Monday, June 12, 2006

Grocery Chain Safeway Wins Praise for Moving Towards Pushing Suppliers to Honor Higher Animal Welfare Standards

This is a great story that really gives you insight into the grocery industry and it’s relation to animal rights. Though Safeway is far from perfect, it is now basically leading the way in terms of moving the chain store supermarkets towards holding suppliers accountable to honoring higher animal welfare standards. This is accomplished through auditing of slaughter house facilities and through the formation of a six-member animal welfare committee. The formation of the committee really is ground breaking and demonstrates at least a movement in the right direction.


Safeway, PETA retract claws

Grocer may take further steps on animal rights

In less than five years, the relationship between Pleasanton-based grocery giant Safeway Inc. and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has gone from adversarial to a mutual admiration society.

In 2001, PETA, the nation's foremost advocate for the humane treatment of animals, launched a Web site called that took the supermarket chain to task for not demanding higher standards for animal treatment from its suppliers of meat and poultry products. Some suppliers, the organization claims, engage in cruel and abusive practices in raising and slaughtering cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys. PETA members picketed Safeway shareholder meetings to voice their displeasure.

But in 2006, the words of Matt Prescott, PETA's manager of factory farming campaigns, indicate a sea change in the pair's relationship.

"In our opinion, Safeway is second only to Whole Foods in the supermarket industry when it comes to having high animal welfare standards," Prescott said. "They have been cooperative and wonderful to work with for quite some time now."

The threat of a consumer boycott of Safeway, called for five years ago by PETA, based in Norfolk, Va., may have helped nudge the supermarket giant in its direction. But both Prescott and Safeway spokesman Brian Dowling said that as public concern has grown over the treatment - PETA supporters say mistreatment - of farm animals, the issue has gained traction in corporate America.

Today, Prescott, while praising Whole Foods Market Inc. and Safeway, says that some of their main industry rivals are "about as bad as you can get. They don't seem to take the issue seriously."

Dowling said times have changed very rapidly in the grocery industry - at least as far as his company is concerned.

"Our awareness as a company and as an industry is much greater on animal welfare today," Dowling said. "We hear from our customers that this is an issue they're concerned about. Many have made it clear they want to shop at a store that requires its suppliers to treat animals humanely."

Agreeing with that assessment is Neil Stern, partner in the Chicago retail consulting firm McMillan-Doolittle LLP.

"Safeway is doing a much better job of responding to its customers and being proactive about environmental, sustainability and animal welfare issues," Stern said. "It really is in keeping with the kind of consumers attracted to their new 'lifestyle' stores, who pay attention to these issues. It's a win-win for the company from a public image and financial standpoint."

Safeway received praise in late May from Oceana, an ocean conservation advocacy group, over the company's decision to voluntarily post signs warning customers of the presence of mercury in some fish and seafood products being sold in its stores. Oceana said Safeway and Wild Oats, a health-food supermarket chain based in Boulder, Colo., were the only grocers to post such warnings.

"The issue was raised and as we became more educated about it, we felt it was worthwhile to inform our customers," said Dowling, noting the Food and Drug Administration had issued the mercury warning. "We're in the business of being responsive to our customers' needs, so we keep on top of these issues."

On the animal welfare front, Safeway "audits" its suppliers of beef and pork products to make sure animals are treated humanely before and during the slaughtering process. Safeway uses its own auditors, as well as independent outside observers.

"The packing houses are increasingly tuned into this issue," Dowling said. "We engage in periodic short-notice visits. It's in their best interest to treat the animals humanely."

Dowling said Safeway also is eliminating lobster tanks from its stores. Animal rights activists claim the tanks can be dirty and crowded, and lobsters routinely starve.;

The company also is forming a six-member animal welfare committee, one of the first in the industry. The committee will examine issues as they arise and make recommendations to company officials. Half of the committee will consist of noted experts on issues of animal welfare and animal science: Temple Grandin, associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University; Janice Swanson, interim head of the animal science and industry department at Kansas State University; and Sara Shields, a lecturer in the animal science department of the University of Nebraska.

"We have a broad mandate to provide guidance to the company on animal welfare issues," said Dowling, a member of the committee. The committee likely will meet three times a year.

While still rare in the world of supermarkets, such groups have become common in the fast-food industry. Though it took plenty of pressure from animal rights organizations, one of America's greatest corporate icons, McDonald's Corp. of Oak Brook, Ill., began auditing cattle and pig slaughterhouses in 1999. Some of its suppliers were not able to meet the fast-food giant's new standards and were dropped. The following year, McDonald's began similar scrutiny of chicken and egg suppliers.

McDonald's has been followed by Burger King Corp. and Wendy's International Inc. PETA's Prescott said McDonald's reversal was a watershed event in the corporate animal welfare movement.

Processing of chickens and turkeys into poultry products sold at supermarkets and some restaurants has become the latest focus of welfare advocates. Birds are exempt from minimal treatment standards previously adopted by the federal government for cattle and pigs.

While he praised Safeway for its progress so far, Steven Gross, a member of PETA, which owns 192 shares of Safeway stock, urged the company at this year's annual shareholder meeting May 25 to adopt a policy requiring poultry suppliers to use controlled-atmosphere killing, or CAK. CAK methods essentially put birds to "sleep," with their oxygen supply gradually replaced by inert gases.

Prescott said CAK, though widely used in Europe, remains a rarity in North America, where, according to Prescott, poultry processors typically use electrified water to stun birds before slaughter. Since that technique often does not work, Prescott said, the animals have their throats slit or are dropped in scalding water while fully conscious. Critics of the practice claim it causes unnecessary suffering and is costlier than CAK.

"The CAK method is far more humane and more cost-effective," Prescott said.

Steve Burd, Safeway's CEO, told Gross and other shareholders that his company would "look into" the possibility of adopting CAK as a supplier requirement. Dowling confirmed the company would examine the matter.

Although those words may not cinch the deal for PETA, it's a good start, Prescott contends.

"Since our campaign against Safeway five years ago, the company has done an about-face on this issue," he said. "I think (the boycott) played a part, but I also feel company management has really changed. They realize today how deeply a large percentage of their customers care about this issue."

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