Natural Products Expo West

Rising animal welfare concerns push farmers & manufacturers to rethink humane agriculture

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As animal welfare concerns become increasingly mainstream, farmers and manufacturers, such as the natural and organic meat brand Applegate, are optimistically rethinking the scale of and their approach to humanely raised animal agriculture.

“Up until this point, people really wanted just cheap, abundant supply of meat, right? And we didn’t really much care for how it was produced or how it got on our plate, but there is this change that is happening where people are asking questions. They want to know how their meat was produced or how the animals were raised,” and they are making a connection between animal welfare and human health, Gina Asoudegan, senior director of mission at Applegate, told FoodNavigator-USA at Natural Products Expo West.

She explained this shift is due to education efforts by non-government organizations, food bloggers and journalists and a natural evolution of the interest consumers placed first in ingredients such as vegetables and now are applying to meat.

“People turned a blind eye for many years, but when they started to see how animals were produced and put into gestation crates, and the started to ask more and more questions, it really pulled the curtain back on this industry,” she said.

This trend bodes well not only for improved animal welfare, but for companies like Applegate, which Asoudegan says was founded by a “conflicted vegetarian,” because the organic meat company already markets products from animals raised in the way consumers increasingly want to see.

This includes not using antibiotics, growth hormones or beta agonists, feeding animals a 100% vegetarian diet, providing animals more space for natural behaviors and natural growth and giving pigs and chickens environmental enrichments, according to the company’s website.

A new type of chicken

As the rest of the industry strives to catch up with Applegate’s standards, the meat company continues to push forward with an announcement in early March that it will move to slower growing broiler chickens.

Asoudegan explains that the majority of chicken sold today comes from fast growing varieties that favor white breast meat to the point that animals are top-heavy and can suffer physically as a result.

But now, she says, consumer tastes are changing to want different cuts of meat – allowing Applegate to explore other varieties that might live a higher quality life.

She acknowledged, however, the switch is not easy.

“These changes may seem small, but this is going to involve a different business structure,” she said. “Think about it: Right now there is an entire chicken industry that has been built around fast growing chickens and to change that is going to cost some money to change the barns and allow for open access and slower growth means, you know, less money or you have to charge a premium.”

Consumers may eat less meat, but that is not a bad thing

These higher prices may push consumers to eat less meat – moving it from the center of the plate to the side, Asoudegan said. But, she said she does not see this as a threat, but rather as an opportunity.

“I think that Applegate might be looking at itself not only as a meat company like we have for 30 years, but as a food company,” she said. “Maybe as a company that sells protein and protein comes in many forms, not just animal protein obviously. … Look at what we see with the rise in all the plant protein and the companies like Beyond Meat. I mean, I think this is really indicative of our future.”

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