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The Sobey's farm care approach

A look inside how the iconic Canadian food company increasingly views farm animal care as a critical part of its overall sustainability agenda

Posted: March 22, 2013


David Smith is VP of Sustainability for
Sobey's Inc.

Sobey's Inc. is proudly Canadian. It's also proudly a leader as among the first food retailers to recognize and embrace the importance of farm animal care to its expanding sustainability agenda.

A wholly-owned subsidiary of Empire Company Limited, Sobeys owns or franchises more than 1,500 stores in all 10 provinces under retail banners that include Sobeys, IGA, Foodland, FreshCo, and Thrifty Foods, as well as Lawton's Drug Stores. Sobeys and its franchise affiliates employ more than 97,000 people and serve approximately 10 million customers every week.

According to David Smith, Vice President of Sustainability for Sobey's, the strong performance of the company is built upon its focus on food and determination to be widely recognized as the best food retailer in the country. Today the game plan for that agenda includes a rising interest and participation in supporting farm animal care, including through strengthening its connections with the livestock producer organizations on the front line of managing this issue.

In one recent high-profile example, Sobey's and Tim Horton's became affiliate members of the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) - the organization that includes livestock industry representatives and other farm animal care stakeholders, charged with coordinating a national approach to farm animal welfare that has included the development of revised Codes of Practice for the care and handling of farm animals. Smith provides a candid perspective on where Sobey's sustainability efforts are leading and the growing role of farm animal care in the big picture of product value, branding and sustainability.

NewStream: You have referred to sustainability as "a journey." How do you view where we are on that journey as it pertains to expectations for animal welfare?

David Smith: My view broadly is that on sustainability we are still in the early phase. We are still defining and learning how to measure and finding a lot of "low hanging fruit." Nevertheless a lot of progress has been made and the learning to date is scalable more broadly. I believe we are nearing a tipping point in the next three-to-five years.

I think that Canadian animal welfare is actually in a good place. Canada's livestock industries have been studying and evaluating and measuring many of the key issues, which hasn't been broadly the case in other commodities and impacts, and the sector has had some voluntary programs in place, many of which were developed with stakeholder input. The opportunity now is to build on that. We need to be updating the programs to reflect more recent learning and instituting appropriate initiatives to require and verify implementation across all producers in a commodity or region.

NewStream: Why is it important for Sobey's to be involved in NFACC?

David Smith: As a retailer, about 90 percent of our social and environmental impacts come from the products that we source, rather than from running our stores, fleets, and warehouses. We're increasingly expected to be accountable for what we sell.

This is driving a new era in supply chain transparency, and the need to understand more about the characteristics, and associated issues, with what we source.

We need to see effective standards that are developed by robust stakeholder engagement processes, while being financially responsible, so that we can put faith in the outcomes.

We cannot become experts on everything we sell – say 40,000 products across our stores – so we need to be able to endorse effective processes as short hand for us.

Certainly we are not experts in animal welfare, nor do we want to become so for each commodity group and its specific issues. NFACC provides that "short hand" decision-making and endorsement process for us, because it has a credible, robust stakeholder engagement process. We know that any livestock commodity group that develops its codes and assessment programs based on NFACC's template is then itself credible.

NewStream: How can the retail industry and the livestock production industry work together?

David Smith: It's very important that we create more awareness and understanding among the retail and foodservice sectors about the progressive work already being done by Canadian livestock commodity groups to address key relevant issues based on NFACC processes.

When other stakeholders ask retailers and food services companies to react to specific issues of concern to them, then the retailer or foodservice company can make informed comments and decisions about what to do. In my mind, this is driving appropriate sector improvements in systemic ways led by producers in context of a robust input process, rather than individual buying companies making arbitrary, perhaps uninformed commitments.

I also think that it is important for retailers and foodservice companies to be engaged to help to drive momentum among producers - sending a message that we want to see appropriate improvements in appropriate timeframes.

NewStream: What do you see as the key challenges or opportunities ahead on the animal welfare front?

David Smith: What's important to Sobeys, and I'd imagine other large buyers, is that we can count on animal welfare performance on the farms that produce our sources. This includes the processors and transporters. It cannot just be about "trust us because we have a good voluntary process," which may be based on codes that are 15 years out of date. How the sectors assure us of performance is something I'd like to see the producers groups define rather than have imposed by large buyers. But if it doesn't happen then I suppose we will need to specify what we need.

NewStream: You have emphasized the importance of tackling issues proactively. What do you anticipate next as Sobey's moves forward on sustainability including on components related to the farm such as farm animal care?

David Smith: We recently completed a "materiality analysis" on the most significant issues and impacts across the product categories that we source – to determine what to focus on proactively, because we certainly cannot do everything and some things have more impact than others.

Dairy, beef, poultry – which I include eggs in – and pork are all commodities of focus. The impact categories include carbon footprints, water, biodiversity and animal welfare. So animal welfare is not silo'd in our approach, but part of an integrated view. Of course within all those commodities and impact categories, there are priorities, areas of secondary concern, and areas of little concern.

We look forward to commodity group engagement on these key issues and how we can help encourage many improvements that are already underway, and perhaps help stimulate some sector innovation on key issues that require non-farm based solutions. By non-farm based solutions, I mean solutions that require a broader focus on key inputs, such as how we have engaged with seafood sectors. There is a lot of opportunity ahead.


Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.


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