Guest Column: Growing Interest in Farm Animal Welfare Reflected in Recent Shareholder Vote
By Caroline Abels, Humaneitarian.org
It used to be that if you cared about compassionate animal treatment by corporations, the cosmetics and fur industries attracted most of your attention. But these days, America’s meat industry is receiving increased scrutiny from shareholders who are concerned about the humane treatment of farm animals raised for meat and dairy.
Over the past decade, the public’s concern in this area has focused mainly on pork.
Nearly five dozen major food retailers and restaurant chains have pledged to eliminate pork that has been raised in gestation crates which are used by large-scale industrial pig farms to house female pigs (sows) when they’re pregnant. The individual crates are so narrow that a sow cannot turn around in them, let alone stretch or run – usually for her entire life, as factory farmed sows are repeatedly bred.
Companies, including Subway, Safeway, Costco, and McDonald’s have announced they will phase out the use of pork raised in this manner. And, in a reflection of the public’s deep disapproval of this way of farming, in November 2013 shareholders of the Cracker Barrel chain of restaurants voted to praise the company for eliminating this kind of pork from its supply chain. The resolution passed with 96 percent of the vote; the first time in recent memory that the shareholder resolution process was used to praise a company for its corporate responsibility work.
The Cracker Barrel resolution was introduced by the Humane Society of the United States, a non-profit organization whose strong advocacy in the realm of farm animal welfare sparked the current cascade of companies walking away from the extreme confinement of pigs.
Yet, as the founder and editor of Humaneitarian – a website that inspires people to choose humanely raised meat – I believe that the recent pressure on food companies by animal-loving shareholders and ordinary consumers has emerged not only from non-profit advocacy but also from Americans’ growing awareness of conditions in factory farms and their subsequent desire to buy meat from places that raise animals with a certain level of care.
Recent independent surveys, as documented by the Animal Welfare Institute, confirm that consumers want food animals to be treated like… well, like animals. When an animal is forced to live in industrial farm conditions, physical stress, illness, and psychological trauma can result. Growing numbers of consumers are becoming aware that most of the mega-farms which produce their meat and dairy consider the bottom line to be more important than keeping animals free from prolonged suffering.
Yet, even when they understand horror of industrial meat production, most Americans don’t want to be vegetarian. I certainly don’t — which is why I made the choice a few years ago to eat meat only from humanely raised animals.
I coined the word “humaneitarian” to describe a person who eats this way, and then launched the Humaneitarian website to inspire and support people who make this choice – people who believe it’s possible to eat meat and promote farm animal welfare by choosing alternative meat brands in the supermarket and shopping at farmers’ markets.
When consumers regularly purchase humanely raised meat, they send a message to food companies that there is indeed a demand for it, which can only encourage companies to amend the practices most unsavory to the public. Already, in response to consumer demand and announcements by companies to move away from gestation-crate pork, industrial farms are experimenting with a kinder form of raising sows called “group sow housing,” which effectively and efficiently raises pigs without the use of crates.
And of course, many other farms – smaller, more intimate farms – raise pigs on pasture, or in outdoor pens, responding to some consumers’ demand for animal husbandry the way it was practiced long before industrial agriculture – long before corporations developed such great influence on the way food animals are raised.
This brings us back to companies like Cracker Barrel…if a humaneitarian like me can walk into this iconic comfort-food restaurant chain and know that the bacon didn’t come from a pig that lived in a tiny crate, she’ll come back for more bacon. Our numbers may be small right now, but humaneitarians (also called “ethical omnivores”) are a vital new sector in the American food economy – among the many shareholders, corporate activists, and ordinary consumers making meaningful change for farm animals.
Editor’s note: In 1993, Trillium Asset Management was the first investment firm to file a shareholder resolution on the issue of farm animal welfare. In collaboration with Animal Rights International, our firm helped persuade McDonald‘s to adopt, for the first time, a policy regarding the humane treatment of farm animals.
Trillium seeks to avoid investing in companies that are involved in cruel and unnecessary abuse of animals. We monitor corporate practices and policies related to farmed animals’ living conditions, humane slaughterhouse practices, animal testing, the sale of fur, and the sponsorship or use of animals in entertainment noted for their cruelty to animals (such as bullfights or rodeos).