The humane treatment of farm animals won a huge public show of support last month when Starbucks announced plans to require dairy, meat, and egg products served in its coffee shops to come from suppliers that follow certain animal-welfare standards. For the coffee giant’s customers, the take-home message comes down to this: When you sip on your favorite brew or dine on breakfast, lunch and pastry items at Starbucks, you’ll know that the animals that provided the ingredients for those products were treated humanely. “Just as with our coffee, Starbucks goal is for everything we sell to be produced under high quality and ethical standards,” states the company announcement. “For the food and dairy we serve, this means a commitment to social responsibility standards with animal welfare as a primary focus. We are committed to working with and buying from farmers and suppliers who share our commitment to humane practices throughout an animal’s lifecycle.” The company acknowledges that, due to the complexity of agriculture and the many puzzle pieces involved in sourcing the products, this won’t happen overnight. It also does not supply any dates about when this policy, or parts of it, will go into place. “We’re working with the industry on creating reasonable timeframes,” notes the company’s announcement. Even so, the company points out that it has “significantly expanded” its cage-free egg offerings since 2008, increasing its purchases year over year, and that it is committed to continuing to do so. On Jan. 1, California, the fifth-largest egg-producing state in the United States, banned the production and sale of eggs from hens kept in extreme confinement (cages). Many of the approximately 280 million hens that supply eggs to U.S. customers live in cages so small they can’t even spread their wings. This also denies them the ability to follow natural behaviors such as perching at night, nesting, or dust bathing. Referring to the Starbucks announcement, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), wrote on his blog, “A Humane Nation,” that “this may be the most comprehensive animal-welfare policy of any national restaurant chain, because it will include both shell and liquid eggs, which are used in its pastries that are sold in such volume.” The Humane Society worked with Starbucks on its animal-welfare goals. (Despite repeated phone calls and emails to Starbucks, the company did not directly respond to Food Safety News.) How will it happen? Here are the steps Starbucks will be asking its suppliers to take, with the goal of improving the way farm animals are treated:

  • Supporting responsible use of antibiotics to support animal health. (In other words, not relying on antibiotics to prevent diseases in animals that are raised in overcrowded, and sometimes filthy, quarters, but instead to provide the animals with clean, healthy living conditions.)
  • Eliminating the use of artificial growth hormones, and, in the case of poultry, fast-growing practices. (Reacting to customer concerns, many large dairy producers have already stopped administering artificial growth hormones to their animals.)
  • Addressing concerns related to dehorning, tail docking, and castration, both with and without anesthesia.
  • Phasing out gestation crates for pigs and cages for chickens.

In the case of gestation crates, pregnant pigs spend almost all of each pregnancy in them. (A pig is pregnant for about 114 days.) According to Farm Sanctuary, the crates are only slightly larger than the pig’s body, which makes it difficult for them to lie down comfortably or to turn around. Several large pork-producing companies, such as Smithfield, Cargill and Hormel, have announced plans to phase out gestation crates in their own pork-production facilities. And, in September 2014, the parent company of Hatfield Quality Meats, the 16th-largest pork producer in the U.S., went one step further when it announced that it would move all the pigs it owns to group housing by 2017 and would demand the same of its contract and independent farmers by 2022. According to the company’s website, this shift to “free-to-roam housing” is based on its “diligent review of sound research and our ongoing commitment to give the best care to our animals.” Out in the marketplace, Costco, McDonalds and Burger King have already announced their intentions not to buy pork products from farms that use gestation crates. Despite the controversy over these crates, Purdue University’s Food and Animal Education Network points to some advantages these crates provide for the pregnant pigs. They allow for more precise individual feeding management of the pregnant pigs and reduce aggressive behaviors, which are often seen in group housing. The ‘smart’ and ethical thing to do While what Starbucks wants to do is better for animals, it also reflects “business savvy,” writes HSUS’ Pacelle on his blog. “We live in a society where major corporations increasingly recognize that their customers want to see animals treated with decency,” he notes. “We’ve been working for years with this enormous company — which has more than 12,000 retail outlets in the United States — to improve its animal-welfare standards.” A game-changer? “It’s always exciting when a large company even mentions humane treatment of animals,” Andrew Gunther, program director of Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), told Food Safety News. “Starbucks could change the world if it comes up with something solid on this.” But he also said that if Starbucks fails to follow through with this, it would be disingenuous to the many farmers who comply with his organization’s strict requirements. “My farmers work hard to earn the seal,” he said. “We want to see measurable standards that protect animals and the environment.” And, while many people think that only “Big Ag” has the resources to supply Starbucks, Gunther said he certifies dairy operations large enough to meet a regional need. In addition, he said that AWA dairies could certainly build a competitively priced supply (of dairy products) from animals raised according to “high animal-welfare” standards, given time and commitment. “There is probably no clearer link between animal protein quality and good welfare than in dairy cattle,” he said. “Starbucks could change the industry if it worked with farmers in a proactive way and stopped buying milk from zero- grazing confinement units.” Out in the “show biz” world of coffee, Gunther points with pride to Laila Ghambari, who won the honor of being named the 2014 United States Barista Champion in the Specialty Coffee Association contest. She sources the milk for her award-winning cappuccinos from cows raised by Pure Eire Dairy, an Animal Welfare Approved dairy in Washington state. Ghambari told a reporter that not only does she choose the dairy’s milk for its taste but also because she likes the humane way the dairy cows are treated. What does any of this have to do with food safety? As a starter, many animal-welfare advocates say that the humane treatment of animals is based on the belief that animals allowed to follow their own natural behaviors — cows grazing on grass, or chickens raised outdoors but with access to shelter, for example — are healthier. The underlying logic in this line of thinking is that healthier animals produce healthier meat, milk and eggs. “Animal welfare and food safety are so linked together,” Josh Balk, HSUS program director, told Food Safety News. “When animals are raised in unhealthy conditions (such as overcrowded or unsanitary quarters), they need to be treated with antibiotics to prevent diseases. But that can lead to antibiotic resistance, which has become a severe public health problem for humans.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year in the U.S., at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria resistant to antibiotics, and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections. Some of these bacteria are foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. Then and now Looking back several decades, a large part of growing consumer interest in humane animal practices was fueled by food-safety concerns, which opened the door to a new awareness of how meat animals are actually being raised and slaughtered. In 1993, E. coli O157:H7, a potentially fatal foodborne pathogen, hit the headlines when more than 600 people fell ill and four people died of E. coli infection attributed to undercooked hamburgers served at Jack in the Box restaurants. From there, consumers started hearing about recalls of hundreds of thousands of pounds of meat contaminated with the pathogen. Other outbreaks involving poultry contaminated with Salmonella and Campylobacter followed. Suddenly, consumers, who had imagined farms to be what they typically saw on calendars and county fair promotions — a large red barn with cows grazing on green grass and chickens outside in the fresh air — began to realize that large farms now dominate the landscape and that many animals are being raised in confinement without access to the outdoors. Some people refer to this as “factory farming” or “industrial ag.” Others decry it as a system that promotes animal suffering — all in the name of profit. Yet others say it allows farmers to raise food more economically and therefore benefits the consumer with lower prices in the grocery store. Even so, many consumers are having a hard time with this. A good number of them don’t like to think that the food they’re eating comes farm animals that they believe (rightly or wrongly) are being mistreated. “From moms to construction workers, no one wants to support practices that make animals suffer,” Balk said. “There’s a huge disconnect in this for Americans, who value kindness to animals.” The situation is reflected in voter sentiment, with Balk pointing out that every state ballot issue promoting the humane treatment of animals has won 60 percent or more support at the polls. As for cost to the consumer, he said this has been an issue touted by “Big Ag.” “It’s fairly insulting to people of lesser means to say they don’t care about how animals are treated,” Balk said. “It’s a false narrative.” In an interview for a previous article, AWA’s Gunther told Food Safety News that, after World War II, the drive was to feed a growing nation with cheap protein. In many cases, the goal was to bring a lot of animals together in one place, as in confinement dairies, beef feedlots and caged poultry. However, that meant that low levels of E. coli, Salmonella and other harmful foodborne pathogens could multiply. “The unintended consequence was that we created the breeding grounds for dangerous pathogens,” Gunther said. “The system is designed to make animals carry pathogens.” After the E. coli outbreak associated with undercooked Jack in the Box hamburgers, industry reacted to the fact that people were getting sick, and, in some cases, dying from foodborne pathogens. It adopted interventions such as washing carcasses with acid to remove dangerous bacteria and designed plans to pinpoint critical places in the slaughtering and butchering processes where these dangerous pathogens could be lurking. These strategies did produce some successful results, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, with foodborne illnesses linked to beef dramatically declining over the past several decades. The other side of the fence Not everyone follows the banner that says animals raised based on their natural behaviors yield safer meat, dairy products and eggs. A discussion paper, “The Direct Relationship between Animal Health and Food Safety Outcomes,” released by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, cites research on the difference between keeping animals indoors vs. outdoors. “Housing livestock indoors can also provide advantages in managing many foodborne organisms,” states the paper. “Because outdoor environments cannot be cleaned or disinfected easily, pathogens can persist in the soil, standing water, outdoor structures and other micro-environments, infecting successive generations of livestock.” Also, according to the research cited in the paper, “Other studies have shown that foodborne pathogens such as Campylobacter and Salmonella are more common in chickens with outdoor exposure than in birds raised in conventional indoor housing (cages). And dairy cows were shown to be at greater risk of subclinical mastitis when kept in outdoor environments compared with cows kept in barns.” And, while many consumers are more concerned than ever about food safety, some researchers and veterinarians warn that there’s a lot of misinformation out there, many times fueled by public distrust of the U.S. government and its food-inspection system. As part of that “misinformation,” they point to the assumption that meat from chickens raised outdoors is safer. In contrast, they say, raising chickens indoors provides the birds with a lot of benefits, such as protection from the weather and wildlife, and, therefore, less stress, while birds raised outdoors are on dirt and vulnerable to wildlife. With concerns such as that in mind, they say that confining the birds is the best way to protect their health. And they note that the health of food animals directly impacts public health. What about organic milk and other dairy products? While organic groups are upset that Starbucks has not included organic dairy in its list of priorities, especially since many of the requirements for organic certification align with what Starbucks is attempting to achieve, Balk said that HSUS sees the company’s policy on animal welfare as another step in the process. Bottom line, the initial focus of Starbucks’ policy will be on practices that many consider especially cruel, he said. Balk compared the company’s plans to an escalator, saying, “This is moving the company on a sustainable path in the right direction.” The rest of the world This past spring, China’s Ministry of Education announced the country’s first animal-welfare curriculum, based on a push by the middle class for more humane treatment of animals. Europe, meanwhile, has been ahead of the U.S. in adopting animal-welfare standards. Wire battery cages for chickens disappeared from the EU in 2012, and the EU’s swine industry has agreed to stop all non-anesthetized castrations of male piglets by 2018. There’s more: Europe’s 2009 Treaty of Lisbon requires that when countries signing the treaty write new laws, they acknowledge that animals are “sentient beings.” In its recent announcement about humane farming practices, Starbucks said that it supports global science-based national and international standards and guidelines.