Colruyt Group’s approach to animal welfare
- Why is animal welfare so important?
- What are we currently doing?
- Our future plans
Animal welfare and why it’s so important
Animals provide us with milk, eggs, honey, meat, wool, silk and so much more. It therefore goes without saying that we need to treat animals respectfully, with consideration for their welfare. If you want to measure or assess the welfare of animals, it’s best to look at the animals themselves and their environment. Animal welfare is often assessed on the basis of the 'Five Freedoms' published by the British Farm Animal Welfare Council:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
- Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting place.
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention and/or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
- Freedom from fear and distress. Because just like humans, animals have feelings too.
- Freedom to express normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, animal welfare is a complex issue. Consider free-range animals that are allowed to roam freely outside: this has many advantages but it also puts them at a greater risk of parasites and diseases. So there is a constant need to make sensible trade-offs between the various aspects of animal welfare, with due consideration for the demands of the market, society and the environment.
What are we currently doing?
For us, it couldn’t be any clearer: we are committed to ensuring animal welfare throughout the entire supply chain process, step by step. Our commitment stems not only from a moral standpoint, but also because it improves the quality and flavour of the product. If an animal is happy, it grows faster and healthier and ultimately results in more tender, juicier meat. Everyone is a winner.
Of course, we always follow existing legislation, but we also include additional requirements in our specifications and make sure that these are strictly adhered to. We are always looking for additional improvements that can be made to improve the living conditions of all animals in our production chains: chickens, pigs, rabbits, cattle, fish, etc. We do this together with our suppliers. And we are also talking to the entire sector and the relevant authorities. This allows us to learn from each other and work together towards improving animal welfare.
No unnecessary animal suffering
No animal deserves to be exploited or subjected to unnecessary suffering. Together with our suppliers, we uphold the following ethical guidelines:
- Animals are not killed for the production of non-food items that are part of our in-house product range. We only use by-products of the meat processing industry.
- Feathers and down are not plucked from live animals, not even during the moulting period. Products containing feathers and down require a certificate from the Responsible Down Standard, the China Feather and Down Industrial Association or an equivalent alternative. These certificates act as a guarantee for animal-friendly production.
- No angora wool, no fur, no Astrakhan.
- Mulesing, cutting skin from the sheep’s breech and tail in order to prevent infections, is not allowed.
- All our private label cosmetic products are governed by the regulation on cosmetic products. This regulation stipulates that neither the finished product nor the ingredients may be tested on animals, unless there is really no acceptable alternative.
- Our other private label products are not tested on animals.
Rigorous inspections for slaughterhouses
All Belgian slaughterhouses that work with our Fine Food Meat production department, are regularly inspected by our buyers and our quality control department. During these inspections, checks are carried out regarding hygiene, traceability and whether the agreements regarding animal welfare are being followed. This includes regulations as set out in legislation and voluntary agreements as well as the additional measures within our own specifications. The stipulations of the FEBEV include that permanent camera surveillance must be provided at various strategic locations in the slaughterhouse. Furthermore, each slaughterhouse must have an Animal Welfare Officer. This officer makes sure that the slaughter process takes place with respect for the animals and reports to the management.
In addition, we also have unannounced checks carried out by Quality Control. This independent inspection body also checks whether the legal provisions and the additional requirements in our animal welfare specifications are being followed. This includes the correct use of animal anaesthesia. After all, we do not permit animals to be slaughtered without anaesthesia. In 2019, all 30 Belgian slaughterhouses that supply Fine Food Meat were subjected to such an inspection. These inspections did not find any major shortcomings. Each slaughterhouse was given an inspection report and they have started working on the advised recommendations.
Healthy and vital pigs
Together with our pig farmers, we focus heavily on the welfare of the animals. All our pork suppliers must meet a number of quality requirements. These agreements are set out in our specifications. Our pig breeders are happy to comply, firstly because they benefit their animals and secondly because a stress-free pig is healthier and therefore more productive.
Minimal use of medication
Our pig breeders must ensure that the animals are reared in good health, if possible with the least amount of medicines, or preferably without any medication at all. This can be achieved if the pig pens are kept clean and protected against any external contamination. Sedatives and preventive antibiotics are absolutely forbidden and we monitor this by regular audits.
Of course, it is possible for an animal to become ill. A vet will then oversee the correct use of antibiotics in accordance with the AMCRA guidelines (Antimicrobial Consumption and Resistance in Animals), which form an integral part of our specifications. Pig breeders who work with us, are required to register all antibiotic use in the AB Register. This online platform provides every pig breeder with regular reports on their use of antibiotics and how that compares to other suppliers. This in itself acts as an extra incentive for the pig breeders to try and reduce their use of antibiotics.
Our pigs are not castrated
Since 2010, our Fine Food Meat production department is the first in Belgium not to process conventional meat from castrated pigs. We have opted for vaccination as an alternative. Like castration, vaccination ensures that the meat has no 'boar taint'. Tasty food without hurting piglets unnecessarily is possible. At the same time, vaccinations also help reduce the risk of infections.
Space for organic pigs
In mid-2018, we set up a 100 % Belgian and organic pork chain with BioVar.be and Delavi. When setting up the new pig pens in Ruiselede, we went beyond the legal minimum requirement for organic farming. The pigs are bred with the utmost respect for animal welfare, health and the environment.
The generous pens have access to a 6 m² outside area, where the animals can enjoy a clear view through the open pen partitions. In addition, the pigs also have access to a meadow. They have three to five times more space than non-organic pigs and seven times more natural light than is legally required.
When piglets are born, they are allowed to stay in their familiar surroundings for the first few weeks. They don't need to move to another pen until they reach 30 kg. Furthermore, the use of identical pens means less stress for the animals when they are moved.
Pigs are very social animals. In addition to spending time with other pigs, we also focus on the daily social contact between the animals and those who look after them. Every sow is given a name. Through our partner BioVar.be, we hope to be able to support more pig breeders in the future when switching to organic breeding or to have more animal-friendly pens.
Animal-friendly rabbit park systems
All fresh rabbit meat (excluding ready-prepared food) at Colruyt Lowest Prices, OKay and Spar Colruyt Group comes from rabbits from animal-friendly park systems. Park systems will become compulsory by law from 2024. We have been choosing for these park systems since 2014.
Rabbits have more room to move in park systems than in traditional pens. They have enough room to lie down comfortably and jump around. Natural behaviour is stimulated, for instance by giving them hay and bits of wood to gnaw on. Plenty of corners to hide in, the constant supply of clean drinking water and animal-friendly matting on the floor make park systems a more pleasant environment for the rabbits. As we work together with Belgian farms, the rabbits don’t have to spend too much time in transport trucks - which is one less source of stress.
Guaranteed well-bred beef
All our beef meets the Belbeef Standard, which strongly focuses on animal welfare. Belbeef's specifications include the following:
- Animals that receive a feed ration must have their own feeding area. This is not a requirement if the animals have access to food all day.
- Stables must always have sufficient fresh air, by providing the correct level of air volume and of air conditioning.
- The animals’ stables must be clean and provide sufficient space for them to move around. There must either be cow matting on the floor or alternatively straw bedding must be provided by the beef farmer.
- Transport can be very stressful for animals. The distance of every journey must be kept to a minimum and transport time cannot exceed 3 hours. Drivers and attendants must have a certificate of competence for transporting livestock. Transport vehicles must be approved by the FASFC (Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain) and the amount of available space for each animal during transport is strictly monitored.
Our poultry breeders comply with a whole raft of legislation and other criteria regarding the welfare, health and hygiene of their broiler chickens.
- Plenty of fresh drinking water.
- Healthy climate control in the chicken barns.
- Good hygiene.
- Minimising stress and anxiety.
- Responsible and careful use of medicine.
- Space for natural behaviour, for example by providing straw bales and perches in the stables. The breeders also make sure that the chickens can keep a natural day and night rhythm.
Monitor and improve
Since 2017, we have been collecting data on the living conditions of chickens from all our partners in the chain: feed suppliers, poultry farmers and slaughterhouses. We record the number of leg injuries and the number of dead animals that arrive at the slaughterhouse. In the future, we also want to monitor the use of antibiotics more effectively and reduce their use where possible.
Based on the collected data, we provide our suppliers with an annual report of their approach to improving animal health and welfare. The slaughterhouses received their first report in 2017; the breeders and feed manufacturers in early 2018. These reports also include a comparison of individual performance against the performance of other (anonymised) suppliers. We want to start a dialogue with all our partners and set out clear goals and priorities together. In due course, we also aim to implement this method for other meat production chains.
Healthy from the start
We are currently carrying out a test with two breeders of broiler chickens. Instead of transporting chicks from the hatchery to their new home, the hatchery delivers the eggs to the breeders and the chicks will hatch in the barn and continue to live there. This means that the young animals do not have to endure the stress of transport and relocation. They can immediately start eating and drinking according to their natural rhythm, which can have a positive effect on their digestion and immunity. We are therefore investigating whether they are less at risk of health problems, infections, diarrhoea and foot injuries. Healthy chicks may also need less antibiotics. The test in ongoing in 2020 and 2021.
Eggs from free-range hens and hens that are allowed to roam free
When you buy your eggs in one of our stores, you don't need to worry. Our Belgian stores have stopped selling eggs from battery cages as early as 2005. All eggs come from free-range hens and hens that are allowed to roam free.
Free-range hens have space to roam and scratch, usually in some type of scratch mix. If they are allowed to roam free, the hens are allowed to roam outside in the open air during the day. The minimum outdoor run area is set at 4 m2 per hen. Plenty of outdoor space, shrubs, trees and grasses are great at helping to maintain the chickens' natural behaviour and is good for their overall health. It also allows them to take their dust baths and is a great distraction so that they don't start pecking each other.
Our organic eggs from the Boni Selection Bio range come from farms where hens are not only free to roam outside during the day but they also have more space inside. In the barn, there are six hens per square metre, as opposed to nine. They also need to have a nest for every eight laying hens and their beaks are not allowed to be cut or clipped.
In 2012, we promised that our private label products (cakes, pasta, mayonnaise, etc.) would only ever use eggs from free-range hens or hens that are allowed to roam free. Together with our suppliers, we have changed the composition of more than 1,000 products. As far back as early 2013, we delivered on our promise for 95 % of the products. Now, we have reached 100 %.
What are our plans for the future?
Promoting animal welfare is a continuous learning curve and we want to continue making additional improvements. We have brought in extra know-how, so that we will be able to launch new projects to continuously improve animal welfare, now and in the future.