I’ll never forget the first time I lobbied a major food company to address animal suffering in its supply chain. It was 2001 and I was 19—too young to even order a beer at a restaurant yet calling one of the world’s largest food companies to suggest it stop allowing its egg suppliers to lock chickens in cages by switching to cage-free eggs.
“What kind of eggs?” asked the very confused Burger King communications staffer I was transferred to.
“Cage-free,” I replied. “Meaning, the chickens haven’t spent their lives crammed in cages.”
There was a long pause.
“Hmmm,” he said. He wasn’t agitated, just confused. “Let me put you on hold.”
A moment later, he returned. “You know what?” he said. “Thanks so much for the offer, but I’m told we’ve already got an egg supplier.”
Of course, I wasn’t trying to sell eggs to Burger King, but rather trying to sell the company on the concept of treating animals better.
The problem was that in 2001, the concept was mystifying to most food companies. The notion that they, as sellers of food, were responsible for the way their ingredients were produced—and therefore had a responsibility to ensure basic standards of care—wasn’t exactly mainstream in the industry.
That would soon change.
The next several years brought undercover video after undercover video exposing factory farms’ dismal conditions: hens locked in cages for egg production; mother pigs languishing in gestation crates, unable to even turn around; and chickens raised for meat suffering from painful injuries and horrific deaths. With the simultaneous rise of social media, these videos were broadcast to countless consumers who, shocked by the abuse, began demanding change.
The increased attention allowed the Humane Society of the United States to lead successful legislative campaigns in several states to outlaw extreme confinement and move major food companies to implement much-needed animal welfare reforms, too.
Including Burger King.
After that day in 2001, I continued to lobby the company. My call with that confused communications staffer eventually turned into calls with his boss, which eventually turned into meetings with executives. And, in 2012, Burger King became one of the first major companies to promise it would switch to 100% cage-free eggs and eliminate gestation crates in its supply chain.
In the years that followed, the HSUS and other advocacy groups would successfully move hundreds of other major food companies to make similar promises—including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, IHOP, Kroger, Safeway, Denny’s, Panera Bread, Nestlé, KraftHeinz, Subway, TGI Fridays, Dunkin’ Brands, Target and nearly every other top food purveyor.
But because extreme confinement had come to dominate industrial agriculture, these changes could not, unfortunately, happen overnight; they would require farm-level changes in infrastructure, management, equipment and more. Thus, companies established timelines for phasing out abusive practices—giving their suppliers anywhere from several years to a decade to make reforms.
Here’s the thing about animals, though: They don’t need promises or timelines; they need actual changes. And while we’re proud of our work moving so many companies to pledge reforms, we also know that making a promise and keeping a promise are very different.
So, in 2019, we set out to determine whether companies are on track to fulfill their commitments, surveying roughly 100 major corporations with questions designed to help us measure their progress.
The result is our Food Industry Scorecard, which ranks companies from best to worst based on their animal welfare progress and provides insights into what each one is—and is not— doing right.
Fortunately, we found that many are keeping their promises. The food service company Sodexo is more than 60% of the way toward its goal of using only cage-free eggs. Costco publicly reports that 94% of its eggs are cage-free. And Unilever is 99% of the way toward a cage-free egg supply chain.
However, we also found many companies that report no progress or have outright failed to keep their promises. For example, despite its 2012 pledge to “rapidly eliminate” gestation crates, the restaurant chain Subway doesn’t report using any amount of gestation crate-free pork.
We also found that some companies publicly made strong commitments but then quietly weakened them. After Starbucks promised to switch to 100% cage-free eggs, the company later altered that pledge to apply just to company-owned locations, excluding roughly 40% of its outlets.
Other companies seem to have backtracked entirely. Marriott, for example, announced in 2013 that it would eliminate gestation crates from its supply chain within five years. However, on its scorecard submission, the company reported no longer having that policy.
We’ve always known the challenges facing us in our drive to end the worst factory farm abuses. And we act with a sense of urgency, because the situation for animals in food production remains grim, with billions of animals suffering every day.
Our scorecard shines a spotlight on their suffering, as well as on the food companies not keeping their promises to stop it. It also helps corporations that are working earnestly to eliminate abusive practices show their customers they are delivering on their promises. And it helps ensure that after all that’s been done to secure these pledges, we’re on track to usher in a new day when animals used for food will finally lead much better lives.
Matthew Prescott is the senior director of food and agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States.