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We’re living in an increasingly transparent world, where Americans purchasing food are more concerned than ever about everything from product origin to genetic modification in their quest to feel good about what they consume. Whether an animal-based product comes from a responsibly raised and harvested source is high among these concerns.
According to a recent study from the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), roughly three-quarters (74 percent) more consumers are paying a greater amount of attention to labels that describe how an animal was raised, compared with five years ago. Issues today range from hormone use in food-producing animals to cramped cages and filthy living conditions.
Many major grocery chains have been progressive in establishing animal welfare policies for their supply chains, with retailers like Kroger, Albertsons-Safeway, H-E-B, Hy-Vee and Walmart adopting strict guidelines for procuring meat, poultry, seafood and eggs.
But what about tomorrow? Some issues will continue to be relevant, while other, new ones likely will arise. So what should grocers and their supplier partners prepare for?
The Great Antibiotic Debate
One of the bigger issues likely to concern grocers and suppliers in the coming years already exists: the use of antibiotics on animals. A growing number of consumers, some concerned about a rise in more resistant strains of bacteria, are seeking products from animals raised without antibiotics, and retailers are catching on to this demand, according to Brian Roelofs, VP of sales at GNP Co., a St. Cloud, Minn.-based poultry processor. To meet this demand in the future, grocers and their supplier partners need to start working either to stop using all antibiotics or to limit use to those not used to treat humans.
However, an issue here is that a supplier committed to humane care may have to care for an animal or flock with antibiotics in the event of illness, Roelofs notes.
“If that occurs at GNP Co., we humanely treat those birds with antibiotics, and then consequently, they will not be processed under the Gold’n Plump brand,” he says. “We’ve found that typically, the retailer or restaurant will work with the processor or supplier that aligns with their customer’s wishes or values.”
For those grocers and suppliers still processing and selling meat made from animals treated with antibiotics (by law, all meat must be free of antibiotics when slaughtered), another concern could arise: How much? To date, no standardized unit of measurement actually exists for antibiotic treatment, says Steward Leeth, VP of regulatory affairs and chief sustainability officer at Smithfield Foods, a Smithfield, Va.-based pork processor. This reality, he believes, needs to change.
“This standardization would inform a more meaningful discussion of antibiotics that is understandable to the general public,” he asserts.
Some of the other issues likely to grow in importance down the road vary by animal type.
With fish, concern over harvest method, or “kill technology,” could be of stronger concern in the coming years. To prepare here, grocers in the United States should look to their European counterparts, as the latter are “much farther ahead” when it comes to animal welfare, contends Jacqueline Claudia, CEO of LoveTheWild, a Boulder, Colo.-based supplier of convenience-minded frozen fish dishes.
For instance, U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer goes as far as to dictate harvest method for its farmed fish, a level of transparency unseen domestically. If U.S. grocers begin making similar demands, the domestic seafood industry would have to make substantial investments in new technology, since “you can’t just easily load live fish on a truck and take them to a different processing plant like you can with cows,” Claudia points out.
“If the average consumer thought about what it’s like to struggle and die at the end of a long line like a tuna, or get crushed in a trawl like a cod and slowly suffocate, wild seafood would lose some of its cachet,” she says. “These animals don’t have the brain structure to feel pain as we know it, but they certainly feel stress, and their plasma cortisol levels reflect that. That’s one of the many reasons we are pro-aquaculture: Farmed fish don’t feel the same stress at harvest as wild species, because they are killed quickly and humanely.”
Grocers should start asking questions about kill method and generating that transparency now, Claudia recommends. And they need to think about this from species to species, as a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.
“The most appropriate kill method for a big tuna isn’t the same thing that works for anchovies,” she says. “Poor fish welfare in the last few minutes of life can significantly degrade the quality of the fish, erasing efforts made over years of careful farming to raise healthy and high-quality animals. Make sure your suppliers are considering the science and research, and making informed decisions for their operation.”
Claudia also believes that activists will attempt to “humanize” fish in the coming years without understanding their physiology or natural behavior. To combat this issue, suppliers and grocers need to educate consumers about the harvesting and retailing of farmed fish.