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From Grassroots to Global, Group Works to Improve Animal Conditions

From Grassroots to Global, Group Works to Improve Animal Conditions

The Humane League says more than 70 million chickens are now cage-free because of their efforts.

Published January 5, 2023 10:30AM EST

They’ve fought against pigs in small metal gestation crates and for hens in packed cages, working to get more humane conditions for animals raised for food.

The Humane League started as a small grassroots movement where a small group of activists protested the sale of foie gras. It’s now a global nonprofit, calling on companies to change the way animals are treated.

The organization’s roots go back to two small activist groups in Philadelphia and Baltimore, launched in 2005. Within a few years, there was a headquarters in Philadelphia and groups in nearly a dozen U.S. cities. The organization has expanded into the United Kingdom, Japan, and Mexico.

They pitched a collaboration to other animal welfare groups which resulted in the formation of the Open Wing Alliance (OWA). The group now includes more than 90 animal protection organizations in 63 countries.

Today, The Humane League says that more than 10 million chickens are cage-free due to their work and more than 70 million are free because of their combined efforts with other animal rights groups.

The organization’s president, veterinarian Vicky Bond, spoke to Treehugger about the group’s mission and the policies they’ve changed.

Treehugger: How did a grassroots movement grow into a global nonprofit organization? What are some early successes?

Vicky Bond: In 2016 THL won a groundbreaking commitment from Aramark and Compass Group when they agreed to implement the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) in their supply chains. In less than three months, almost every major food service provider had released a similar policy. Over the next few years, THL U.K. launched its own successful BCC campaign alongside other European allies in the OWA.

Thanks to our persistent campaigning and partnerships with peers, the cage-free transition in the U.S. also reached a huge milestone—as of December 2021, cage-free comprised over one-third of all egg production in the United States!

You talk about how small steps are important. What small steps do you encourage, whether it’s corporations, students, or activists? 

I believe that a world free from farm animal suffering starts with a world with less animal suffering. We work to encourage individuals to leave animals off their plates while also fighting for improved animal welfare standards at an institutional level. This step-by-step, pragmatic approach to helping animals has resulted in nearly every major food company over the last decade to gradually improve their policies, creating bigger and bigger changes for animals over time.

For corporations, a simple first step is to announce a commitment to higher animal welfare and then follow that up with an implementation plan.

We have made it really easy for students and activists interested in taking action! Students can start by simply joining our nationwide network of passionate student activists. We also built a platform for people who care about animals to take action called Fast Action Network (FAN). Individuals can easily make meaningful changes for animals from their homes in just a few minutes a day. They can also volunteer, attend events, or donate.  

You particularly advocate for better conditions for animals being raised for food. What are some of your goals and how have they been met so far? 

Thanks to our work alongside other groups in the U.S., an estimated 70.1 million egg-laying hens in the United States will never face life in a cage. Additionally, more than 200 major food companies have committed to the standards of the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC) in the U.S. and Canada, ultimately impacting hundreds of millions of chickens raised for meat.

The BCC is the leading set of animal welfare standards that improve the lives of chickens raised for meat, or broiler chickens, who suffer every day in factory farms. [It] lays out a set of welfare criteria with five key measures (six in Europe) that aim to dramatically improve the lives and living conditions of chickens in the supply chains of companies.

One of the key issues companies must take action on is the breed of chickens they use. Currently, chickens raised for meat in factory farms are bred to grow so large, so fast, that their bodies can’t keep up, causing a whole host of health issues, including heart failure, broken limbs, and extremely limited mobility.

The standards we are asking companies to adopt are based on up-to-date science and ask for a transition to a higher welfare breed, increased space for each animal (stocking density), an improved environment (including lighting, litter, and enrichments), and a shift away from the cruel industry standard of live-shackle slaughter, all of which are designed to combat the worst suffering.

Your campaigns often include shocking images on posters or billboards. Why do you believe this method is effective and/or important? 

These images show the reality animals suffer on factory farms every day. Our animal welfare campaigns use images to grab people’s attention and to make them stop and think about the abuses endured by animals raised for food. Images are meant to create an emotional response in people and to hopefully spur them to take action or be more cognizant consumers.

Over the years, using strong images has helped THL take on the largest food companies and win! All these companies have enacted animal welfare policies: General Mills, PepsiCo, Grupo Bimbo, Starbucks, Subway, Burger King, Chipotle, Pret A Manger, KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Whole Foods. Along with the world’s biggest institutional food providers—Sodexo, Aramark, and Compass Group.

As a veterinarian, what experiences had an impact on you to turn your attention to animal welfare?

While training as a vet I went to factory farms and saw firsthand the conditions farm animals were suffering. When we turned up to treat animals, we were treating individuals in the moment but their issues stemmed from systemic issues. I also never forget the first slaughterhouse I went into and the horror of seeing live birds hung by their legs, wings flapping in distress. Then I saw the live birds that missed the water bath stunner [and] were conscious after the electric stun, getting their throats cut. It was horrifying. 

Also, while I worked as a vet, I got experience in working in advocacy and then took a job as a researcher at an anti-factory farming NGO, eventually working with food businesses. This involved meeting with executives of retailers, food service companies, and major restaurants across Europe and getting them to understand the importance of changing welfare conditions on farms in their supply chains.

I’ve been grateful to be able to use my veterinary knowledge to get companies to change their treatment of animals. But there is so much to do, with over 70 billion animals on factory farms living in unimaginable conditions.

What are the organization’s ultimate goals for animal welfare? 

Our ultimate goal is simple: to end the abuse of all animals raised for food. Right now we are working towards pushing food service providers, restaurants, and retailers globally to honor their cage-free commitments—eliminating cages for egg-laying hens—and post their progress. We are also pushing for these companies to sign the Better Chicken Commitment, a science-based chicken welfare policy that addresses issues related to breeding for fast growth and high yield, housing, stocking density, and slaughter. 

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