Brian Daly interviews Coles’ Head of Quality and Responsible Sourcing, James Whittaker, to find out more about what Coles is doing to improve animal welfare, particularly with their free-range pork suppliers.
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Opening quote: Typically, good welfare leads to happier animals and happier animals are more productive. So there is a financial benefit to it as well. And, you know, in the animals that are happier, tend to eat better tend to grow quicker. And therefore, from an investment point of view producers find that, you know, investments in animal welfare do improve the, you know, the efficiency of the growth of the animals as well. So, I think there's the both emotional side in terms of everybody wanting to see animals happy and but also there's the commercial side in terms of better return on investment.
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Brian: Hello, and welcome to RSPCA Australia's humane food podcast series. My name is Brian Daly and today I'm talking with James Whittaker, head of quality and responsible sourcing for Cole's group Australia. Welcome to the podcast James.
James: Thank you, Brian. It's great to be able to speak to you today.
Brian: Now James, you started your career in Europe heading up TESCOs meat business in the UK, Ireland and then over to the USA, you've been responsible for production and sourcing on a very large scale. Can you tell us a bit about? Well, firstly, what drew you to the industry and also then the importance of improving animal welfare at such scale and, and some of the challenges around that that you might have come across.
James: I started working out of really for Europe's largest beef processor, and that was in the late 90s. And you may recall that was prior to the BSE crisis where the UK lost its beef export ban, and I was, I was working for the largest beef processor at the time. And that was when I was studying for my master's degree. And it was a really interesting time it was before, obviously, animal welfare was really considered as something that was a core part of most of the meat businesses and the retail businesses. And I think, obviously, sort of during the BSE crisis itself when that hits in the late 90s. And you know, I think that and obviously the UK lost its beef export licence. That really drove home from a customer point of view, the importance of traceability and also of animal welfare. And at the time, I was working for the company as the first full time animal welfare officer in the UK. And you know, I've seen a lot of changes since then, because I think it's really, really interesting and great to see that companies have embraced animal welfare as a core part of how they do business.
Brian: So you were there at the initial part of this movement?
James: Absolutely. And, and, and I think, you know, it's something which is becoming increasingly important to customers, but also to shareholders and investors as well. So, and it just makes good business sense to have a good focus on animal welfare.
Brian: So you had a lot of learnings from around the world to bring to the role. You started at Coles seven years ago?
James: That's correct. Yeah. Just approaching seven years in November.
Brian: So what are the sorts of changes you've bought from your experience overseas to Cole's?
James: I think, I mean, one of the reasons I joined back in 2012. And when I first came, I was working at the time in the US working actually for a start-up business over there, which was again, very focused on animal welfare, and more broadly around sustainability. And then when I came down to Cole's I think one of the things that excited me and kind of drew me down here was just that the level of change that Cole's was facing at the time it was it was under the Wesfarmers acquisition. And you know, it was really a turnaround time and Cole's had done a lot already with regard to things like you know, the no added hormones beef programme and a few other programmes as well. But when I came down and interviewed with Cole's there was a real desire and will if you like to look to develop the programmes further and I think that was what excited me and got me first interested in coming down and joining Cole's and it's great that that desire continues and in fact, even as recently as last week Cole's has had an investor day where it launched his new company purpose. And that is to sustainably feed all Australians to help them lead healthier, happier lives. And I think the key thing for me there, which continues to get me excited about working with Cole's, is that sustainability sits at the very heart of the purpose now and obviously health as well. So, so yeah, that's definitely something which, which excites me and helps me come to work in the mornings.
Brian: Yeah, absolutely. And, of course, as you say, animal welfare would sit in that sustainability because you would be seeing a change in customer sentiment that wants to know where it's food is sourced from and that that food is sustainable, not only in from environmental point of view, but also from an animal welfare point of view.
James: I mean, sustainability is a really interesting term. And I often say that, you know, the term sustainability can mean lots of different things to different organisations and people because really, the definition of sustainability is to continue to do something And, you know, one of the things that the Coles has done is, is really, you know, define sustainability around animal welfare around the environment, but also on health, nutrition and product safety. And those are all areas which I get involved with as part of my day job at Cole's.
Brian: So you're able to apply your own ethics in your day to day work.
James: Yeah. And, you know, I think we're really proud of some of our initiatives, obviously, the no added hormones beef, cage free for our eggs. And you know, obviously RSPCA has played a vital important role with us around our chicken and turkey and more recently with our pork. And I think you look at all of the different, particularly the meat species, but also the sustainable seafood programme we have. We've been able to make a huge industry changing, or launch industry changing initiatives across all of these different species and it's a great feeling to come to work and to be able to do such a positive impact for the lives of people and animals.
Brian: And so it was important for you to choose to work with RSPCA and you know, working with the standards that they have set for pig welfare production.
James: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, the RSPCA, we've had a really close relationship with the RSPCA. And then they've been really supportive, and we've worked very closely on developing a lot of the standards particularly with our chicken standard turkey standards. And as I said the RSPCA pork. And we, we continue to talk to them about how we can develop more, and in fact, we had a session last week talking about potential other areas and other you know, that we can focus on together.
Brian: And speaking of the pork range Coles is the only national supplier of RSPCA approved pork.
James: That's correct. Yeah. And we started out with the Coles pork production standard, which is really our sow stall free pork, as we've called it, and that that we applied in 2014. And we apply that to all of our fresh pork, but obviously, the RSPCA approval that came in later initially from Western Australia, because that's where the pigs are reared. But, you know, we've worked with our producers to be able to grow that production of the pigs to a point at which we can now supply that nationally, which is, so that that now becomes our premium offer. And that's really a fantastic quality product.
Brian: And what are the higher welfare products you offer at Cole's?
James: And so there's a whole range of different products. And you know, we try and whenever we produce any product, particularly when we're working in partnership with producers, we try and make sure that we can utilise the whole animal. And so we've developed a whole range of products, everything from mince, to whole muscle cuts, which, which allows us to be able to offer a really strong range to customers.
Brian: And again, that comes back to the sustainability side of things I'd imagine.
James: Yeah. And I think that's, you know, we have a lot of partnerships across lots of different species with our suppliers, because that's really the only way that we're able to offer these points of difference. And it's really important when we developing these ranges and developing these standards, that we are able to utilise as much of the animal and the product as possible. Because ultimately, you know, particularly when you're demanding a premium, and you're adding value to these products, you really want to make sure that you're optimising use of it. And therefore, you know, we call it balancing the carcase. So selling as much of the animal as possible.
Brian: And you mentioned the farms in Western Australia. I was lucky enough to go over and visit a couple of years ago. Yeah, and it's a very impressive operation, I guess that would have presented some challenges in supplying that product nationally.
James: Yeah. I mean, obviously, there's the there's the production of the animals themselves. And, you know, our suppliers out there have done a phenomenal job in terms of being able to scale up. And I think the key thing there is obviously scaling up and to volume, but also making sure that the standards are not compromised. And I mean, animal welfare is such an important part of that programme and of all of our programmes, and our suppliers have done a phenomenal job in terms of scaling that up. And then obviously you've then got the processing and the further processing and distribution challenges. And I think, you know, compared to, to the UK particularly, and to a certain extent the US as well, having a national supply chain can be quite challenging in Australia, given the distances that are sometimes involved. And so obviously a key component to that for us was making sure that we're able to set up the supply chains to be able to distribute those products nationally, given the fairly limited shelf life to maintain the quality and, and obviously, the teams worked really, really hard to develop that. And it's been a success. The product is growing custom getting really positive feedback from customers.
Brian: So they've really got on board with the free range RSPCA approved pork line.
James: Yeah. And we're seeing great growth in that area. And, and we continue to see customers trading up.
Brian: So James, what are the specific things that the pigs get up to under the RSPCA approved farming scheme that they wouldn't necessarily be able to do in a conventional farming situation?
James: Well, I mean, having been over there you have seen the pigs themselves and these pigs are outside, which means that they, they have access to paddocks, and they're able to wander and explore the paddocks. They're also able to forage and to root and to explore and obviously, you know, they're coming across various insects and lots of other wildlife which they find interesting. They're able to wallow in the mud and able to roll and lie down. And I think, you know, obviously pigs that often if you see happy pigs are obviously rolling around in the mud and they, they really enjoy that and, but I think just the, you know, the environmental enrichment, you know, the fact that they're able to just be outside sows and piglets need to have access to individual straw huts, and to provide them with somewhere warm and safe for the piglets. That's one of the things for me is you really just got to go and you know, walk the paddocks and see how the pigs are and you know, when you see the pigs running and just kind of playing and you know, and just enjoying the environment that's really rewarding to see and, and also I think when you talk to the producers, just seeing the passion they have for making sure those animals are being treated well, and is a really, really important point. And, you know, obviously Stockman ship is a key focus area, and along with some of the some of the other elements that the standards require. And so I just think and there's some great videos upon the RSPCA website showing, showing some images of those of the pigs being reared. And you know, I just think it's, it's one of the great things about my job and you know, the team and I both enjoy when you go and visit producers and are able to see the animals leading healthy happy lives.
Brian: So there's no sow stalls, there's no teeth clipping, there's no tail clipping, all that sort of thing going on.
James: Exactly. Yeah, you know, I think it and that's been a really big focus point for us. And I mean, for as it comes back to the five freedoms and because that sort of, you know, those five freedoms freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury and disease, freedom from to express their natural behaviour and freedom from fear and distress, and that really forms the basis for all of our animal welfare programmes and it continues to be our focus was moving forward and a really important winter Coles.
Brian: So you're saying that customers are upscaling to the higher welfare product? Do they recognise the RSPCA symbol? Is that important to Cole's?
James: Yeah, I mean, we obviously work with a number of certification and NGO bodies across the different species. But what one of the things we find is particularly the RSPCA given their relationship with the general public through the pet shelters, a lot of customers will see and recognise the RSPCA logo. And that's been really powerful for us. And we survey between 25 to 30,000 customers a week, just to find out how they, you know, perceive their shopping experience and our products and our ranges. And then we often do deep dive inside studies with customers as well. And I think it's really, really great to see that Customers recognition of our RSPCA logos when it's on a particular product is really, really high. And that's something that we continue to, to investigate to see how we can continue to work with the RSPCA on broadening the range of products that, that carry that logo.
Brian: You're saying you currently have the pork products, but also the chicken products. And?
James: So there's, there's, there's basically chicken, turkey and pork, they're the three species that we have that carry the RSPCA logo, but we are definitely looking to see how we can increase that. I mean, we've developed programmes across all of our different products and obviously cage free eggs. And, you know, we were one of the first retailers to go in Australia with our cage free eggs, which was in 2012. That's in our own brand. And we've committed to being completely free of all caged eggs as a supermarket by 2023. And we're working very hard to achieve that. And there's lots of other areas as well that we're focusing on. I mean, our grass fed beef programme was introduced in 2017. That's under the Graze brand. And all of different welfare initiatives are supported by something called the Coles farm programme. And what that is that's a tool that we use an app that a lot of producers will download. And that allows us to communicate with those producers. It also allows us to gather data. So for example, in our Graze programme, we know that the Graze beef producers have planted over 3 million trees. And, you know, that's really, really important and great information. And we continue to develop the farm programme, particularly areas around antibiotics is a big focus first. And then the antibiotics is one of those areas which we don't want to be completely antibiotic free. Because, you know, it's important from the welfare point of view that animals are treated when they're sick. And the same way that we would treat our children when they become sick with antibiotics. But what we do want to do is make sure that we're antibiotics are being used, they're used in the right way. And those antibiotics don't have an impact in terms of human health. And so the farm programme really you know, that forms a foundation tool for us, that allows us to continue to develop these programmes across all of our species, including pork.
Brian: And that's part of your commitment to support Australian farmers, but there’s still pork products that come in from overseas. So how do consumers know they're getting the fresh Australian produce?
James: Well, the Australian made logo is something which is very easy to identify. And I think, you know, that's obviously been through some changes recently, as well. And now we've got the bar, the bar chart that shows the percentage Australian, and that can be a little confusing at times, particularly where you've got other ingredients such as seasonings and spices that may be coming in from overseas. And so sometimes consumers may see that is only 90% Australian, on say, a, like a pork sausage product or something like that. But I think, you know, what are the other things as well is that biosecurity laws in Australia, mean that we can't bring in any fresh pork. So, so it's really only cooked further processed pork that can be brought in. So therefore, all of our fresh pork is, is 100% Australian. And it's something I mean, we know it's something we do customer insights on, we do customer testing, and Australian and supporting Australian farmers is something really, really important to our customers and to our business as well. And so it's something we continue to focus on.
Brian: It's great to hear so much of this as being led by customers like your or your survey seems to lead you to this idea that we have to deliver what they're looking for and more. Is that the sort of approach you take?
James: Absolutely, I mean, Coles as a business. You know, we put the customer at the heart of everything we do. And you know, we serve over 20 million customers a week. And so it's really, really important that we continue to understand what it is that customers looking for. And make sure we support that and then and you know our customers overwhelming tell us that Australian is important and we also focus very much on our suppliers as well because, you know, without great suppliers and great partnerships, and we wouldn't be able to serve our customers with the products we do. And things like our nurture fund, for example, which is our $50 million fund, where suppliers can apply for grants and allow those grants go into agriculture and go you know, the investment goes into areas which do improve the welfare of animals.
Brian: And your suppliers, you speaking about there and you farmers, you were saying before, you love their enthusiasm and their passion for it, do you see an increase when the they see the animals are having a better life, living free or expressing their own natural behaviours?
James: Absolutely. And I think, you know, one of the great things about my job is that I get to meet with so many, you know, different suppliers and whether it's going out and visiting salmon farms or whether it's visiting poultry farms or beef or pork farms. I think the common thing is, I mean, at the end of the day, we all have families and you know, we all care about animal welfare. And so I think there's a personal element to it. But also as well, there's a real business need to do this. And, you know, typically good welfare leads to happy animals and happier animals and more productive. So there is a, there is a financial benefit to it as well. And, you know, in animals that are happier, tend to eat better tend to grow quicker. And so therefore, from an investment point of view, producers find that, you know, investments in animal welfare do improve the, you know, the efficiency of the growth of the animals as well. So I think there's the both the emotional side in terms of everybody wants to see animals happier, and, but also there's the commercial side in terms of better return on investment.
Brian: It's a great message to say that these things go hand in hand.
James: Absolutely, absolutely. It's really, really important and, and that helps us also with the communication from a customer point of view.
Brian: Now you've been at the forefront, as you said in the push for improving animal welfare on scale over the years, and you've played an important role in that change, and what do you see the future looking like for animal welfare in the retail and supermarket space?
James: I think there's a couple of things there. I mean, first of all, science plays an important part in this. And, you know, I think anthropomorphism we have to be very careful that we don't imply human emotions onto animals. And therefore, applying science and working with them, universities to understand what are the best outcomes from an animal welfare point of view are really important and validating a lot of the work that we do. But secondly, I think, you know, as we continue to develop animal welfare programmes and our focus around animal welfare, it continues to drive change within the industry, which, again, supported by science really underpins the focus going forward, and it's definitely within all of our meat species. We don't stand still continuous improvement is a big focus for us. So we continue on immediately take our no added hormone programming our beef, we've had that in since 2011, but we continue to evolve the programmes using global science to really try and change and evolve the programmes to continue to drive animal welfare outcomes.
Brian: And similarly, with the RSPCA Approved scheme, they're always looking to evolve the scheme as it goes on. Is there something you work closely with the RSPCA on?
James: We meet several times a year with the RSPCA. And you know, so as well as the sciences also looking globally in terms of you know, what, what different industries around the world doing and everything from housing conditions for chickens and for pigs through technology and how we how we can use technology. You know, there's a lot of information the digital age, is obviously allowing us to monitor the health and wellbeing of animals a lot more particularly through their conditions. So you know, we continue to look globally, using the science to really look to see how we can develop improve the standards. And then the key thing there is working with industry to make sure that we are moving forward we continue to invest in the literature to develop the animal welfare, but also I mean, those things also, then how, as I said before have an impact in terms of cost of production, you know, so it's about becoming more efficient and, and looking at that global best practice.
Brian: So the fundamentals stay the same, but the advancement in the science technology makes the improving animal welfare a little easier.
James: Yeah, I think it's also about focusing on the right things as well. And you know, I mean, within Australia, we have some very specific challenges. And you know, you look at the RSPCA approved for outdoor pork or free range pork over in Western Australia. And things like sunburn on the pigs is a real point that has to be managed, because, you know, you get those very hot, sunny days. And, you know, the first thought is you think, oh, well, it's going to be great for the pigs to be outdoors. But actually things like sunburn, there's something that we really need to manage. So it's about making sure that we do focus on the right things, but also make sure that what we think our positive animal welfare outcomes actually are so, and also providing the right facilities for those animals?
Brian: Yes, those pigs really like to get digging down in the dirt rolling in the mud.
James: Absolutely, yeah. And it's great to see as well. It is lovely, and it's lovely country. So it's great to hear that that's all keeping it sustainable. And the pigs are happy and the farmers are really enthused by what they're doing over there. It's, it's a really great story. You know, I think one of the things that it is a shame that we can't take all of our customers out to see these livestock production systems. You know, it's great things like this podcast, and we're starting to do a lot more media as well. You know, we've recently done our sustainable seafood ad. We've had Curtis out on the boat, and we've got a lot more of that coming particularly through our new core purpose around where sustainability sits at the very heart of what we do as a business.
Brian: It sounds like a really exciting time for you and the future is looking good for you. Not only yourself in Coles but also for animal welfare in Australia.
James: Absolutely, yeah. No, I think it's definitely a key focus point. And, you know, I think, utilising technology and you know, really being able to keep customers informed about, you know about what we're doing about how a moving thing forwards is a key point.
Brian: Thanks, James. Well, it's been great talking to you and hearing about all the experience you've had in the industry and the improvements you've seen in animal welfare over the years and how customers are embracing a whole range of higher welfare products, including your free range RSPCA approved pork you're offering at Coles. So thanks again for being with us today James.
James: Very, welcome. Thank you for your time.
Brian: We've been talking today with James Whittaker, head of quality and responsible sourcing at Cole's group. And thank you for listening. If you would like any more information on the RSPCA approved farming scheme, visit rspcaapproved.org.au. You can also subscribe to the podcast series at the RSPCA Australia website rspca.org.au or at all the usual podcast suspects. I'm Brian Daly and I look forward to your company next time on the RSPCA Australia humane food podcast.