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The Beginning of the End of Factory Farming

A special animal welfare »commemorative day« is not something I’ve ever had to enter in my calendar – that is, until yesterday: June 25, 2021, will now be forever immortalized as the day that heralded the beginning of the end of factory farming.

But before I describe this momentous day, let me give you some background information. The Albert Schweitzer Foundation has for many years dedicated itself to negotiating and fighting for improved welfare conditions for farmed animals by engaging with the food industry. This strategy was adopted in response to the realization that politicians are failing to fulfill their mandate in animal-welfare-related matters and, due to the structures in place, will be unable to do so any time soon (the agricultural lobby, for example, exerts a powerful influence on the government and Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture with its various mandates and offices, against which external animal rights organizations can barely compete). Our founder, Wolfgang Schindler, identified the major buyers of animal products as among the most effective levers for change because they are in a position to impose standards and requirements on their suppliers.

Since then, we have achieved great things by engaging with companies: The fact that supermarket chains and, later, almost the entire food industry stopped selling and using cage eggs can be largely attributed to our efforts. Our efforts also played a key role in the phasing-out of the practice of debeaking laying hens and subsequent improvements in the breeding of hens. And for some years now, we have been successfully campaigning for improvements for chickens raised for meat.

Our persistence and tenacity can be stressful and challenging for our team and certainly does not make us an attractive proposition for donors who want to see constant variety and action, but our focus on effectiveness always takes priority. I sometimes describe factory farming as a machine that we are taking apart – a process that can only work, however, if we do this bit by bit. If we just work on loosening screws here and there, the agricultural industry simply tightens them again while we’re busy elsewhere. But yesterday, a major component in this machine fell away.

June 25, 2021

It all started with an e-mail that we received from Aldi on the evening before: »We will be making a major public announcement tomorrow and would appreciate the opportunity to talk to you first thing tomorrow morning.« Shortly before the meeting, we received another e-mail – this one embargoed – containing all the most important details: By 2030, Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd will no longer be carrying meat from chickens, pigs, turkeys or cows kept according to »husbandry form« levels 1 and 2. Level 3 will become the new minimum standard.

A bit of context: The »husbandry form« system comprises four levels. Level 1 is the legal minimum; level 2 is above all the result of the German Animal Welfare Initiative »Initiative Tierwohl«, which essentially stipulates 10% more space along with a few other specific improvements. We and many other NGOs have repeatedly stated that level 2 has little to offer in terms of »animal welfare« and still entails immense suffering, albeit ever so slightly reduced in certain aspects. Level 3 stipulates various additional criteria such as significantly more space, »play« material and access to the outdoors. This constitutes the minimum level for the label of the German Animal Welfare Federation, for example. Level 4 is somewhat chaotic because this constitutes not only the minimum level for all organic labels (which still often entail very low animal welfare standards) but is also the »premium level« as defined by the German Animal Welfare Federation. By no longer carrying meat from animals kept according to »husbandry form« levels 1 and 2, Aldi is finally turning its back on cheap meat and so signaling a change in attitude both at a corporate level and toward animal welfare.

In our meeting, we clarified some details and congratulated Aldi on this momentous decision. We then immediately set about preparing a series of quotes and statements for media enquiries. The next step was to formulate a strategy: What do we want to ask other supermarket chains to do, and in what tone should we address them? What are the opportunities (everyone gets on board) and risks (everyone else refuses to follow suit and Aldi’s initiative potentially fails)? My head spinning with more questions than answers, I decided to leave my desk and take a walk in the woods to think.

During my walk, I realized that we are in a position to partially shift our focus away from chickens because we now have the opportunity to achieve progress for all the »primary animal species« (pigs, chickens, cows and turkeys account for more than 90% of all meat sold at Aldi). I also realized that our next step should be to focus on Rewe because, some weeks earlier, I had invited Lionel Souque, the CEO of the Rewe Group, to discuss the European Chicken Commitment. He accepted the offer, gave me his cellphone number and told me that I should feel free to call him at any time and without an appointment to discuss any important matters. What could be more important than Aldi’s announcement and the role that Rewe could potentially play in dramatically increasing the chance that other retailers might follow suit? So imagine my surprise when Lionel Souque then said: »Yes, we’re doing that, too. I thought we’d communicated this news already, but I guess that’s going to happen soon enough.«

My mood pitched somewhere between joy and astonishment, I returned to my office at home and started to think about what could happen next. Of the big retailers, only the Schwarz Group (Lidl and Kaufland) and Edeka Group (Edeka and Netto Marken-Discount) were yet to get on board. I decided that the best thing I could do was write a letter to the top decision-makers in these enterprises, but first I wrote two updates: one addressed to our team and one to the international movement as a whole. I also had a meeting with a fellow Executive Board member, promising to send him an article outlining the latest developments. After the meeting, I saw a headline on Google indicating that Edeka, too, had since pledged to no longer sell cheap meat (albeit without stating a target year). I have every reason to believe that this applies to the entire Edeka Group. Shortly after, I found an article stating that Kaufland was also on board. Again, it can be assumed here that this applies to the entire Group – i.e. Lidl as well. (Update: Kaufland’s statement does not appear to be as clear-cut as suggested in the article.)

In summary, June 25, 2021, was the day on which almost all major food retailers resolved to no longer sell cheap meat. This will entail a massive restructuring of the animal agriculture industry in Germany, which is why the target year of 2030 is more ambitious than it might seem at first glance.

Now it’s time for the politicians to step up – and this time I genuinely believe they will. They have been presented with a fait accompli from the business world, and now it’s up to them to put in place the necessary regulations, smooth the path for the necessary conversion permits and provide subsidies.

June 25: like a »day off« for us

As important as our role was in improving the lives of farmed animals (Aldi’s participation in the European Chicken Commitment also appears to have played a key role in bringing about new and even further-reaching decisions), on June 25 we were mainly observers. As I was walking through the woods, an image came to mind: We played an important role in dragging the cart out of the mud and pushing it onto a hill – and now we can simply watch as the cart rolls freely down the other side of the hill. But despite our role on June 25 as by-standers, I wouldn’t want to swap the incredible sense of achievement I felt on that day for anything!

What now?

»Husbandry forms« 3 and 4 are still deficient. For example, they define criteria only for pigs raised for meat but not for sows used for breeding or for raising piglets. The issue of torture breeding is addressed only in the context of chickens and turkeys – and even then only in rudimentary form – but not at all for pigs or cows, nor are there any provisions for an end to practices involving physical mutilation (amputation of tails, beak tips, etc.). In addition, animal welfare standards in the organic sector need to be significantly improved to bring about a shift from »industrial organic« to a higher-quality form. The business sector, politicians and NGOs will all have to grapple with these and other issues over the coming years if they are to bring about far-reaching changes in the world of animal agriculture. But one thing’s for sure: Yesterday marked the beginning of a new era!