July 21, 2024

Cracking the code

The need to source ethical and sustainable animal products is moving up the consumers' agenda. April Waterston explores the issues

When we talk about sustainability and food, we are often quick to jump to plant-based alternatives for animal products. But moves are also being made to improve farming practices.  

Instead of removing animal products from menus, catering decision-makers can bring pressure to bear by ensuring, for example, that dairy products are farmed and sourced from sustainable and ethical producers. 

Far from egg-cellent 

Around 60% of the world’s eggs are farmed in battery cages. Keeping chickens caged is seen by many as completely unethical, not least because the space available means they can only just about stand up. Within the EU and some US states, battery cages are banned but even in ‘enriched’ cages hens have only slightly more space. 

Confining chickens to cages also increases the risk of food safety threats such as salmonella and E. coli contamination. “Numerous studies show that factory farms that confine animals in cages have higher rates of the dangerous bacteria that often end up in meat and eggs,” said Hannah Surowinski, The Humane League’s Global Corporate Relations Manager. 

“On factory farms, where the vast majority of eggs come from, billions of egg-laying hens globally are subjected to a life of extreme suffering. The birds spend their lives in a crowded space about the size of an iPad, unable to fully extend their wings or even raise their heads all the way,” she added. 

Pledge cage-free 

Sourcing eggs from cage-free hens is one way to meet growing consumer demands for ethically-sourced ingredients. For caterers, “it is really as simple as changing how they purchase their eggs — either asking their supplier to sell them cage-free eggs or shopping around for different suppliers who can meet their needs,” said Surowinski. 

“For producers, it requires a bit of an investment, converting battery cage housing to large, open-space cage-free aviaries, but it’s a shift that is well underway. Just last year producers reported tearing down battery cage housing to convert to cage-free for over eight million hens. So that’s a great sign that things are moving in the right direction.” 

Both LSG Group and gategroup have pledged to only use eggs from cage-free hens by 2025. 

“We want to direct our focus to sustainability topics that are central to our business and where we can also make an impact at the same time,” said Erdmann Rauer, CEO of the LSG Group. “In doing so, it is important to understand precisely how these topics are linked to our operations and our broader value chain. Our cage-free egg pledge is clearly a factor in this process. We expect our suppliers to have the same high standards our customers expect from us.” 

Francisco Moreno, gategroup’s Chief Operations Officer said: “This [pledge] is an important step for making gategroup a more transparent, sustainable company. We have always cared about maintaining a sustainable, ethical supply chain – but we have a responsibility to do more.” 

Cracking on 

“We generally strive for ethically sourced foods in all areas, and we are constantly looking for better, more sustainable suppliers,” said Simon Frischemeier, Head of Sustainability Management and Chief of Staff to the CEO at the LSG Group, noting that as purchasing products globally means tackling problems locally. 

When it comes to dairy, local sourcing is best, combined with building relationships with trustworthy and ethical farmers. It is currently tricky for smaller, ethical dairy farms to keep up with demand for mass-produced food. Yet progress is being made with research into the most humane ways to farm milk from cows underway. Farms are trialling different timescales before separating calves from their mothers, rather than separating them at birth.  

A variety of accreditations exist for farms to prove they prioritise animal welfare and sustainability. “As a responsible business, the sustainability credentials of our produce and our suppliers in hugely important,” said Sinead Ferguson, Food Development Manager, En Route International. “This principle applies to the dairy products we use and all others in the supply chain. 

“The entirety of ice cream production from our major supplier happens on site. As organic farmers, they work to the highest possible standard of environmental land management, sustainability and animal welfare for their herd of cows. The farm is Red Tractor approved and has been Soil Association certified organic for over 20 years, meaning the highest possible standard of land management, sustainability and animal welfare.” 

There’s no use in crying over split milk in terms of past practices but suppliers, buyers, caterers and consumers can all now help to foster change. Better ‘lait’ than never?