How common is animal cruelty in retail supply chains?

Retail Gazette speaks to industry experts to explore to what extent animal cruelty occurs within the UK retail sector and why.

How common is animal cruelty in retail supply chains?

Last month, Animal Equality UK grabbed headlines when it demanded Morrisons explain the “extreme cruelty to chickens that is taking place in its supply chain”.

Morrisons quickly denied these allegartions, and a spokesperson from the Big 4 grocer told Retail Gazette that it “cares deeply about animal welfare”.

“All our regular chicken is raised to above Red Tractor standards; we are also the only retailer in Europe to ask our fresh chicken suppliers to require chicken to be born into the barn in which it will be raised by 2025,” the spokesperson said.

“Eighty per cent of our fresh chicken meets this standard already.

“We also actively monitor for any malpractice in our supply chain; we will never tolerate it or look the other way. And if we ever find it, we will act swiftly and decisively.

“Our position on chicken is clear: We offer free range, organic and regular chicken in our stores.”

Despite this, Morrisons isn’t the only British retailer – not just in grocery, but all sectors within retail – to have been accused of allowing animal cruelty to take place within its supply chain in recent years. Does this mean it’s more common in the wider retail sector than one would think?

“It’s a result of decades of brands & retailers competing to provide customers with lower prices”

Hazel Mezo, creative consultant at the sustainable fashion brand Onesta, said animal cruelty was “unfortunately commonplace” within fashion retail and garment manufacturing.

“As the prices drop for the end consumer, it is logical that conditions throughout the supply chain lower as a result,” she told Retail Gazette.

“The consequences usually fall to those who quite often don’t have a voice: the garment workers, the animals and the environment.”

University of Winchester animal welfare professor Andrew Knight agreed.

“Having reviewed a considerable amount of undercover footage throughout my career, I can comfortably say that animal suffering is rife within intensive farms across Britain,” he said.

He added that while every farm was “local” to someone, the suffering of animals is standard throughout the UK. This includes cows being separated from their young just hours after giving birth; 40 per cent of hens used for their eggs are caged; pigs routinely having their tails cut off without pain relief; and with over 90 per cent of all farm animals being left in dark sheds.

“Sadly, they are all too often out of sight, and therefore out of mainstream consciousness,” Knight said.

Meanwhile, the use of animal fur has continued to fall out of fashion in recent years, with an increasing number of brands and retailers boycotting its use and opting for faux fur instead.

However, as more fast fashion retailers turn to outsourcing in a bid to keep prices low, corners are often cut. In past years, big name retailers have been caught out for selling real fur as “faux” fur.

For example, in 2018 Tesco was found to be selling a pompom keychain for £16 which were labelled as faux fur, but when tested turned out to be real rabbit fur.

FatFace was caught selling faux fur gloves made from rabbit fur and Boots pompom hair slides were found to be made from mink fur. Meanwhile Kurt Geiger was caught selling shoes labelled as feather pompom, when it was actually made from raccoon fur.

Mexo said that while it was unlikely these retailers did this on purpose, the question still remains as to whether they actually care – or whether “their top priority is getting the design they want into the shops on time – regardless of how they get it there”.

“The sad reality is that these stories happen because it is often cheaper to use the skin or fur from and animal than is it to use ‘faux’ for or leather,” she added.

Animal Equality UK executive director Abigail Penny said: Misleading adverts and accreditation schemes attempt to deceive the public, yet Animal Equality has investigated 25 Red Tractor-certified farms in the past five years and on every one it’s always the same story of animals struggling and suffering.

“Our exposés have found illegalities on a range of farms, including those labelled as organic, owned by senior industry figures, and linked to major supermarkets such as Tesco, Morrisons, Waitrose and Co-op.”


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She added: “The UK boasts of its welfare standards, yet farms here continue to flout the laws in place.

“If the government won’t hold them to account, Animal Equality will. By choosing plant-based we can turn our back on this animal cruelty.”

To ensure animal cruelty doesn’t take place within supply chains, Mezo said materials and produce needed to be sourced closer to home.

“This ensures that all suppliers can be visited and audited on a regular basis, and morals need to be held in higher regard than profits,” she explained.

Animal Equality UK public affairs specialist Jenny Canham highlighted how 800 million chickens were slaughtered for supermarkets each year.

“Supermarkets must, at the very least, eliminate some of the worst abuses in their supply chains,” she said.

Marks & Spencer last week was applauded for making the pledge to become the first major retailer to sell only slower-reared, higher welfare chicken across its full range of fresh chicken products.

M&S said that from autumn next year, all fresh chicken stocked in its food stores would be slower-reared, British and RSPCA Assured. The slower-reared birds are fed on a multigrain diet, specifically designed to support their slower natural growth and muscle development, which gives the chicken a better flavour profile and improved succulence.

Customers can already buy slower-reared chicken at M&S, including whole chickens, portions and chicken breasts, but from next year this standard will apply to all the fresh chicken products it sells.

Both the RSCPA and Compassion in World Farming hailed the move as a “landmark” commitment in animal welfare standards and called on other food retailers to follow M&S’s lead.

While activists continue to call out animal cruelty at the hands of retailers, not everyone believes it is the retailer’s responsibility to check the practices in their supply chains.

Gabriella Diana, founder of Onesta, said that in today’s world where climate change is a reality, it should be a retailer’s responsibility to make sure the entire life cycle of their product is ethical. She also said this cycle should have minimal to no harm on the environment – from the beginning right to the end of a product’s life.

“This should include it’s packaging,” she said.

“If a plastic net from a bag of oranges kills a sea bird or a fish – this should be classed as animal cruelty too.

“It is a retailer’s responsibility to not use packaging that can harm animals and the environment.”

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