Although, I thought, that the year 2024 was a lengthy amount of time to achieve the goals of sourcing slower growing chickens, the thought of standards addressing the genetic mixing issue was far more important. I figured that such large food service companies would need time to adapt and secure sources that could meet the standards.
I went to the GAP website to review the standards and my bubble burst! The actual standards addressing genetics and slower growing birds has yet to be developed. The organization intends to have the standards by 2024. I thought to myself, how could any company, much less global ones, commit to something that hasn’t been developed. Much can happen and change in 8 years.
It occurred to me that maybe I was missing something because the whole announcement made no sense. Digging deeper, I found that I hadn’t missed anything. I was so disappointed because well-known organizations quoted in the Aramark press release, such as the Human Society of the United States (HSUS) and Compassion In World Farming (CIWF) are celebrating the announcement.
The executive director of GAP, Anne Malleau, is quoted as saying “As a global leader in farm animal welfare, GAP is proud to see a company like Aramark move toward changes that could benefit thousands of animals every year. Aramark knows that consumers increasingly demand that farm animals are raised with a higher quality of life. They’re looking for transparency and certification they can trust.”
GAP, first created by Whole Foods (WFM), was launched in 2008 in the UK, as a pilot Step Rated Program at its flagship store in London, England. Implementing an independent organization owning and developing a farm animal welfare certification program was the brainchild of WFM’s co-CEO John Mackey who felt that a greater impact could be developed internationally. From that idea, GAP was created.
WFM has also committed to GAP’s future standards for chicken genetics. Now I know folks, for a fact, that WFM is committed to farm animal welfare having sold eggs to several of the company’s stores. To get my product on store shelves, I had several farm visits from company representatives prior to entering the market.
However, I must say that I didn’t understand WFM’s commitment to a non-existent standard any more than I didn’t understand all the other participant’s commitments. Don’t get me wrong folks, I applaud all efforts to improve farm animal welfare. If all parties involved fulfill their commitments 8 years from now, it will indeed be wonderful.
It all started to make sense when I found that HSUS, CIWF, and WFM hold seats on the Board of Directors of GAP. It appears to me that all will have a hand in developing the standards for acceptable chicken genetics for GAP. That’s all fine and good but why the emphasis on a proclaimed “historical” announcement for something that won’t make history for 8 more years?
A few months ago, the same type of announcement was made by Perdue, and lauded by the same animal welfare parties. The issue of genetics was announced as Perdue MAY consider slower growing breeds of chickens. MAY is the operative word, not WILL! Consumers are now swearing that Perdue has switched to slower growing breeds of chickens and are boosting company sales for something that is smoke and mirrors.
I’m still confounded and moves such as this one will surely confuse consumers further than they already are. It’s inherent upon those of us who advocate for farm animal welfare and good husbandry practices to make certifications, labels, and claims as simplistic as possible for consumers. Transparency, honesty, and appearances are important. Slick moves have no room in efforts by all who are working toward change in production of food animals. Once trust is lost it’s hardly ever regained!