Dear Ian Moir,
Thank you for your recent reply to our open letter, which has raised some alarming questions.
As the CEO of Woolworths, how in touch are you with your Food Teams? Do you know and care how Woolworths food is produced? If you do, then why do your statements conflict with those made to us by your Dairy Team over a period of 20 months?
You say : “At the moment, all the cows on our organic milk suppliers’ farms are reared on pasture only”
Yet over a 20 month period, Grass consumers had several meetings and written communication with your Dairy Team, who explained to us in detail that your bottled organic fresh milk comes from a single “Total Mixed Ration” farm in the Free State, where cows are barn-based and fed organic feed in the barns. They explained that this was necessary, because the heat and lack of rainfall in the Free State means that there is simply not enough pasture available for cows to be pasture-based in that province.
We asked why:
1) Woolworths chooses to have its one and only farm producing bottled organic fresh milk, in a part of the country where climatic conditions make it impossible for cows to be pasture based? Your Dairy Team replied that it was a business decision related to logistical issues of labour and transport.
2) If this was the case, the milk bottles were labelled : “Produced from cows that roam freely and graze in organic pastures”. Your Dairy Team explained that they were planning to change this label soon, as it referred to the pasture-based dairy farms in the mild, wet Cape, where Woolworths organic cheese is produced, and NOT to the Free State farm where Woolworths bottled organic fresh milk (and yoghurt?) comes from.
3) How the cheese label ended up on the milk bottle…and after an awkward silence, it was suggested that perhaps conditions had been different when the label was designed, i.e. that your bottled milk was previously produced on a pasture-based Cape farm, and later moved to a barn-based farm in the Free State. We asked when this move took place, and why the label wasn’t changed at the same time – but your Dairy Team refused to say. We asked for the name of the Cape farm, but they refused to tell us that either.
According to an article in Farmer’s Weekly, Woolworths was sourcing organic in conversion bottled milk from the Free State as long ago as 2003. Concern was expressed by the farmer at the time about “organic integrity”. Farmer’s Weekly reported the farmer as saying : “the standards stipulate that cattle should have access to pasture, but does not say for how long….Therefore, if your cows have access to pasture for two weeks after good rains, this counts as ‘access’. That’s not the perception the organic consumer has of organic milk.”
So please would you explain your statement “At the moment, all the cows on our organic milk suppliers’ farms are reared on pasture only” and why it is in conflict with the explanations given by your Dairy Team?
Is it because :
- the cows are out in pasture, “at the moment”of your letter writing (because the weather is suitable right now), but are barn-based for the majority of their lives?
- the dairy calves or growing heifers are “reared”on pasture only, but once they are “reared”the adult dairy cows are barn based?
- you have changed your farming practices in response to customer pressure, but have not told us?
And if your statement is true, why did you change the label to “Produced from cows that feed on organic feed”?
PLEASE : only sell organic dairy products produced from pasture-based cows.
You didn’t address customer concerns about Ayrshire milk, and how your marketing has consistently suggested to us over the years that your Ayrshire dairy products are from pasture-based cows, yet in reality only 50% are.
PLEASE : don’t mix milk from barn-based cows with milk from pasture-based cows. Please label each accurately.
You claim to have made good progress in animal welfare standards over the last 5 years, yet:
Free range eggs
You say : “about 90% of our prepared meals are made from free-range eggs” – the Woolworths website says 75% – yet it’s been suggested at various meetings that this is unlikely to ever reach 100%, and may in fact need to be reversed? It was also a move which Woolworths fiercely resisted, but which your consumers have tirelessly campaigned for since 2007, via letters, meetings, petitions, demonstrations and press articles till Woolworths finally relented.
PLEASE : hasten the move to using 100% free-range eggs. It has been 8 years since you committed to this.
You say : “We believe in giving customers the right to choose” – yet for years many of your customers have asked for the choice to buy pasture-based pork at Woolworths– to no avail. Now that the pork industry has made plans to phase out sow stalls by 2020, it seems that Woolworths and Pick ‘n Pay are jumping to “lead the way”. While getting rid of sow stalls is obviously a very good thing, we expect Woolworths to be early adopters of such practices, long before industry gives you no choice. Sow stalls have been illegal in the UK since 1999 and banned in the EU since 2013 – so clearly Woolworths is not keeping up with international best practice, or listening to what their customers want.
PLEASE : give customers the right to choose truly pasture-based pork at Woolworths SOON!
Our right to choose
You say : “We believe in giving customers the right to choose, and clearly label every product and its origin so they can make informed decisions.”
Yet Woolworths labels some food “May Contain GM” , which does not give customers the information they need to enable them to make an informed choice.
A formal complaint was lodged by Grass with the National Consumer Council last year regarding Woolworths Maize Meal – which was shown to contain more than 78% GM material while being labelled “May Contain GM”. This is in blatant contradiction of the South African GM labelling law.
PLEASE : Label ALL food that contains GMO, and give Woolworths customers the right to choose.
Legislation of “free-range”
You say : “Statements such as “natural” and “free range” for eggs and chicken meat are regulated, and we comply with the legislative requirements.”
Please provide a link to this legislation? As far as we are aware, free range legislation is still only in draft form and has yet to be promulgated.
Legislation of “organic”
Government has also not yet legislated on the term “organic”. No amount of “assurance” from paid certifying bodies, paid third party auditors, scientific or ethical experts will compensate for you not listening to your customers.
WWF & CIWF
You say : “Woolworths will continue to work with, and learn from, organisations such as Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) and WWF.”
Others are raising concerns about WWF, with the recent “greenwashing” revelations in the Guardian UK suggesting that global corporations have “benefited from the group’s (WWF’s) green image only to carry on business as usual.”
Best international practice
You say : “we continuously benchmark against the best international practices” – but this is not true. EU standards are widely known to be minimal with very little protocol detail and are not completely suited to South African climate or farming conditions.
What do your customers want?
1) Even if EU standards allow for organic cows to be barn-based, is this what your consumers want?
Veterinarian Dr Brett Bard, who works with farm animals routinely, said : “One only has to observe cows in barns to know how miserable they become from the psychological trauma of confinement. … they don’t get sufficient exercise, which may result in decreased muscle tone and suffering from lameness/breakdowns. Hygiene is also problematic as they are standing and lying in their own faeces”.
2) According to your own video, Woolworths organic calves are dehorned under the age of 2 weeks, without a vet present and without an anaesthetic – is this what Woolworths customers want from the milk they buy?
Compassion in World Farming (who you say you work closely with) states : “Disbudding and dehorning are painful procedures. Both require restraint, which is stressful and both could be avoided.
A Dairy Farmer has described the process as follows : “Disbudding is terribly violent – first a huge pair of what look like wire cutters are used to cut them off, then they are burned with a device with is attached to a portable Cadac gas bottle, which burns them so they won’t grow again. At the end of it the calf is bleeding into it’s eyes and has been horribly burnt and they are usually in shock.”
Dr Bard says : “It is extremely cruel to subject any infant to severe trauma without attempting to mitigate the pain they experience at least by the use of anaesthetic and post operative pain relief.
“There are also good reasons for NOT dehorning calves and rather improving herd management.”
PLEASE : Improve herd management on Woolworths suppliers farms so that disbudding of calves does NOT take place. If it is deemed absolutely necessary, ensure that it is undertaken by a Vet, using anaesthetic.
(see more here http://woolies-milk.weebly.com)
Far from appreciating feedback from customers as you claim, or being “open, transparent and honest in your communication”, we have found Woolworths to be defensive and hostile towards questions and requests.
- When a Grass consumer posted questions about organic dairy on the Woolworths Facebook page, it was deleted and the customer was blocked.
- In 2007 when a Grass consumer asked Woolworths to please use free-range eggs in food, they were summoned to Head Office and asked who they worked for and what their agenda was. The idea that a consumer could object so strongly to buying products which they had always assumed were free-range (from the marketing or label), but which in fact were not, seems to be mystifying to Woolworths still.
- After 20 months of engagement, Grass realised that your Dairy Team were unable to understand our concerns. We provided them with a Commitment List, asking that your dairy farming standards be raised to match your long-standing marketing claims, but in 6 months this has never been addressed.
- Grass asked if consumers could visit some of your Total Mixed Ration dairy farms to see conditions for ourselves – your Dairy Team initially said yes, but then failed to follow through.
- Grass asked that we consumers be consulted when putting together the standards for your Good Milking Journey – your Dairy Team refused.
- Grass asked for a meeting with you, as CEO of Woolworths, in order to address the growing issues of misleading marketing which is causing many of your customers to lose trust. We suggested a grace period while the situation was rectified. However a meeting with you was refused.
- Your Dairy Team said that the objections put forward by Grass customers are unique, and not shared by other customers. However the public outcry around this issue clearly indicates otherwise –http://woolies-milk.weebly.com/letters-from-woolies-customers Social media has also enabled consumers to find one another, compare notes, and collaborate – and it’s clear that our objections are not unique, and have been expressed to Woolworths many times before.
“Woolworths, the difference”?
Many of us grew up with Woolworths as a household name. Over the years Woolworths has consistently promised us the highest quality products, produced with the highest social, environmental and animal welfare standards, and the highest concern for our health, and we believed and trusted this. You have promised us a Good Business Journey and a Good Food Journey. So in light of all of the above, we have to ask you Ian Moir : What is going on?
Consumers are not your enemies, they are key stakeholders in your business. It is essential to engage with us properly, to find out what’s important to us, and to adjust your business practices accordingly.
No amount of “assurance” from paid certifying bodies, paid third party auditors, scientific or ethical experts will compensate for you not listening to what your customers want.
Studies overeas show that given the choice, milenial consumers will choose the brand that will do good in the world. So why would South Africans be any different?
“A largely ‘voiceless society’ in South Africa, due to apartheid and an era of exclusion, has been transformed into a society currently showing increased ethical purchasing intentions.” http://www.unisa.ac.za/contents/faculties/service_dept/docs/SABVI12_3Chap2.pdf
“With the increase of a consumer-led market, coupled with strong consumer ethical considerations, brands that do not respond to these pressures in their value proposition will have to face consumer boycotts and loss in market share.” Charter and Polonsky (1999)
Since 2011, we have the right under the Consumer Protection Act to :
1) access of information about what is in your products
2) access of information about how they are produced
3) fair and responsible marketing which is not misleading or deceptive
4) protection from unconscionable conduct
5) fair and honest dealings.
Therefore, once again, we ask that Woolworths :
PLEASE : Apply the high ethical standards that have been reflected in Woolworths marketing and brand image over the years, throughout the entire product lifecycle, and not just at the final presentation stage.
PLEASE : Be completely transparent, accountable and honest with customers in your labels and marketing.
PLEASE : Engage with customers as key stakeholders in your business, in order to understand what’s important to us, and how best you can deliver this. In the case of dairy – we ask that you consult with Grass and other interested customers in the drawing up of improved standards for your planned Good Milking Journey. As part of this :
PLEASE : Address as a matter of urgency the Grass Dairy Commitment List sent to you over 6 months ago. (https://grassconsumeraction.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/commitmentlistww.pdf)