Our philosophy has always been to tread challenging territory and with that in mind we contacted retail giant, Tesco, to try to find out what they really think about hen welfare. We spoke to Charlotte Williams, Corporate Affairs, at the Cheshunt Head Office, and the result of our exchange was published in Issue 1 of Chicken & Egg in Spring 2012;

1. Thank you for agreeing to this interview Charlotte, you must be aware that as a result of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s campaign for meat chickens, the subject of poultry welfare is one that many of your customers take seriously. What are you doing to raise the welfare standards of the chickens you source?

We have always been strongly committed to improving the welfare standards of the chickens we source and sell across all our ranges – from standard to organic. There have been considerable changes to the poultry industry in the last three years which have largely come about through collaboration and sharing of best practice. For example, we have restricted the transport time and stocking density of our value chickens, and introduced pecking objects into our standard plus range. We also regularly attend the Poultry Welfare Forum, which is made up of a wide range of stake holders from across the industry and aims to improve welfare standards across all ranges of fresh chicken.

2. Why should consumers believe your welfare policy – do you have an independent audit scheme and, if so, how does this work?

We do indeed. In fact, we were the first major supermarket to carry out independent audits above the minimum industry standards. All poultry suppliers are audited by a third party, independent, accredited company. We also have a technical team who are responsible for writing and implementing our strict Livestock Codes of Practice which applies to all Tesco farms. These codes cover all aspects of farming from breeding to finishing, and ensure good environmental practice as well as welfare and food safety.

3. Does Tesco fund or contribute towards educating the public about higher welfare food choices?

We are committed to giving our customers choice and to providing a range of products. All our chickens and eggs are clearly labelled to indicate the standard of production. We believe that the best way to educate the public about higher welfare food choices is to be transparent about our welfare standards and to make labeling as clear as possible so that customers can make informed decisions about the products they buy. Additionally, information about the welfare standards of our chickens is clearly set out, and regularly updated on our website and we would strongly encourage all our customers to take an active interest in the food they buy. In this respect, we at Tesco, share a similar goal with the BHWT – we are both committed to improving poultry welfare standards, to the British poultry industry, as well as engaging with consumers on a variety of poultry related issues.

4. What sort of relationship does Tesco have with its poultry and egg suppliers?

We are proud supporters of British farmers and source 100% British Lion Quality eggs. Through our participation in the English Food and Farming Partnership supply chain group, we are engaged in active and continuing dialogue with farmers and processors on supply chain issues such as product quality, reducing farmers’ costs and continuity of supply.

5. What is Tesco doing to ensure that those customers who want high welfare, can choose processed products – such as cake and quiche – which contain egg ingredients and derivatives produced to higher welfare standards?

All our products containing egg and egg ingredients are fully compliant with industry standards so customers can be assured that whatever product they buy, the hen has been well treated.

6. What more do you think the British Hen Welfare Trust could do to promote free range eggs and support British egg farmers?

I think there is a lot of consumer misunderstanding about the egg industry and there is lots BHWT could do to correct the misinformation out there. New technologies, and the rise of social media and networking sites, means that the internet is increasingly being used to communicate and build relationships directly with consumers, rather than going through third parties. This direct channel opens up a number of possibilities for connecting with consumers to promote free range and also opens up a channel for direct communication from British farmers to consumers.

7. It would be fair to say that most consumers visualise free range hens enjoying time outside foraging with freedom of movement to come and go as they please. However, in large flocks of 10,000+, the percentage of birds accessing the range area is sometimes low. The BHWT is keen to encourage growth in small flocks of less than 5,000 birds, is Tesco proactive in encouraging growth in smaller free range flocks?

In this area we follow the advice of the RSPCA’s Freedom Food guide. There is currently no research to suggest that smaller flocks reduce the stress level of the birds, in fact, there is a significant risk that smaller flock size could increase the stress levels of birds. Similarly to humans, they feel that there is safety in numbers. We are of course, always open to adapting the prescriptions we make to farmers based on further research and this is one area we will continue to listen to the advice of academics and NGO’s.

8. And finally Charlotte I would love to know a little more about you and ask a couple of personal questions if I may? What is your favourite egg dish?

My favourite egg dish is shakshuka –poached eggs in a tomato sauce flavoured with chillies, peppers and herbs with feta cheese on the top.

9. Are you a hen-lover and would you ever consider keeping hens as pets?!

I fear that my current flat in South London is far too small to keep hens in. I actually grew up in the countryside though, so certainly wouldn’t rule it out if I ever moved back.

This interview was, as we would expect, carefully controlled by Tesco’s PR department, and despite being disappointed that they circumvented a few of our questions, we think their responses show that even among the giants there is a slow-moving, but steady understanding that welfare is a key factor for consumers when making purchase choices. The power of the purse comes to the fore every time…

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