Nestlé is Gearing Up for a Major Food Industry Makeover (Vegans: Take Note)

iStock/punghi

Nestlé, the world’s largest packaged foods company, has dropped a few major bombshells on the food industry in the last few weeks, and they’re likely to keep coming. In a statement released by the company just yesterday reiterating its commitment to hit its 2020 targets for shifting to cage-free eggs, the food giant cemented its status as an animal welfare leader — giving the rest of the food industry no more excuses for the continued use of battery cages for egg-laying hens.

“Our purpose is to enhance quality of life and contribute to a healthier future,” the company said in a statement. “This includes ensuring decent welfare standards for animals that are reared for the ingredients used in our products.”

Cage-free eggs eliminate battery cages that confine birds to spaces as small as an 8×11-inch sheet of paper. So many cage-free commitments have been widely adopted in recent years by major food producers including McDonald’s and General Mills, that suppliers are struggling to meet the deadlines and make the necessary shift to their operations. But Nestlé says it will hit its targets.

The Swiss company first announced its plans to phase out battery cages and switch to cage-free settings a few years ago, and said this week its suppliers will hit the 2020 goal in the U.S. and 2025 deadlines in other markets. In Europe it’s already hit 40 percent of its target.

“As the world’s largest food company, Nestlé will transform the lives of millions of laying hens around the world with this global commitment to sourcing only cage-free eggs by 2025,” Martin Cooke, Head of Corporate Engagement at World Animal Protection, said in a statement. “We are pleased to have worked with Nestlé in helping to develop the company’s animal welfare guidelines, and we look forward to following the company’s progress as they phase out all cages from their supply chain. Going 100% cage-free is the right decision for Nestlé, for consumers, and for hens, and we hope food companies around the world follow Nestlé’s example.”

Nestlé’s commitments to changing the food system have never been more apparent: Just last week, the company announced it would be leaving the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) before the end of the year (following another food giant, The Campbell Soup Company), citing differences with the lobby group over nutrition labeling policies — Nestlé’s skewed more transparent and proactive in recent years, making moves that contrasted with the GMA’s Big Food Agenda (fewer labels, fewer regulations).

Earlier this month, the company announced that its animal welfare policy will meet standards set by Global Animal Partnership, an international animal welfare rating program. Specifically, it committed to ending the use of chicken breeds that cause the birds to grow so big so quickly that they often can’t support their own body weight. It also agreed to more space and cleaner living conditions for the animals, improved lighting standards and appropriate darkness at night, and it also agreed to end the practice of live-shackle slaughter for chickens, shifting instead to controlled-atmosphere stunning, widely considered to be the most humane stunning practice.

“Nestlé USA has taken a big step toward ending many of the worst forms of animal abuse in the factory farming industry,”  Brent Cox, vice president of corporate outreach with Mercy For Animals, said of the policy changes.

And earlier this year Nestlé acquired the California plant-based food manufacturer Sweet Earth Foods – its first acquisition in the plant protein market, which is set to hit $5 billion in sales by 2020.

Changes at the company have come at the pressure of both consumer and shareholder. It recently ousted carrageenan from some ice cream products over consumer concerns of the safety of the ingredient, and has been working to reduce sugar in other products. In June, the New York Times reported that it’s selling off some of its confectionary brands in the U.S. market — staples like Crunch and Raisinets that have been synonymous with Nestlé– and investing instead in a subscription meal service program that’s focused on healthier food, and buying a company that sells bacon made from wheat gluten.

“The problem faced by Nestlé and other food giants is that many of their traditional brands are under intense pressure not only because of changing popular tastes but also because of the way people discover and buy the foods they like,” the Times reports. “Sales of classic brands have plateaued, and upstarts are grabbing market share, leaving companies like Nestlé struggling to adjust.” But Nestlé seems to be adjusting in stride — there’s a sea of startups that would love the opportunity to become the next Stouffer’s or Lean Cuisine.

Fellow food giant Campbell’s rocked the industry at the beginning of the week — after announcing its plans to leave the GMA earlier this year, it joined the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA), the first lobby group for companies creating plant-based foods — anything from nondairy milks and cheese to eggplant jerky, veggie dogs, and Beyond Burgers. Campbell’s is the first major conventional brand to join the trade group, which turns two next year.

Nestlé’s newly acquired Sweet Earth Foods is a member of the PBFA — and while the food giant has made no formal announcement that it intends to follow Campbell’s lead, it seems a likely path. If not soon, eventually.

The addition of just one company the size of Campbell’s is enough to give the PBFA significantly more exposure in Washington — the group has been working to promote labeling equality for all “milks” be they cow or coconut-based, after the recently introduced Dairy Pride Act, aimed at banning nondairy milk producers from using any language associated with conventional dairy products (milk, cheese, cream, butter, yogurt). Campbell’s Bolthouse Farms brand is pushing its nondairy milk presence in conventional channels in a category growing at nine percent annually while conventional milk sales continue a downward trend.

Nestlé could feasibly be next to cross over — the plant-based (and lab-based) meat categories have barely scratched the surface even though interest in alternatives to animal products are at an all-time high. With Sweet Earth Foods — a brand that dominates in both the deli set with its seitan-based products and in the freezer with burritos and heat-and-serve meals — and Nestlé’s strong ties to animal welfare organizations, the future seems to be beckoning the giant with open arms. And Nestlé is heeding the call. One colossally ethical move at a time.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites OrganicAuthority.com and EcoSalon.com, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better. www.jillettinger.com.