A New Food Era is Coming—Here Are 3 Ways Companies Can be Ready

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The most successful companies are those that understand and embrace consumer and societal changes, and don’t simply cling to a soon-to-be-defunct status quo. Rising concern about the treatment of farm animals is changing how meat and eggs are being produced and sold, with significant implications for the marketplace and for the broader society. Here are three ways food companies can chart a course in the midst of this dynamic transformation.

1. Understand the laws and embrace them

After December 31, eggs and pork sold in Massachusetts and California will have to come from supply chains that provide animals with better living conditions.

The practices these laws address occur inside industrial egg and pork facilities. Even as cage-free production is surging, millions of hens are still locked in barren wire cages. Each caged bird has less space than the dimensions of an iPad on which to live her entire life. A typical mother pig used for breeding, meanwhile, is locked in a “gestation crate” a metal cage barely larger than her own body. She can’t turn around or take a step forward or backwards.

Science has shown that pigs and chickens are intelligent, inquisitive animals, and that immobilization in tiny cages causes immense suffering. Perhaps more importantly to food companies, Americans are naturally outraged seeing the images of animals confined in cages so small they can barely move. It’s no wonder the laws to establish the requirements in California and Massachusetts passed by strong majorities in citizen initiatives.

So as companies look to switch to “cage-free” eggs and pork as they gear up to comply with these laws, they can also embrace this transition as a way to reflect their consumers’ sensibilities of giving animals better lives.

2. Make a plan for your supply chain

Savvy supply chain managers are working with their egg and pork producers now to ensure compliance by the end of 2021. Good planning will prevent any need for last-second sprinting at year’s end (in the middle of the holiday season, the busiest time of all!). After all, these are mandatory laws with fixed implementation schedules, not an optional business concept that one can just put off to a later day.

Working together, companies, producers, and suppliers can identify the best path for joint compliance. Maybe this means that egg suppliers convert several barns to cage-free specifically to accommodate a corporate partner’s egg demands. Similarly, it could mean that pork producers share in advance the certification programs they’ll rely on to demonstrate compliance, seeking feedback from partners on the most effective and mutually satisfactory choices.

This approach will find favor with corporate marketing teams, too. It will enable them to plan accordingly to identify and promote the items the companies plan to offer once the legal compliance date takes effect.

As a general rule, food companies are wary of unknown changes in supply chains. These laws have precisely the opposite effect. They’re known, they’ve been on the books since 2016 and 2018, and everyone involved has benefitted from ample notice. So why not plan ahead for the benefit of all stakeholders and in the interests of a stable and profitable marketplace?

3. Stay a step ahead by listening to consumers

The decades-long trend is clear: consumers expect food companies to demonstrate continuous improvement in their animal welfare policies. Many companies have recognized this, pledging to go cage/crate-free on their own accord, knowing that consumers reward the brands that are proactive on this issue. (A recent independently conducted survey found that more than 90% of consumers want companies to fulfill their cage-free pledges.)

COVID-19, like avian influenza and swine flu before it, has introduced another pressing consideration. This is no longer simply about our societal norm of treating animals with decency. Improving animal welfare also means creating a more secure food system that reduces food safety dangers through the adoption of animal housing environments that lessen the risks of new zoonotic diseases.

Raising the bar when it comes to animals and their welfare is fundamental to creating, building, and maintaining a trusted brand. Consumers are asking for it. Regulators expect it. Competitors are doing it. It’s rational, it’s the right thing to do, and as we’re seeing more and more, improving the treatment of animals is also very good business.