Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Ethical Foods Memo: Chef Jamie Oliver and Sainsbury's Both Winning in the Famous Factory Farming Flap

A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush: It looks like celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and UK supermarket chain Sainsbury's are both coming out winners in their recent spat, which found chef Oliver, who's also Sainsbury's TV commercial pitchman, slamming the grocery chain and other British supermarkets on his TV documentary, "Jamie's Fowl Dinners," for not sending representatives to debate him on the issue of factory poultry farming following the airing of the program.

[Read our three previous pieces on the issue here (January 7), here (January 11) and here (January 12, 2008).]

British grocery retailer Sainsbury's said today's its stores are reporting a huge surge in sales of battery-free-farmed, free-range and organic chickens following chef Jamie Oliver's TV documentary on factory, or battery, poultry farming which aired in the UK recently.

The program, called "Jamie's Fowl Dinners", investigated and discussed the conditions in which battery-farmed chickens are raised and kept in the UK. (As mentioned above, Oliver wanted a representative from Sainsbury's, along with executives from the other major British grocery chains--Tesco, Morrisons and Asda--to appear on a debate with him after the documentary aired. None of the "big four" supermarket chains sent representatives. However, Sainsbury's did provide a company executive who was interviewed by Oliver for the documentary.

Today, a Sainsbury's spokesperson says sales of free-range, organic and chickens adhering to the RSPCA's Freedom Food program have soared by 50% since Oliver's program aired. (You can learn more about the RSPCA Freedom Food program for poultry here, and here.)

Perhaps ironically, the Sainsbury's spokesperson also said sales of battery, or what is also referred to in the UK as intensively-raised chicken, increased over the same time period as well.

For example, Sainsbury's Basics chicken line, a value-line of intensively-raised birds, increased by a modest 1 to 2%, according to the spokesperson. What's significant--and rather interesting in light of the 50% sales increase of the free-range, organic and RSPCA-approved chickens--is that the Basics line didn't have a drop in sales, especially following the airing of chef Oliver's documentary, which is being attributed to the sales increase of the non-battery birds.

Sainsbury's isn't the only British grocery chain to report a substantial rise in sales of free-range, organic and RSPCA-approved birds. Upscale supermarket operator Waitrose, which doesn't sell battery-farmed chickens at all in its stores, reports a 31% rise in sales of organic chickens for last week. Further, the grocer said sales of free-range birds increased by 24% during the same time period.

About 95% of chickens and 63% of egg-laying hens are raised using the battery, or factory or intensive-farming, method in the UK. The issue regarding this method has been a hot one--and is growing hotter on the heels of Oliver's program and a similar one by chef Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall which also recently aired in the UK..

The RSPCA animal welfare group also has been popularizing the anti-intensively-farmed poultry issue with its model set of guidelines for raising fryer-chickens and egg-laying hens. Both Waitrose and British chain Marks & Spencer have adopted the group's guidelines and no longer sell intensively-farmed chickens in their food stores.

Sainsbury's CEO Justin King announced a couple days after the chef Oliver flap that the grocery chain would stop selling the battery-farmed birds as well. Sainsbury's hasn't given a specific date regarding when that will happen. Tesco and Asda also have said they are willing to stop selling the factory-farmed birds as well. However, they haven't definitively said they will do so, nor given a time-line for phasing out the sales of the battery birds, or to stop selling eggs that come from hens farmed using that method.

Chicken is Britain's most popular meat, with 855 million pounds of the feathered bird being produced in the UK every year, according to government agricultural statistics. Those figures also show that the Brits consume 12 times as much chicken as they did just 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, chef Oliver, who is paid $1.3 million annually to be Sainsbury's TV commercial pitchman, seems to be coming out a winner thus far over the whole fowl flap. After an intense phone conversation with Sainsbury's CEO King last week, during which Oliver apologized--and then did so again in a letter--he still remains under contract with the grocery chain.

Sainsbury's seems to be coming out a winner as well. Following the airing of Oliver's program, the grocer went on a PR offensive. It ran full-page advertisements in Britain's major daily newspapers touting its positive animal rights positions. Sainsbury's also sent letters to all of its loyalty card members touting the same message. And of course, King announced the chain's decision to stop selling intensively-farmed chickens last week on a popular London radio show.

Now, this week, as the dust settles, Sainsbury's finds itself selling 50% more free-range, organic and RSCPA-approved birds than it was selling before Oliver's documentary. It also says sales of battery-farmed chickens haven't dropped, and actually have increased slightly.

It appears no harm has been done to Sainsbury's business over the fowl flap with Oliver. In fact, the opposite seems to have happened from a sales standpoint.

It also appears Oliver has had his desired effect. In fact, he's had double the desired effect: not only has he dramatically increased awareness of the factory poultry farming issue, he seems to have gotten his employer, Sainsbury's, to join Waitrose and Marks & Spencer as grocer's who won't sell the intensively-farmed birds any longer as well. It will be hard for Sainsbury's not to do so, since King announced the grocery chain would on a popular network radio show that has a couple million listeners.

Oliver still remains the TV pitchman for Sainsbury's. He hasn't resigned, nor has the grocer made any move to fire him. In fact, doing so would likely result in lots bad press for Sainsbury's at this point in time.

So, if we were keeping score, which we aren't of course, at this point in time we would have to call it a 10 for chef Oliver and a 10 for Sainsbury's. (That's a 10 on a 1-to-10 point scale by the way.)

Further, it seems the big winner in this fowl flap is the anti-intensive chicken farming movement itself, led by the RSPCA organization. They've received much publicity, obtained a commitment from Sainsbury's to stop selling the battery birds, and likely will soon see Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and other British grocers follow the three chains in a policy of no longer selling the intensively-farmed birds in their stores.

Already, with just Marks & Spencer and Waitrose no longer selling the chickens, there's been an increased demand for RSPCA-approved birds in Britain. That demand will grow once Sainsbury's joins the other two grocery chains. Should Tesco, Britain's number one supermarket retailer with about 32% of the nation's total food dollar market share, stop selling battery-raised chickens anytime soon, it would likely be enough to put an end to raising birds in that manner in the UK.

We believe this story is far from over. Stay tuned.

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